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Lynda Grose: two decades of eco-fashion

Ethical fashion has gone mass-market this decade, but it’s not a new concept. We talk to an eco-fashion pioneer who helped shape the first green major label clothing line… back in the 20th Century.

When Lynda Grose became a head designer at the Esprit clothing company back in 1989, anti-sweatshop campaigns were in their infancy and some of the first organic cotton was being harvested in Turkey.

In 1990, Esprit launched a campaign against overconsumption with ads counseling magazine readers to “buy only what you need”. That same year, the San Francisco-based company launched their E-collection- the first completely green clothing line from a major manufacturer.

Grose co-founded the collection and helped run the 5 years of R&D that established “pioneering environmental standards for the clothing industry.”

Today, Grose advises companies like the Gap, teaches sustainable fashion at the California College of the Arts and works to cut pesticide use among California cotton farmers through the Sustainable Cotton Project. In 2007, she was listed on Grist’s list of “15 Green Fashionistas“, along with Stella McCartney and Ali Newson.

Although she has launched clothing collections, Grose told us she herself buys few new clothes and often shops vintage, though she cautioned us it’s overly simplistic to think we’re all just going to cut back on consumption.

In this interview, she talked to us about the future of fashion, California’s alternative to organic cotton, what she learned from the E-Collection and how fashion can be a powerful agent of change.

faircompanies: What’s wrong with fashion today?

Lynda Grose: “I’m not sure this is the right question. Fashion, like any industry, has its impact on the environment. Fashion also touches a lot of people on a daily basis and can be a great communication vehicle to affect change. Fashion cycles are quick so the feedback loop on actions implemented is also quick (unlike architecture that takes years and even decades to provide feedback on actions). There is much room for improvement in fashion.”

What are the main impacts of fashion on the environment?

  • “Growing and extraction of fibers for fabrics.
  • Processing of fabrics including washing and dyeing.
  • Production of fabrics and garments overseas with shipping back to distribution centers and then shipping out to global markets.
  • Waste in cutting, and left over fabrics.
  • Washing and drying of the garments by the end user accounts for 65% of the energy use in the complete lifecycle of a garment.
  • The short lifespan of the garment, often disposed of before it is at the end of its useful life.
  • Even if it is recycled at thrift stores, tonnes of clothing is baled and shipped overseas where it depresses local textile industries in Mexico and West Africa, for example.
  • At the end of their useful life, garments may be landfilled.
  • Sheer volume of product is not sustainable even if its organic.
  • Industrially manufactured clothing degrades the workers who make it and the people who wear it. There is no cultural or creative connection to industrial clothing that nurtures the spirit.”

How will switching to organic cotton make a difference?

“Organic makes a difference in countries where there is heavy chemical use to begin with. It makes little difference in countries where chemicals are not used on cotton to begin with. It makes little difference in countries where labor and water are the main problems. It has limited effectiveness in developed countries where hand labor is expensive because the cost of organic is beyond what the market can pay.”

Is organic cotton the answer or does it need to be seen as part of a bigger picture?

“Organic is just one tool to use. If it is not an effective tool then we have to choose a different tool. The BASIC program developed by the Sustainable Cotton project is a much more effective tool than organic for California.”

“The Sustainable Cotton Project’s BASIC cotton is cleaner cotton- it’s farmed in California with up to 73% less chemicals than conventional cotton-, but it stops short of organic. I would assume this is because of the labor issues in California. Do you see this as a shorter-term solution or will there always be a need to strike compromises in order to balance issues like chemical use and local production?”

“It stops short of organic because California pays minimum wage for labor. This is higher than overseas payment. And organic needs more hand labor for weeding. At the moment basic is reducing more chemicals in California than organic due to scale. So it’s a good long term solution.”

“Organic cotton is 2% of the global cotton industry so there is a long way to go to convert more fields to organic practices. BASIC is a good program to tackle the other 98%. We sold some organic pima to Japanese clients this year. That market can pay the cost of producing organic in California. If other clients pay the cost of organic cotton in California, the farmers of course will grow it. They can not grow organic at a loss.”

“Long term what we aim to do is develop a coalition of companies willing to bring BASIC cotton to market (under the cleaner cotton trademark). Convert as many acres in California as possible to BASIC. Then approach the state to provide green incentives to make organic cotton more economically favorable.”

Are there better fabrics than others or are their always trade-offs between fabrics that are resource intensive in their cultivation (cotton) and those that are resource intensive in their manufacture (bamboo)?

I prefer to look at the lifecycle of one fiber, identify the issues and improve upon them lifecycle analysis is extremely complex and in the end, you can end up with a lot of data, and still have to make a decision based on values. I don’t compare one fiber to the next. It’s not relevant information. All have their impacts.

Are people in the fashion industry beginning to look at whole systems regarding fabrics, manufacturing, recycling, etc.?

Not really. Most of the action involves substitution of materials. This is only part of the picture. The whole lifecycle of the garment including consumer behaviour and consumption patterns offer opportunities for additional design strategies besides material substitution.

When did people in the industry begin to think about the impact of fashion on the environment? Or when did companies begin to do something about it? Were you one of the first when you developed Esprit’s E-Collection in the early nineties?

