Steve & Barry’s No Longer Making the Cheapest Dress in the World

Incredible news this week on Steve & Barry’s–if you have not heard already, they filed for Bankruptcy on Wednesday and will be going into liquidation asap. According to NY Times DealBook blog, there are several dozen irate vendors speaking their mind on the situation. Clearly the company had a pattern of not paying vendors or paying very late, among other distasteful behaviors. While their downward fall is unexpected news to me – it certainly is a lot sooner than I even expected.

Green Cotton just covered a 2 part series on Steve & Barry’s in May ‘ “The Cheapest Dress in the World Part I and Part II – and I just wrote a piece on this latest news aptly entitled, ‘Part III’ on our new site. Come check our latest story on Steve & Barry out.

Photosource: Mark Lennihan/Associated Press as seen in The NY Times

New Post on Natural Dyes: Are they a Viable Alternative to Synthetics?

Dear Readers,

I posted a new entry on “natural dyes: alternatives to synthetics” on Green Cotton this weekend. For those of you still checking this website, I wanted to call your attention to the new post and direct you to our new and improved website at www.greencottonblog.com.

Comments are active on the new site as well. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Vegan Apparel: what it is and where to get it

Photosource: Natalie Portman’s Te Casan

By Erin Dale

To some, vegan fashion may sound like an oxymoron. One living the vegan lifestyle makes a point to avoid any animal products, whether for food or clothing; so for clothes to be truly vegan, materials like wool, leather, and even silk are strictly forbidden. Yes, your American Eagle jeans or canvas Keds may technically be considered vegan, but there’s more to it than that… True vegans are also environmentalists—one of the most effective ways to reduce your personal carbon emissions is to simply not eat meat. Compassion for animals extends to the ethical choices vegans make, including what to wear.

So what is vegan clothing exactly? Technically, its anything that doesn’t involve the use of animal products or by-products. By definition, synthetic fibers and conventional fabrics such as conventional cotton are OK and considered ‘vegan,’ However, if we also consider the fact that veganism also embraces environmentalism (as a philosophy and way of life), then synthetics and conventional fabrics would be excluded, or at least frowned upon.

Where can I find vegan clothing? When it comes to clothing, the term “vegan” may conjure up images of burlap slacks or jelly sandals, but there are plenty of fashion lines and enterprising celebrities attempting to bridge the gap between fashion and veganism. Of course, celebrity designers like Stella McCartney have been offering chic vegan wares for years. But vegan fashion has even been in the headlines lately, since Natalie Portman teamed up with specialty retailer Té Casan to design her own line of vegan shoes. Singer Leona Lewis, a hardcore vegan, is rumored to be starting an ethical, budget-friendly clothing line.

You don’t have to be a hippie or scour secondhand clothing racks to score cute vegan finds (though shopping vintage never hurts!). For the animal-loving fashionista, ethically-responsible threads are just a browser click away. Greenpeople.org lists umpteen links for eco-friendly fashion, with plenty of vegan sites in the mix. However, many of the vegan options look more “hippie chick” than “green chic.” I’ve narrowed the search to my favorite sites for clothes, shoes and accessories.

Alternativeoutfitters.com is a vegan’s haven for cute, cruelty-free fashions. Not all of the products listed are strictly vegan (there are Madden Girl shoes featured, for instance which are technically vegan but not necessarily eco-friendly), but many are eco-friendly. This is a great resource for vegan bags, wallets, and graphic tees, but fashion-forward vegans may crave something a little more high-end. NYArtificial offers trendy handbags made with high-tec, non-toxic materials, priced from $69 to $300 or more. Their wares include shopping totes, evening bags and briefcases. I like Bossa’s handbag collection even more: try shopbossa.com for everything from hobos to clutches.

Panda Snack sells luxury bamboo knits, and the fashions (for men and women) could not be cuter. Visit pandasnack.com to view the collection and find a list of retailers near you (I plan to look at them up close at Envi in Boston). I especially love their short pink dress with pleats and rouched sleeves.

While the vegan concept sounds great on paper, one must caution against jumping on the band wagon too quickly and trading ‘cruelty-free’ for carbon-heavy processing. Since vegan clothing does not require ‘organic processing’, its relatively easy to label a synthetic blouse made from petroleum by-products, blended with conventional cotton and made in a sweatshop, as ‘vegan’ since technically it is. However, is it actually good for the environment, good for you and good for humanity? That’s where your savvy shopping skills step in and hopefully the above resources may come in handy.

