Sustainable Fashion Is in Style

But can only the well-heeled afford to buy it?

By Kellie Ell on April 23, 2019

Sustainable is the new baseline in fashion.

That means creating sustainable pieces is no longer an added bonus — now it’s mandatory. Brands that want to succeed need to be both stylish and sustainable.

“Business in general went from a pure focus on profit-making to a focus on doing good as well,” Simeon Siegel, senior retail analyst at Nomura Instinet, told WWD. “In fashion, what you stand for is now becoming as important as what you look like.”

It’s no surprise then that consumers are taking into account environmental factors, like where a product is made, the carbon footprint it leaves behind and the people behind the business, when making purchasing decisions.

“The general global shift towards sustainability means that shopping is increasingly moralized,” Euromonitor International’s 2019 Top 10 Global Consumer Trends report said.

Hence, sustainable fashion is everywhere. But the prices might not be for everyone.

Take for instance Haney’s Green Label, which offers jumpsuits and eveningwear in sustainable, eco-friendly fashions and repurposed leftover materials — starting around $500. Prices continue upward to around $1,800. Swedish brand Bite makes its apparel and accessories collections using organic cotton and 100 percent ecologically certified natural fibers. Bite’s tops run between 300 and 500 euros, while trench coats are priced at 960 euros. Hiraeth, the ready-to-wear women’s apparel and accessory line, cofounded by actress Rooney Mara, offers animal-free dresses made in the U.S. for around $1,000. The Estella dress retails at $1,550.

Then there is designer sustainable fashion, like Alberta Ferretti’s new “Love Me” capsule collection, which has recycled cashmere sweaters that start at $390, or Stella McCartney, who makes fashion “fit for the world we live in today and the future: beautiful and sustainable. No compromises,” according to the web site. Stella’s T-shirts start around $300; dresses are closer to $4,000.

These prices leave some wondering whether a regular person can afford to be sustainable.

According to Marci Zaroff, a sustainability expert and self-proclaimed “eco-fashion pioneer,” the answer is yes. She said the idea that only rich people can afford environmentally friendly fashion is really nothing more than urban myth.

“What happens with sustainability is that oftentimes the different players in the supply chain add additional layers of markup because they have the perception that consumers that are looking for sustainable fashion are willing to pay a lot more,” Zaroff said.

She added that since the sustainable fashion market is still relatively young, designers and retailers entering the space are “vulnerable to a lot of added layers of markups, a lot of inefficiencies and a lot of misconceptions.” Those misconceptions include price points.

While Zaroff admitted some people are “taking advantage of the word sustainable and marking up things more than they should be,” she added that as the space evolves with new innovation and business models, companies will be able to find better ways to produce sustainable fashion, where they’re “not at the mercy of all these layers of markups and all of the misinformation that is out there.”

There is also the cost of producing garments to consider. In fashion, the price of fabric often sets the baseline for retail prices.

Los Angeles-based, ready-to-wear line Haney offers both regular collections as well as its Haney Green Label, ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to around $2,000. Founder and designer Mary Alice Haney said the luxury line, which is one of the only sustainable eveningwear lines available, according to her, is priced what it’s worth. That is, the eco-friendly fashions might be a bit more expensive, but the collections are also of a higher quality.

In fact, Haney said oftentimes sustainable fabrics and regular fabrics are both equally expensive. That means it would be difficult for her to price a piece from her sustainable collection for any less — especially when retail pricing margins are typically so low.

“Eco fabric just happens to be sustainable and eco and they have better practices,” said Haney, who gets all of her fabrics from Europe. Some of them run around $300 a yard.

The designer added that a piece like the Sofia Dress, which is part of the fall 2019 collection, would be the same price whether it was made from sustainable fabrics or not.

“We actually don’t find that we have to mark up prices in any way,” Haney said. “The consumer is just being charged for the construction and design.”

Of course there are fast-fashion brands that tout sustainability at much more affordable price points. One of the most recognizable is H&M, which recently released its Conscious Exclusive collection that uses fabrics made from things like fruit and algae.

Tops and dresses range from around $20 to roughly $300.

Still, some critics argue that even if fast fashion is cheaper and made with recycled materials, the garments don’t last as long as those offered by more expensive brands, which leads to consumers buying clothes more often.

But higher price tags do not automatically translate to longer life cycles, said Maria Östblom, head of design at H&M women’s wear.

“It is all about how as a consumer you care for your garments to be able to give them a long and wearable life,” she said.

Sustainable can also mean extending the life cycle of a garment. The rise of new business models, like The RealReal and Rent The Runway, has created a circular economy, one that creates less of a need to constantly be supplying shoppers with more clothes.

With The RealReal, consumers are using apparel and accessories that otherwise would have been collecting dust in someone’s closet. But Zaroff said Rent The Runway is even better, which lets shoppers rent clothing when needed.

“The whole idea of the circular movement is to extend the life cycle of already existing garments so that we don’t have to produce as much new stuff,” she said. “There is a big push in the sustainable fashion movement for things like reusing, repurposing, remaking, renewing, reusing, renting, swapping. These are all part of sustainable fashion.”

That means using recycled materials — rather than virgin materials — which use less energy, water and chemicals, and also create less waste.

Zaroff pointed out that there is also a lot of innovation in fashion that helps reduce energy and waste. A few examples include Ralph Lauren, which recently released its Earth Polo, made from recycled plastic bottles and dyed in a process sans water. Actress Kate Hudson’s new ready-to-wear apparel line Happy x Nature has tops and denim made from crushed bottles. Also new are Adidas’ first completely recycled running shoes. The sneakers are made from 100 percent recycled materials and are meant to be returned to the German shoemaker when shoppers are done with them so that they can be ground down; the materials will be used to make a new pair of shoes.

Like many other designers today, Christy Dawn, a Los Angeles-based designer, makes her collections from “deadstock,” or scraps of fabric that fashion houses and manufacturers would normally throw away. The ready-to-wear line, which includes dresses, jumpsuits, sweaters and outerwear, runs from around $200 to $300 and the pieces are then shipped in wooden boxes rather than plastic bags.

“Sustainable fashion is not just high-end clothing by any means,” Zaroff said. “There’s a wide array of stories and a wide array of brands from less-expensive to couture that can be considered sustainable today.”

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