Life&style Are "eco" concerns the first luxury to bite the dust in the current economic crisis?
Is green the first to go?
Not so long ago, if it wasn't ethically sourced, organically grown or fairly traded, it wasn't interesting. Few self-respecting businesses hadn't considered a line in 'eco'. But in the current economic crisis, Tracy Nesdoly asks whether such concerns are the first luxury to bite the dust. For a while it seemed that "green" was the only way to go. Fashion companies were weighing in with eco-conscious clothing - using bamboo fibre (less particular a crop than cotton and needing far fewer pesticides and fertilisers to thrive) or non-toxic dyes; yarn made of recycled plastic bottles; or simply clothes with a conscience, with some of the proceeds going to something worthy.
Fashion loves a trend, but what has happened to this one? In the current economic downturn, have they stuck to their principles? According to the trend-watcher Faith Popcorn, we are in a "Bermuda Triangle" of culture. "Ethics, the environment and the economy are all failing at the same time," she says. Consumers, cutting back on spending as never before, need additional reasons to buy - they need to see the value of design and workmanship, though "sustainable" often means simply that the garment is "classic" enough to last a few seasons.
According to new research from the British market research firm Mintel, "sales of ethical clothing have more than quadrupled in the past five years to reach £175 million [Dh995m] in 2009". "Ethical" here means anything organic, green or responsibly made. It is a growth area, and Mintel suggests the economic downturn is likely to have only a slight effect on the ethical clothing sector. And yet the marketplace for eco- or ethical-fashion is something of a niche business - it is confined mostly to small companies, accessories and casual clothes rather than the luxury end of high fashion.
"We support both established and emerging brands but ultimately it is down to the design, quality and how it fits in with our brand portfolio that determines whether a brand will work in the stores," says Hannah Lawton, spokeswoman for the Matches chain of fashion boutiques. Fashion may win out over green, but Hannah points out that Stella McCartney is one of their best-selling collections. "She creates a fabulous range of accessories from non-animal sources that are very fashion-forward and covetable. She also sources brilliant leather and fur substitutes for her clothing line - this year she has created a great pair of long Ugg boots in non-animal sheepskin, which our fashion and buying director feels very strongly about."
In fact, Stella McCartney is a notable exception to the "nice to have, not need to have" rule on ecological and ethically sound sourcing. A harbinger of "green", the brand uses fine fabrics like any other, but the company itself is carbon-neutral and all UK operations are powered by Ecotricity, which invests in clean forms of power such as wind. And, an organic capsule collection available in the US will soon be available in Britain and, hopefully, elsewhere.
Rumours have circulated about the luxury monolith LVMH possibly buying Edun, the organic clothing line created in 2005 by the U2 frontman Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, and much is made of the fact that LVMH pursues ecologically sound farming in sourcing ingredients for its alcoholic drinks. But, thus far, the impulse does not extend to its big brands. Dior and Louis Vuitton aren't producing eco-clothes, at least not yet.
"We are a fashion company, and product quality and style have to be of utmost importance. Fashion definitely comes first," says Timothy Elliott, a spokesperson from the high-end retailer Barneys New York, which has been a pioneer in eco-chic. "We had a leg up on this, as we have always been known for our love of artisanal work." He says that the company's fashion director, Julie Gilhart, is a passionate advocate of green and ethical sourcing and has actively pursued "good" brands. She works closely with vendors and has helped source "sustainable" or ecological products in all categories, including homeware.
Where "eco" really kicks in is beauty. While Dubai's Boutique 1 currently carries none of the so-called "green" lines in fashion, it does have a wide assortment of organic, good-for-you beauty ranges. "Our customers are always telling us that beauty is a lot more than skin-deep, and this is why we've been stocking more and more beauty ranges that are eco-friendly and organic," says Rima Mirsaidova, cosmetics director for the Boutique 1 Group. "People are very conscious of what they put on their bodies and where the product has originated, or how it has been made."
It recently launched the Tilia & Finn spa at its flagship location at The Walk at Jumeirah Beach Residence that uses Jurlique products - the company uses ingredients grown on its own certified organic and biodynamic farms. Does the customer care whether the gorgeous jacket is made of totally organic fabric or was sewn in a wind-powered factory? "I think it's definitely a movement in our industry," says Elliott, and may in fact be one more incentive to buy an item. Brands such as Loomstate are proving popular, but again, this is a range limited to jeans and T-shirts for the most part - by far the dominant category in the "green" world.
"Sometimes you just can't make something organic because it will lack structure or the materials simply won't support the integrity of the design," says Elliott. "However, we can hope that the building it's made in is sustainable, or the workers are treated fairly. There are all different shades of green."