How eco-clothing became cool
The slow and steady rise of eco-fashion
Words— Marc Richardson
As recently as a few years ago, it would’ve seemed implausible that green clothes would be cool. Not green as in the colour, but as in environmentally-friendly. For the longest time, eco-conscious threads were the antithesis of fashion—green and cool mutually-exclusive terms.
It wasn’t that being vocally green was uncool in and of itself, but the products that were eco-friendly were essentially equated with a hippie or "granola" aesthetic.
If you wanted to wear something eco-friendly, chances are that it was pretty—well—ugly. The fabrics used didn’t have quite the same feel or look. The texture was off; the colours not as bright. A garment was the same, but it was still felt like a version that was less-than. Many of the brands making eco-friendly clothes weren’t in the business of making fashionable things. They were in the business of making things that served a utilitarian purpose or that, in some cases, existed solely as ecological alternatives.
But, over the last few years, things have changed. Now, for the average shopper, green is suddenly, not only cool, but increasingly essential. Granted, the change has been slow—but it’s also been steady. Since the early 2010s, there has been a noticeable shift towards more sustainable garments. It began during the recession when consumers began prioritizing more well-made and longer-lasting clothes. They also happened to be more expensive, which created what appeared to be at loggerheads with the financial reality. But, what consumers realized was that paying more upfront for something that would last years was more economical than buying cheaper versions of the same product multiple times over the same time frame. As time wore on, brands began to bet on the fact that consumers were increasingly aware of more complex cost-benefit calculations, including ones where sustainability and social considerations were deciding factors.
Toms, for example, built its business on the premise that buying a pair of shoes could have a positive social impact. For every pair purchased, the company provided a pair to children in need. They weren’t the most comfortable shoes in the world, but they were inexpensive and they offered a chance to put one's money where their proverbial mouth was. Warby Parker, the eyewear brand, employed a similar strategy. It was proof that value-signalling and coolness, could co-exist.
Eventually, that gave way to brands offering a slightly different proposition: One predicated on clothes that not only signalled that one cared about the environment, but that were actually eco-friendly. Brands with significant cultural capital, like adidas, put forth projects that were marketed as having a net-positive effect on the environment. In the case of adidas, they worked with Parley to recycle plastic from the ocean—not only were the products less harmful than non-eco-minded ones, they actively did something by refashioning preexisting waste. But, most important, perhaps, was that the German sportswear brand used its “coolest” products for the environment-focused project: The popular UltraBOOST and NMD sneakers acted as the initial canvas, as did limited-edition Real Madrid and Bayern Munich jerseys.
"But, what’s important to remember is that green needn’t be cool. Instead, it ought to be the only thing. Cool or not, fashionable or kitsch, outdoor-wear or tailoring—it should all be environmentally-friendly."
What’s interesting is that adidas’ willingness to make cool things green—and green things cool—has coincided with an almost worldwide trend. Nike is offering up Earth Day-inspired sneakers, which despite the associated emissions, are further proof that its never been cooler to be vocally pro-environment. adidas one-upped themselves by announcing a fully recyclable shoe, Future Loop. But it’s not just established brands suddenly jumping on the bandwagon, brands whose entire identities are predicated on being ecologically responsible are suddenly at the pinnacle of cool.
Consider Patagonia. Much of the brand’s cachet has historically hinged on it being acutely self-aware of its environmental impact. Yvon Chouinard, the brand’s founder, has consistently sought to minimize that impact, be it with climbing gear that left rock faces intact, or by using traceable down in insulated jackets, or by pledging a percentage of the brand’s gross income to environmental charities. For years, it was a hit with the outdoorsy crowd.
Recently, though, the brand has crossed over to the mainstream and become trendy. From banking bros on Wall Street to menswear nerds and normcore aficionados like Jonah Hill, Patagonia vests, fleeces and shorts became must-haves. While the brand’s commitment to environmental sustainability may not have been why it popped, it has helped to perpetuate the idea that green can be cool. In fact, Patagonia recently made the decision to stop making custom pieces for large Wall Street corporations that aren’t actively trying to reduce their environmental impact. That move was applauded by many and added to the brand’s mystique.
All of this plays an important role in normalizing ecologically-responsible consumption. There is still much work to be done for many a brand plying their trade as purveyors of ecological garments, Frank And Oak included, but it’s important to remember that not all consumers care about aesthetics above all else. Some just want really comfortable shoes that happen to be produced in responsible ways.
On the whole, caring about the environment through one’s clothes has never been more closely intertwined with coolness. Upcycling, vintage-shopping and archival fashion are at their zenith, in part because they emphasize responsible consumption. We’re discovering new ways to make things without creating waste, each and every day and we’re increasingly able to present them in an appealing fashion.
But, what’s important to remember is that green needn’t be cool. Instead, it ought to be the only thing. Cool or not, fashionable or kitsch, outdoor-wear or tailoring—it should all be environmentally-friendly. That’s the point where we’ll be able to relax.