Esprit’s ecollection was the first ‘eco’ clothing line developed by a major corporation and marketed internationally. I spearheaded the research on ecological impacts and developed solutions to the discoveries made. Talking with ‘experts’ further up the supply chain, including farmers, engineers, dyers, chemists was and still is unusual.”

“Then, communicating that information internally to managers who did not have the same knowledge of ecological impacts was a lesson in itself: finding the language to use, making boards to express findings visually, having the patience and fortitude to explain. Then working closely with production to implement solutions often for the first time.”

“And finally, communicating to the press and the end user why the E-collection product was different from others that looked very similar (We maintained an Esprit aesthetic). From beginning to end it was all a great experience, much of which I still use today in my work.”

Has the industry come a long way since?

“In terms of ideas, the industry is much in the same place as it was. Most companies are substituting impactful materials for others with less impact. There are some more advanced ideas, like the recycled and recyclable (closed loop) polyester garments from Teijin in Japan.”

“The biggest changes are more in the infrastructure and institutionalization of the movement. There are many more companies and mills now involved in the movement. More variety of fabrics. More blends available. National standards for organic fiber were developed in 1992. Now there are global standards and reciprocity amongst countries.”

“The end user has an increased awareness about ecological impacts due to GM revolt in UK and mad cow disease raising awareness about farming practices. Global warming reports, Stern, and the movie an Inconvenient Truth have raised awareness tremendously so that now companies are thinking beyond the product and also looking at distribution/transport and distance the product has travelled etc.”

You have acted as a consultant for major corporations like the Gap and done projects for Patagonia. Is there a wide range amongst clothing companies in their preparedness to embrace change toward more environmental sustainability?

“Companies like Gap and Patagonia are very serious about their commitment to ecological advances. They have teams in place handling ecological issues. Gap has terms of engagement teams that travel to check factories. Obviously these two companies have different customers, with varying levels of awareness on issues, and the size of Gap means their supply chain is much more complex to change.”

“There are other fashion companies that are adding “green” lines to follow the market trend. They typically don’t have an environmental area or staff, are not scrutinizing their operations in the same way and don’t have the same level of commitment. There are thousands of companies and of course they will be different levels of awareness and action.”

You currently teach a sustainable fashion design course at the CCA. Upon entering your classes, are your students aware of most of the issues facing fashion and sustainability or is this something that is not being taught outside of sustainable design programs?

“They usually have a rudimentary understanding of sustainability based on what they see in the market: bamboo, organic cotton, etcetera. They quickly come to realize the complexities of different fabrics and that there are several paths to sustainability.”

How much do you feel you are able to influence the next generation of designers? At least one rising design star- Carolyn Priebe of Uluru– credits you as a mentor.

“It is the most gratifying thing in the world as a teacher, to be acknowledged by your former student. One of the reasons I teach sustainable design is that I want to pass on what I have discovered, and encourage young designers to develop their own eco guidelines based on their own research and discoveries, to be critical thinkers, and to inspire change in the industry in their own way.”

“Caroline has a strong vision and voice. Others may work inside large companies and develop a different voice. Others are already working for small eco companies and doing their part. Of course I hope to influence young designers in a positive way. You can never control what form that influence takes or how and when it emerges.”

Should things “go out of fashion” or is that a problematic idea?

“In general it is a problem, but this is a simplistic question. For older demographics, classic style and durable items may be a good eco strategy. For teenagers who need to participate and engage in ‘fast fashion’, a physically durable garment is a liability because it will be disposed of (culturally disposable) quickly. Making a garment durable for this demographic is not a good eco strategy. Rather the product needs to be designed to be recyclable, or leasable, or to disassemble easily for reuse, etcetera.”

What does the future of fashion look like to you?

  • “Diverse. Many approaches to sustainability, looking to the complete lifecycle of the garment, consumer behavior and patterns of consumption. Locally produced, fair trade when produced overseas. Fair Price for cotton to all farmers including US family farmers.
  • Cotton with attributes that address specific problems region by region. In West Africa toxins are an issue, water is not. In California toxins are an issue and organic isn’t effective due to price, so ‘Cleaner Cotton’ is a better solution, etc).
  • Diverse fabrics that challenge the dominant polyester and cotton. But most of all, concepts which change consumption patterns.”

Is zero waste fashion achievable?

“Yes it is and must be. Closed loop recycled and recyclable polyester garments are a big step towards this. Modular clothing systems help.”

In the meantime, what is your advice to consumers who want to try to dress more sustainably?

  • “Wear your garments until they are truly at the end of their useful life.
  • Wash them less and when you do, wash cold.
  • Buy vintage.
  • Buy from thrift stores as well as dropping off used items at thrift stores…..buying recycled is where the recycling happens.
  • Watch for ‘cyclical’ systems from companies and support their efforts. (Patagonia, NAU, etc).
  • Consider leasing products from ‘bag steal or borrow‘, for example.
  • Buy locally produced.
  • Know the maker. Develop a relationship/bond with the manufacturer.
  • Don’t let yourself be labeled as simply ‘a consumer’. Participate and engage in your clothing. Know who made it, under what circumstances, add to its design after purchase. Become a co-producer or co-designer.
  • Be active not passive. Seek out companies who are changing their practices. Write letters to your favorite company to ask them to improve ecological and social performance.
  • Companies spend millions on research to ensure you buy their goods. They will listen to your requests.”

More information on Lynda Grose and her work