Starre Vartan (far right) speaks at FIT at the Afingo “Sustainability and Philanthropy” panel. Jill Fehrenbacher (not pictured), editor of Inhabitat moderated, and (L to R) Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra, designers of Costello Tagliapietra, Julie Gilhart, the former creative director of Barneys, Melissa Kushner, founder of Goods for Good, Summer Rayne Oakes, eco model and spokesperson, and founder of Lulu Frost, Lisa Salzer.
At the recent Afingo Fashion Forum held in New York City at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Inhabitat founder Jill Fehrenbacher moderated a talk on “Sustainability and Philanthropy,” and included panelists Julie Gilhart, the former creative director of Barneys, Melissa Kushner, founder of Goods for Good, Lisa Salzer, founder of Lulu Frost, Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra, designers of Costello Tagliapietra, Starre Vartan, publisher of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco Chick Guide To Life and Summer Rayne Oakes, green spokesperson, model and co-founder of Source4Style.
The panel, with its diverse composition of authors, entrepreneurs, executives and designers, mainly reviewed familiar, even comfortable, themes in eco fashion today, such as marketing a green label and educating consumers. The most engaging insights included a consideration of the standards to which any fashion brand, eco or otherwise, must hold itself, as well as a call for improved labeling for consumers.
Gilhart, who comes from a fashion background first and a sustainable background second, has the expertise and clout not only to help brands and coach designers towards a more sustainable path but to speak frankly on it. “Our clothes aren’t going anywhere,” she said in response to whether fast fashion houses like H&M or Target will suffer from all this consciousness. That is the reality, and “To not deal with the realities of the world is one of the most dangerous things you can do. Attacking the bigger brands…isn’t going to help. The most important thing is education. If we can become more educated, we can create models that are more attractive. Right now there’s not enough philanthropy to change the world.”
Complementing Gilhart’s pragmatism, Vartan called for practical tools for consumers, such as a universal and standardized rating system that would account for sustainability preferences including water, textiles, fair trade, non-toxic dyes, et al. Much like a business index or nutrition label, a rating system would empower consumers to make more conscious choices instead of relying on potentially greenwashed claims – and blindly hoping for the best.
While the hour-long panel was informative and beneficial for an entry-level sustainability talk, there was the hope that with such an impressive roster, the questions as well as the answers could have been more challenging. Who are symposiums for, and why have them at all, if the dialogue hesitates to push the issues forward, much less stimulate nuanced discussion?
After the panel concluded, one underwhelmed owner in the sustainable fashion industry wondered about how effective the symposium model in general is: “They sort of just don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”
“What’s that?” we asked.
“Get us to a point where we are considering something new,” she said.
And perhaps that’s it. A dynamic symposium might begin with including people who do not agree, something we discussed with moderator Jill Fehrenbacher after the panel concluded. For those versed in eco fashion issues, the panel instead amounted to a green chorus, with many responses sounding like rehearsed refrains. “Read the labels.” “Educate yourself.” “Sustainability means different things.”
After an easy hour, an incredulous Fehrenbacher checked Gilhart on her contention that talent finds its way to the top by virtue of being talent. Really? In fashion, isn’t it just as much who you know? Fehrenbacher pointed out that many exceptionally talented designers never “make it,” or have yet to do so, but Gilhart was dismissive, insisting that the cream will rise. The moderator held Gilhart hard to the claim. Gilhart has championed many green fashion brands and is deservedly beloved in eco fashion circles, but Fehrenbacher is right. It’s strikingly naive to assert that fashion is a pure meritocracy.
If only the symposium had started off on this footing.
These sustainable crusaders are each pushing forward in their own niches, and admirably so. Take Kushner, who is making a real impact on textile waste and creating partnerships that build an infrastructure for orphans. But when presented with the opportunity to challenge one another and excite the audience, the refrain turned predictable rather than fresh. Are we simply too tired fighting the green fight to challenge our own rhetoric and in the process, take the eco message further? If a movement is to go mainstream, it cannot be afraid to constructively examine itself. Gilhart did not specifically articulate this, but her realistic assessment as a mainstream fashion executive carried the hint.
If green fashion is to evolve into the mainstream consciousness, trotting out standard lines about corporate responsibility or reminding people to read the labels does little service to the cause. To get to where we want to go will require constructive criticism, not amiable lip service. Supporting each other is vital, but nevertheless, if we refrain from pushing and prodding at the complexity of the issues inherent in eco fashion – after all, we’re still talking about buying pretty things – people will tire of the same old song.
This is not to say there aren’t a plethora of examples of eco fashion progress, as Fehrenbacher noted. There are, and the designers, entrepreneurs, marketers and media participating in this progress deserve respect and recognition. But if we’re talking about pushing eco fashion mainstream - shifting an entire global industry paradigm - then we owe it to ourselves to develop more sophisticated approaches and compelling ideas, as well as an elevated marketing and media discourse. We ought to be tough on the home turf, lest we continue to be dismissed when we step off the green.