What does vegan clothing mean to you? Should we have a certification process to help identify items that are truly vegan? Tell us what you think greencottonblog@gmail.com

Is Tencel an Environmentally Friendly Alternative to Bamboo Fabric?

Photosource: http://www.passengerpigeon.ca

There’s never only one side to any story. Bamboo fabric is a classic example of a product that on the surface sounds very green. Bamboo plants grow incredibly quickly, can be planted in areas unsuitable for other crops, and rarely need any pesticides or herbicides. But issues arise with the way the fibres are processed and the fabric manufactured.

The most popular manufacturing process involves sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, both highly toxic chemicals to humans, and when released into the environment. The majority of bamboo fabric production takes place in China, a country not renowned for worker’s rights or environmental respect.

Bamboo fabric may have something to learn from another material that’s been produced quietly, with little environmental fanfare, for the last twenty years. Lyocell, sold as Tencel, is a fabric made from wood pulp. Tencel and Tencel blends drape well and are used predominantly in dresses and formalwear.

Tencel is manufactured in a proprietary process by the Lenzing Group, a international group of companies based in Austria. Lenzing describe themselves as “committed to the principles of sustainable management and very high environmental standards.” Tencel is manufactured in a similar way to bamboo fabric, but with important differences that may be the solution to green bamboo fabric manufacturing.

Here’s the recipe. First, take some wood pulp. Lenzing’s pulp mill uses hardwood – mostly birch and oak – from sustainable forestry plantations. The trees are chemically pulped and bleached. Lenzing say they utilise a closed-loop process and don’t use chlorine bleach to minimize environmental impact. However, Lenzing also buys wood pulp and their website becomes vague as to what conditions their suppliers’ wood pulp is manufactured under.

Next, the wood pulp is turned into fibres through a process called “solvent spinning”. Wood pulp is dissolved in a chemical called N-Methylmorpholine N-oxide (NMNO). The liquid is squirted through thousands of tiny holes in a spinneret, forming individual Tencel fibers. The spun fibres are washed, the NMNO is retrieved from the water, and it is purified, and reused in a 99% closed-loop process. NMNO can be toxic, but much less so than the sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide used for processing bamboo. Small quantities of NMMO are actually produced in the body as a metabolite of several common drugs.

With a sustainable source of wood pulp, Tencel manufacturing has a much lower environmental impact than bamboo fabric. But despite considerate forestry practices, tree farms are more damaging to the ecosystem than growing bamboo. When natural forests are cleared for farms the local ecosystem suffers from the reduction in bio-diversity in the area. Bamboo is the slight winner here: it naturally colonises areas other plants find challenging and often grows with few other species for company, so it has less environmental impact when planted as a monocrop on a farm. Bamboo also grows much faster than hardwood trees, processing many times more CO2 from the environment than trees can.

Bamboo can be grown ecologically, and because of the increasing popularity of bamboo, companies are developing new, greener, ways to process the fibres ecologically, inspired by Tencel processing. Companies like Pure Bamboo are using new closed-loop processing methods, and hopefully more will follow.

Tencel is currently more eco-friendly to manufacture, and – depending on your standards – acceptably eco-friendly to grow. But bamboo fabric has the potential to be a true eco-friendly cloth.

For more on Tencel, What is Tencel on Wisegeek.

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This post was written by one of Green Cotton’s contributing writer’s Brit.

Nau: A company Ahead of its Time?

Photosource: grooveygreen.com featuring Nau clothing

NY Times Fashion & Style section announced this morning that the much coveted Nau is going out of business. Sundance Channel did a piece on them this week too in their ‘Big Ideas for a Small Planet’ which I blogged about on May 3rd. Unfortunately Nau’s website posts the sad letter from the team stating that that they are ‘saying goodby for Nau’.

While we knew the company took on significant risk, and that there were questions from the beginning as to whether the model would actually work, I must admit that I increasingly felt confident in the staying power of their brand. I’ve been reading about Nau since last September, and just last month a half dozen people I knew asked me if I had heard about this company. They successfully seem to be generating ‘buzz’ around their company.

Yet at the same time, significant investment went into the company – from its design and manufacture of high tech ‘green’ fabrics to designing and sewing the clothes, to building brick and mortar stores and creating a cutting edge website. Unlike the mom and pop online green boutiques, Nau was positioned as the next Nike from the get go. One reviewer I read last fall noted correctly that the company is postured to either succeed beautifully or fail miserably. Unfortunately, it seems that the latter has won out.

