V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Crimes of fashion

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers, April, 2008

I caved.

After three months, two weeks and four days of not having made a retail purchase, something in me snapped. My palms started to sweat, the knees buckled and my eyesight became blurred with visions of jewelled ballet slippers dancing in my head.

It was a frenzied evening of weakness where I succumbed to the trappings of retail hypnosis, pulling out the credit cards for new blouses and jackets, shouting in excited delirium, "Chhhhaaarrrge it!" to frightened cashiers.

It's a shameful admission I make to you readers as an imperfect human: I am unapologetically girly, but like many Canadians, I'm trying to reconcile old habits like a ferocious shopping addiction to a greener lifestyle, like an eco-closet.

And according to one of the most capricious and disposable industries out there, fashion and sustainability don't have to be mutually exclusive.

At L'Oreal Fashion Week in Toronto last month, models at designer Evan Biddell's show drifted down the catwalk draped in sleek bamboo evening dresses and decadently rich, organic wool floor-length coats. Elfin, doe-eyed girls were reincarnated into eco-warriors in the style of Japanese anime heroines, alternating between billowing, second-skin gowns and strong, caped-crusader lines.

Biddell, winner of Project Runway Canada, is an irreverent straight-shooter. He's the guy who flipped the bird to his audience at the end of his show and was famous for his diva-esque attitude with his competitors. So when he tells me his interests stretch beyond fads, I believe him.

"I'm not capitalizing on the green movement," he said a few weeks later in his studio. "I just think it's cool."

Bamboo is ubiquitous in eco-stores, in everything including dinnerware, flooring and clothing. As a shirt, it feels like cotton, only silkier. It's purported to have anti-bacterial properties, UV protection and wicks away moisture. It's considered sustainable because bamboo is renewable and one of the fastest growing plants on the planet, sprouting about one metre a day. Bamboo, which is a species of grass, has a remarkably short growing cycle and can be harvested between three and five years, unlike such hardwoods as oak, which take about 120 years. It doesn't need pesticides or fertilizers and doesn't need to be replanted.

Biddell sources his organic wool through a B.C. company called Syka Textiles.

"The sheep are treated like animals," Biddell said. They aren't plied with hormones and the dyeing process is non-toxic, he added.

But in a debate on the treehugger.com website, writers point out that in New Zealand, more than half of the nation's greenhouse has emissions come from their livestock, predominant among them their 45 million sheep.

Wool may be a renewable resource, but sheep belch 20 to 30 litres of methane a day, they say. It also takes about 500,000 litres of water to produce a metric tonne of wool.

Meanwhile, the unfettered excitement around the untouchable virtues of bamboo has begun to wane. To keep up with increasing demand, forests in China are being clear-cut to make room for bamboo plantations. According to a 2005 report out of Dovetail Partners Inc., a sustainable forestry group, farmers are raising bamboo as monocrops, which reduces biodiversity and leads to increased pests. The manufacturing process of turning bamboo fibres into fabric requires dangerous chemicals and solvents. And while it's true that bamboo doesn't need fertilizers and pesticides to grow, author Jim Bower points out that farmers are applying substantial amounts of both to increase production yields.

"It is certainly not an environmental 'silver bullet,' " Bower concludes.

But what does that leave for a contrite fashionista who must atone for her fashion eco-crimes? Must she resort to wearing burlap bags? Surely, someone, somewhere is bound to find environmental perils of stealing potato sacks and belting it, too.

"Nothing's perfect," shrugs Biddell. "Everything has an impact. These just have less of an impact."

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To green your wardrobe, take a few cues from Biddell himself, who avoids seasonal fads when designing.

·  Spring more on quality garments that will last longer and avoid the cheapie, disposable items. "Quality over quantity," Biddell says.

·  Avoid trendy, seasonal items that are sure to suffer swift deaths. Acid wash jeans anyone?

·  Shop second hand.

·  Wash clothes because they're dirty, not because you wore them once.

·  For more information on Biddell and his campaign to help Keep a Child Alive, visit www.addictedtobiddell.com (see link).

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Most fabrics leave an environmental impact, but here a few more sustainable alternatives.

·  Organic cotton: Organic cotton is grown without pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, in contrast to regular cotton, which is resource-intensive and globally accounts for 11% of all pesticides used each year.

·  Hemp: Fast-growing, strong plant fibres, needs little water and pesticides; said to be antibacterial and resistant to odours; not the same plant as marijuana.

·  Soy: Made from the byproduct of tofu and soymilk industry; sustainable, renewable crop; biodegradable; called the "vegetable cashmere," and is pricier.

·  Lycocell (known also as Tencel): Made from plant cellulose such as wood pulp; but turning lyocell fibres into fabric uses harsh chemicals.

·  Ramie: Also known as "China Grass" as it's native to Asia, is a bast fibre (fibre obtained from the inner bark of a plant). It's often mistaken for linen. Ramie has been used to make clothing for centuries and its fibres are one of the strongest.

·  Recycled polyester: Clothing made from recycled plastic pop bottles; Patagonia and Mountain Equipment Co-op accept and recycle old polyester garments.

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