It’s a buzzword of the moment, but is it also a contradiction in terms? Our undercover reporter goes in search of true sustainability

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010

Buying truly sustainable fashion is a huge challenge. Sustainability means using resources in a way that does not impoverish the planet for the next generation. Fashion, on the other hand, is wedded to novelty and consumption, neither of which mesh naturally with the concept of sustainability. So it should be no surprise that early attempts at eco-chic were largely green window-dressing. Rather than asking tough questions about their materials, designers in the 1990s seemed more interested in turning out collections of dingy, natural-fibre clothing that made wearers look as if they lived in a field. Only now are questions such as how a material was produced, how much energy will be used to take care of it, and what happens to it at the end of its life beginning to echo through the industry.

So which materials should the sustainably minded seek out? A proto-green fashionista is likely to head off in the direction of organic, ethical or fair-trade natural fibres. They’re trotting down the wrong catwalk. It is eco-hogwash to boast that something is better because it is made from natural or renewable fibres. Cotton may be natural, but most cotton consumes large quantities of pesticides, fertilisers and water during production. Organic cotton makes no promises about whether nasty chemicals were used in dying and finishing, and fair-trade cotton has lower environmental standards than organic. Furthermore, organically grown cotton plants tend to be less productive, which can drive farmers to hack out new agricultural land from wilderness and forest. GM cotton, which requires fewer pesticides, may be more sustainable than organic—but no eco-clothing company will touch it. 

There are increasing worries, too, that most of clothing’s environmental impact comes from the energy and water involved in washing and drying. Clothes made from bamboo or linen may sound more wholesome, but synthetic fabrics rarely need the attentions of an iron, or the enviro-horror that is a tumble-dryer. Plus fibres that are, essentially, made from plastic are easy to recycle: the clothing company Patagonia has used recycled plastic bottles to make its fleeces since the 1990s, and re-recycles earlier generations of fleeces. New technology means that recycled polyester fibre, which saves energy and water, has now crossed over into general use and can even mimic very fine fabrics such as chiffon. Recycled cottons, too, have similar resource-saving benefits and are worth seeking out.

Upcycling—where waste products are converted into products of higher value—is also taking off. Niche designers turn left-over salmon skins into swimwear, while on the British high street a collaboration between the upcycling designers From Somewhere and the supermarket chain Tesco has seen discarded fabric from roll-ends turned into a collection of dresses in very of-the-moment colour blocks.

As for the animal kingdom, leather is problematic. Some green dressers argue that most leather is just a by-product of the meat industry. The truth is that the meat and leather trades are economically intertwined, and all the environmental issues that come with raising cattle for meat—such as habitat loss, emissions of greenhouse gases and resource use, not to mention the overuse of antibiotics—also apply to leather. So an alternative option is to look for skins that have a positive impact on habitat and wild-animal numbers.

Crocodilian skin, particularly wild alligator, is one of the great success stories in sustainable wildlife trade. Many species of crocodiles, caimans and alligators are now thriving where they were once threatened, thanks to a strictly controlled, sustainable trade. Buying alligator from America makes a direct contribution to marshlands that are vital habitats for wildlife, millions of migratory birds and many endangered species. And most of Louisiana’s 4.5m acres of alligator habitat are privately owned, so trade is essential for supporting these areas and their rich biodiversity. Wild skin gives a more direct benefit, but alligator farmers in Louisiana pay fees to support the alligator marshes, so farmed alligator is also beneficial. Look for a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) certificate with your purchase, as this is proof that the source is legal and sustainable.

For similar environmental reasons, there’s an argument for wearing wild beaver or muskrat fur. In Canada, these animals are abundant and managed sustainably—so though some animals die as a result of the trade, the larger population, and its habitat, benefits from it. Plus the skins are durable, long-lasting, and make the epitome of what’s known as “slow fashion”—items that cost more, but which can be repaired, repurposed, adapted or traded to give a longer life. Admittedly, none of these wild-animal products has solved the environmental downsides of tanning, dying and production—but that’s also true of similar products that don’t have such environmental upsides.

Still uncomfortable? You could try vicuna, an incredibly fine fibre sheared from a camelid that lives in the Andes. It too was once threatened but after a trade ban in the 1970s, the population recovered and it went on to be successfully managed by local communities. Trade with a CITES certificate is legal and sustainable, and supports this animal in the wild by fending off threats such as habitat loss and poaching. A cheaper alternative is a wild silk scarf—silkworms cultivated in open forest also encourage forest preservation.

Finding—and affording—these products is the tricky bit. Few mainstream designers use beaver fur, preferring instead to fluff up their collections with intensively farmed fox and rabbit. One leading American house, whose rails are currently hopping with rabbit-embellished clothes, even told me, with some pride, that they had “never, ever” used beaver. Crocodilian skins tend to be used by the highest of high-end houses: Hermès sells an exquisite pair of narrow-cut Mississippian alligator trousers, but you need a second mortage to afford them.

And though the labelling on clothes has by law to be accurate, there’s often confusion on the shop floor about what’s what. In one ultra-cool boutique in London, I was told that a cowl-necked cape was “definitely beaver”. When I pointed out that the label said it was nutria fur, I was told first that nutria “refers to the colour”, then that the nutria is “a kind of beaver”. This was about as biologically accurate as saying a goat is a kind of sheep.

Yet it’s worth persevering. The green pound, euro or dollar has never been more powerful, driving progress towards sustainable fashion. Buy well, and we’ll all prosper.

Coat, Maison Martin Margiela
This 1950s-look baize coat from Margiela’s menswear line uses sheared Canadian beaver on the collar. Canadian beaver fur comes from sustainably managed, wild animals; almost half of the local trappers are aboriginal, so groups such as the Cree are able to make a living while protecting the wilderness. £1,365

Felt hat, Pachacuti
Pachacuti, certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation as following sustainable environmental and fair-trade practices, uses local sheep’s wool to create its natty felt fedoras. Production water is cleaned and recycled, and dyes are free of heavy metals. £32.90

Mid-length dress, Tesco
A bi-coloured, body-con dress from Tesco’s “From Somewhere to F&F” line that is both flattering and upcycled—made using obsolete textile stock, damaged or endrolls, and pre-consumer waste. £18

Alligator bag, Asprey
This classy, berry-coloured clutch from the British luxury brand Asprey is farmed alligator; wild alligator would be even better, as buying it gives more support to marshland in Louisiana and Florida. £3,900

Vicuna scarf, Esgyrn
Vicuna products that are sold with a CITES certificate—like this over-size, tan-coloured scarf from Esgyrn—support the animal in the wild. The fibre is lighter and softer than cashmere; it’s also more expensive, but there’s little else that feels as pleasurable to wear. £480


This is the latest in the Sceptical Shopper series, in which undercover experts give impartial advice on how and where to find the best buys. The last instalment was on men's watches. Photographs Neil Mersh, Stylist Beatrice Hurst