Why? Led by former Nike executives, the Nau team is not lacking in the experience, leadership or management arena. While they are ‘green’ in the environmental sense, management wise, this is not the case. So what is it? According to the team, the economy is cited as the main factor in their decline. Slowing consumption, rising fuel costs, rising cost of goods, decreasing purchases….we have heard it more than once in the last few months. So while I agree that the economy is forcing more than a handful of retailers to change course and downsize, I would also venture to say that a few other things could have been done to help stay afloat. (1) One is that their prices seemed high for what they offered and for who they targeted. While I can absolutely appreciate their stylistic, very green apparel, Americans may not be quite ready for those prices at to buy on the green principle as such. Take a look at Cheapest Dress in the World – with expectations as low as $8.98, can we stretch our imaginations to pay $300 for a spring coat?
(2) Color schemes and styles may have been too muted. Everything seemed a bit too dark. Not enough brightness, freshness and newness. Or maybe they were not geared toward women as much as men? I am not sure, but something seemed slightly off. (3) Finally, with REI and Patagonia ‘down the street’ so to speak, or one ‘url tab’ away on the Internet, one has to have a pretty compelling reason to go to Nau rather than long-established, trusted brands. Both of these companies are increasingly stepping out of the pure outdoor gear space and into more fashion-forward ‘office-adaptable’ clothing as well as are increasingly ‘green.’

Also, Nau mentioned that their stores encouraged people to ship whatever products they purchase to their homes rather than carry away with them. I would have to say that this seems troublesome. Counterintuitive from every angle. Isn’t one satisfaction from shopping the ability to carry the item home with you and brighten your day? Also, isn’t walking home with something intuitively more ‘green’ than having it shipped to your house? From a consumers standpoint, I can see how this policy would be troublesome.

All in all however, I must say that I am sorry to see Nau go. I really admired their mission, vision and core company principles. Part of me thinks they may be jumping the gun—who knows what could have been possible if they road the wave a little longer? At the same time, in this economy nothing is certain, and if product, price and promotion are slightly off mark, well, there is not much hope for survival. Wishing the team at Nau all the best in their next venture.

Send me your comments to greencottonblog@gmail.com or post below.

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The Cheapest Dress is the World ($8.98): Part II


Photo source: Keetsa.com

For the first part of this post see Part I. This post is in response to last week’s NY Times Style section article on the world’s cheapest dress.

So lets take a closer look at the first 10 miles of apparel production. For a garment to be sold at a price as low as $8.98 – guess what the fabric had to cost per yard before dying – a heck of a lot cheaper than that! Probably less than a dollar per yard. Furthermore, we must also think about how many pesticides were spilled into waterways and the food chain as a result of the cotton grown. In addition, how many children were employed to pick that cotton or spray the pesticides? How many laborers were paid insufficient wages and make the fabric and what kinds of dyes were used? For more information on the real costs of cotton, see White Gold: the true costs of cotton production.

I was at a trade show recently in Las Vegas recently and stopped by the sourcing section to talk to some vendors and visit with sustainable designers. As it turns out, organic fabrics cost anywhere from $11 to $50 per yard. Some online retailers and wholesalers are available at Harmony Art and Near Sea Naturals so you can see for yourself. This is a big difference between conventional! No wonder few retailers are talking about moving in this direction in a big way.

Yet at the same time, organic cotton follows a bare minimum of environmental and social standards to ensure resource management and human rights compliance. Furthermore, as certified organic fabrics, they meet a whole set of criteria at every step in the production process – that ensures they are good for the environment and good for you. For more on differences, see Organic v.s Conventional.

These fabrics cost more because guess what? It costs more to make a good product. Don’t be fooled by cheap prices. There is definitely something to be said for economies of scale and just-in-time inventory, but there is a limit to how low one can go with out sacrificing the environment or humanity along the way.

In general, higher priced organic cotton reflects the TRUE cost of producing materials in alignment with environmental conservation and sustainability. Furthermore, the natural resources used and conserved in the process arguably last longer – so the good news is we can be ‘buying dresses’ for a lot longer! Plus, we will have less contaminated waterways and ecosystems and our great grandchildren may actually live to see some still thriving elements of our natural world.

Be a smart consumer. Ask questions and be aware of supply chain steps and demand that your clothing fair, environmentally smart, good for you & the world. You know something is wrong when 2 lattes cost more than the dress you are wearing (thanks to Steve Allen’s comment).

Remember: we vote with our wallets. The checkout line is the biggest voting machine in America, and in the world actually. So, next time you are at the check out line, ask yourself, could this really be this cheap? If your honest answer to yourself is no, then don’t buy it! I know its tempting to buy cheap goods, but if you don’t need it and can’t afford the ‘smarter’ one, simply don’t get it.

