Does ‘Sustainable Fashion’ Really Mean Anything? – The Wall Street Journal

At last week’s Pitti Uomo trade fair in Florence, Italy, Milan’s Z Zegna was one of the many brands showcasing clothes made from recycled textiles.


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“Sustainability” was the buzziest buzzword in the air during last week’s edition of Pitti Uomo, the world’s largest men’s fashion trade show, in Florence, Italy. As I navigated countless rows of designers’ booths, those pitching the clothes hurled the word at me again and again in reference to pieces that otherwise had no similarity. At Woolrich, the 189-year-old Italian-based outerwear brand, it was applied to the development of hood linings made of corn, in faux-fur form. At Far Afield, a British outfit, the word described a jolly pair of citrus-patterned swim trunks constructed from recycled water bottles. The word cropped up again at a Spanish label called IOweYou, my favorite discovery of the fair, which was peddling handsome sport coats and trousers in naturally dyed organic Indian cotton.

“Step up! The earth needs you!” read a pamphlet that Kavita Parmar, founder of I Owe You, handed me. The message could easily have been the slogan of the entire fair. While these brands aren’t about to save the planet by offering organic-cotton pants, the gesture might assuage some consumers’ eco-guilt. That seems to be the hope.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10.5 million tons of textiles wound up in landfills in 2015, the last year for which it collected data. While fashion labels have used Pitti Uomo as a forum to flaunt new designs for 47 years, pumping new clothes into a world overflowing with trashed textiles can feel a bit obscene. “Because of the dominance of fast fashion and other aspects of the world we live in, there has been a huge uptick in the amount of product that’s being produced,” said Josh Peskowitz, the VP of men’s fashion at web-retailer Moda Operandi. Brands, he added, especially high-end ones, are looking for ways to deal with that glut: “It is a natural reaction.”

For attendees at the fair, eco-conscious messaging was inescapable.


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At Pitti, labels seemed to be vying to out-eco each other in the race to be green. In the three days I spent at the fair, however, it became clear that sustainability is a squishy concept judging from the diverse range of products making the claim—from recycled cashmere sweaters to upcycled jackets to natural fiber bags. Unlike the USDA, which bestows its “USDA Certified Organic” label judiciously, no governing body monitors “sustainability” and no brand I spoke with could cite data about the measurable environmental impact of its so-called sustainable items.

And to turn briefly to aesthetics, I found that some of these eco-efforts made poor substitutes for more conventional designs. Take a pair of raffia lace-up dress shoes I ran across. They appeared to be made of hay. They were homely. Other things being equal, I think I’d rather stick to their leather cousins. Said Mr. Peskowitz of such dubious products: Even if a piece is sustainable, “if it’s wack…people probably aren’t going to buy it.” In other cases, however, the sustainability surge is catalyzing creativity. Here are a few of the more successful putatively eco-friendly experiments I encountered at the fair:

This olive jacket, part of Herno’s new green-friendly “Globe” collection was dyed using olives.
Planted Pigments

Herno, a 71-year-old Italian outerwear label, is using farmable foodstuffs like olives, grapes and onions to dye jackets green, purple and yellow, respectively. Fifty percent of the produce that is used to create the dyes for each jacket can be replanted, creating what CEO Claudio Marenzi called a “circular economy.” Most of the technical outerwear on offer at Pitti Uomo, by contrast, gets its color from factory-made synthetic dyes. What’s more, Herno fabricates these jackets from 84% recycled nylon.

Reconstructed Khakis

“We are all about transformation, not production,” said Maurizio Donadi, the co-founder of Atelier & Repairs, a Los Angeles-based brand that upcycles battered military gear into poppy patchworked pants and jackets that are one-of-a-kind. In its latest use-what-already-exists effort, the brand partnered with Dockers, the 33-year-old khaki kingpin, to recut and reinterpret overstocked chinos—normally delegated to the dump or a discount dealer like TJ Maxx. Tan traditionalists beware: These are exaggerated reincarnations. Some of the pieces are cut wide, for maximum flair; others feature functional patches (one accommodates an AirPod case); and some have a light blue stripe running down the side like a chino version of tuxedo pants.

Atelier & Repairs revamped Dockers brandish bold details like a tuxedo-style stripe.
Non-Plastic, Fantastic

Gonz Ferrero was particularly proud of how quiet his jacket is. The CEO of Klättermusen, a 44-year-old Swedish outdoor label (the name means “climbing mouse”), grabbed a black cotton coat off the rack and rubbed it together. This barely produced a sound—nothing close to the crinkle of synthetic windbreakers. The jacket represented Klättermusen’s answer to slick Gore-Tex, a plastic-coated material that has ruled outdoor gear since its advent in 1969. Waterproof Gore-Tex, as the company’s slogan says, is “guaranteed to keep you dry.” Yet plastics add pollutants to the air and cannot organically break down. Klättermusen’s jacket, developed with a Japanese textile mill, resists wind and rain but is entirely fabricated from naturally replenishing cotton. It is convincingly sustainable, but many customers will likely just be happy to have a windbreaker that won’t swish-swish with each move they make.

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Write to Jacob Gallagher at [email protected]

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