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The Dress is Back, Even in Organics

Photosource: Jute & Jackfruit.

Fashion & Style section of The NY Times reported today that the dress is still alive (at least for now). While fashion editors and designers have been predicting that the dress is going extinct for some time now, even going so far as to say it will be fully obsolete by September 2008, others beg to differ. Women in particular seem to be voting otherwise.

Anne Slowey of Elle magazine recently summed up the emerging trend with her conclusion that “the eye is looking for something new.’ While on the set for the upcoming Fashionista show, she added “and so is the psyche.’ Slowey went on to say that come August, 2008, the dress will be completely out, and the ‘trouser’ will make its way front and center for the fashion-conscious woman.

While this may be true, it is interesting to look back through the past few decades and consider when women wore dresses and when not. In particular, for women who raised their children in the 50’s and 60’s in the US, the dress was all they knew; it was the staple outfit. Then in the 70’s, the daughters of those women, resisted that style opting instead for the bell-bottom and pant-centric styles. Following that generation, I believe it is fair to say that the pant and/or trouser remained the norm. As women became more and more empowered in the workforce and in public life, the pant, pant suit and its entourage became commonplace. Sure, there were variations to the suiting angle, many of which were sexy and flattering, but all in all pants dominated withe more ‘feminine’ looks at the fringe.

Speaking from my own experience, as a product of the 70s and 80s, I must confess I never wore a dress until after graduate school unless it was for a wedding, special occasion or major event. I was a pants person through and through as were many of my friends and colleagues.

Now however, as I enter my mid-thirties, I find I am re-discovering the dress. Even when it comes to professional clothing, I am experimenting more with the feminine, sophisticated angles, to showcase (not shy away from) my feminine side. As I look around me as well, I find other women doing the same. Why is this? Well, it is interesting to look back through history because it seems, one reason might be that for many women, who perhaps grew up on pants, the dress is something new. It also happens to be something that is incredibly flattering on a wide range of body types and is one of the simplest outfits to put together and look absolutely stunning. It seems that in this era, more and more women are feeling empowered enough to get back in touch with our feminine side, while at the same time, exerting our independence and strength.

The women interviewed by the NY Times summed up the benefits of the dress nicely by saying:

  • “I feel glamorous in a dress, and it’s easy.”
  • Another woman stated that she finds that dresses are slimming, and they cover all the problem areas and highlight all the curves.”
  • Finally, another woman added, the dress ‘is very easy and very flattering — a no-brainer, really. It’s comfortable, and you can easily go from day to night. And guys like it because it’s so feminine.”

I personally think that the dress will continue to remain popular for seasons to come. The dress is not on its way out, nor going extinct as it provides too many advantages for women: great fit, comfortable, easy to wardrobe, and unfailingly flattering…

Along these lines, up and coming organic and sustainable designers are increasingly experimenting with variations on the dress. They are designing dresses that not only look terrific, and feel great, but also use organic and sustainable fibers and are therefore much better for the environment and for our skin.

One such designer, Kelly Lane, known for her use of color is doing just that. Kelly has a beautiful collection of dresses to light up the spring and summer – all made with organic and sustainable fibers. Likewise, up and coming online boutique Jute & Jackfruit will be offering a selection of her colorful dresses for fall as well another designers.

What is your opinion on the ‘dress’? is it going in or out? I’d love to hear from you. Greencottonblog@gmail.com

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Organic Cotton: Easing the Transition

Photo source: looporganic.com

It is clear that producing organic cotton, especially certified organic cotton, costs more. The transition from conventional growing to organic growing can be a significant burden on the small to medium size farmer.

While it is true that certified organic cotton can receive a price premium, worth the cost of investment, the process of certification can take months to years. Meanwhile, the farmer must invest thousands of dollars in transforming its farming practices to meet the certification requirements.

Organic farming upgrades include:
• Transition to zero pesticide use (FYI cotton happens to be one of the highest-pesticide dependent crops in the world so transitioning the crop to no pesticides and still yielding a productive, viable crop is no small feat). See Green Cotton for more information.
• Better use of water management
• Must be grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment.
• Farming production systems must replenish and maintain soil fertility.
• Farming must reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers; and,
• Organic farming must build biologically diverse agriculture.

While the above list of organic farming requirements are all terrific, they are, as one can imagine, incredibly costly. Unless a farmer can ensure that the new crop will yield the price premium it deserves, transitioning over to these methods could mean the end of their business.

We have all read lately about the 3 and 4 fold surge in organic cotton demand. For example, organic cotton sales, not including other organic fibers, reached $1.1 billion in 2006 and is projected to double to $2+ billion in 2007 (Organic Exchange 2007). More and more retailers are demanding use of organic fabrics, including some of the largest ones (e.g. Wal-Mart, Barney’s and Target). At the same time, the supply can not easily keep up with demand, especially when certified organic farming can take years to establish.

As noted in the above requirements, it can be very risky for a farmer to transition too quickly unless they can be assured that there is a buyer. Furthermore, because the organic transition can take years to complete, the in between years mean higher costs for farmers and potentially low returns if not going out of business.

There are some retailers however who are recognizing this problem, AND in addition to being benevolent, happen to be the largest potential buyers of the organic cotton themselves. As such they are willing to step in and ease the transition for farmers by buying their transition product at the premium price. To be specific, Wal-Mart recently offered to pay transition farmers, those that are converting their farming practices from conventional to organic, the premium price for organic, even though their product is not yet certified. Side question: Is Wal-Mart going to label this product in their stores as organic cotton? This is one issue, since there is A LOT of organic cotton on the market that is not truly certified organic. Suppliers tend to overuse the term for the benefit of marketing, without communicating the whole truth as to whether it is CERTIFIED or not. This is a side note, but something for consumers to be aware of when they shop for organic clothing…

All in all, by Wal-Mart paying the interim premium price, it helps the farmers lower their risk, remain in business, AND be well-positioned to provide the increased supply needed of organic cotton to buyers such as Wal-Mart and Barney’s who want the organic cotton.

Note: Organic Certification requires a 3rd party organization to verify that farmers are using the methods and materials allowed in organic certification. Find out more about organic cotton certification at the Organic Trade Association .

You can also check out OneCert, one of the oldest and most reputable certification organizations on the market: http://www.onecert.net/

You can read more on this particular issue at Reuters.

Biomimetic Waterproofing: Finisterre is Hot

UK company Finisterre, who got their roots in high technical surf gear is now breaking new ground with their tremendously innovative waterproofing gear. As a deviation from the Buffalo clothing concept from Patagonia, this new technology uses a combination of fibers piles in a hydro carbon coupled with a high density fiber that mimics body dynamics (to allow for breathability) – much like animal fur. As you sweat, moisture droplets are collected in the face of the fabric. The fabric is designed in such as way that the more you sweat, and the harder you work, the farther away the moisture droplets get from your body. The current system is designed by Nikwax Analogy.

This company is definitely worth checking out.

clipped from www.treehugger.com

Finisterre-combo.jpg

The news is that they aren’t manufacturing in China any more, have introduced beeswax impregnated poly-cotton fabrics, garments of traceable merino wool, and embraced recycled polyester fabrics, whilst simultaneously dropping laminated waterproofs in favour of what they see as a biomimetric alternative. No, not the much vaunted lotus leaf fabric, instead they take their cue from animal fur. After the fold we chew the fat in an extended interview with the guys from Finisterre as they explain in detail just how this all works.
Buffalo uses a fiber pile worn next to the body – a combination of capillary action and thermodynamics keep the wearer warm and relatively dry when working hard.
Biomimetic waterproofs use a fiber pile worn away from the body and then waterproofed [we think they mean water resistant] in a hydrocarbon d.w.r [durable water repellent]. The result is very similar to animal fur and its performance revolves around two points.

blog it

From Finisterre

Biomimicry

Moving closer to our ambitions is a gradual process and in order that we maintain our focus, every single one of our garments is designed under a number of initiatives. Throughout the product descriptions over the next few pages, you’ll see where each initiative, via its motif, has been applied to which product.

Biomimicry – The imitation of systems present in the natural environment and the application of their design to man-made products.

Natural Advantage – Solutions built by nature.

Reclaim, Reprocess, Reuse – A multi option recycling programme relating to what happens to the garments after their life.

Eco-circle – The world’s first closed loop polyester recycling scheme.

Horizons – From manufacturing ethics to sustainable development, this focuses on building transparency in our practises and those we work with. In the current range, this is divided between the Storm Track and Humboldt, both made as part of a rehabilitation scheme run by nuns in Colombia. The remainder of the products are made in the EU (Portugal) in a facility that has the top ISO accreditations. As well as this, we also aim to keep everything we do here as local as possible.

ZQUE – Worlds first traceable chain that combines Merino with an accreditation programme that ensures environmental, social and economic sustainability, animal welfare and traceability.

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