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Toronto-raised, New York-based Kate Black has been challenging the apparel industry for the better part of a decade. The founder of Magnifeco.com has a new book out, Magnifeco: Your Head-To-Toe Guide To Ethical Fashion And Non-Toxic Beauty, examining ways to make better choices.
You've been following the green fashion scene since 2008. What's changed?
I founded Magnifeco at a time when a lot of focus was on what could be. An Inconvenient Truth was rippling through many industries, fashion included. [Year] 2009 saw the creation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Better Cotton Initiative, and a greater focus on sustainability as a business imperative for fashion. The industry is changing because it needs to as natural resources become scarcer and consumers demand brands that care as much about the environment as they do.
Natural body care has become mainstream more quickly than green fashion. Why do you think that is?
Only one issue concerns shoppers when in comes to personal care products: what's in it and how does that affect me. This differs from fashion, where consumers are concerned about where it was made and how workers are affected. I want to draw a correlation between fashion and personal care products and have consumers think about chemicals in both categories, because both are things we put next to our skin. Fashion has chemical issues throughout the supply chain, from pesticide poisonings in the growth of cotton to toxic effluents that have polluted water supplies in Mexico and China.
You say a lot of companies are "greening through the back door." How so?
That's a phrase I coined to highlight the fact that some companies are making genuine efforts to improve sustainability, not as marketing or communications ploys. [For instance], Kering [the company behind Gucci, Puma and others] has been measuring the long-term environmental impact of material choices.
You developed the acronym V.A.L.U.E. to help consumers cut through the confusion. What does it mean?
I wanted a tool that addressed our desire for value but also included some consideration for the environmental implications of our consumption. I came up with V.A.L.U.E. as a series of questions to ask ourselves before we buy, starting with "Do I need to buy it? Does it need to be new? Could I rent, borrow or buy it second-hand (value)? Could my purchase help an artisan community in a developing country (artisan)? Or could it help my own community (local)? Is the item saving something from landfill (upcycled)? And, lastly, does this purchase match my values (ethical)?"
Goods marketed as ethical seem to have more cachet these days than those marketed as green. What does that say?
"Ethical" means different things to different people, so as a marketing word it's great. But if you want to make a conscious purchase, you need to explore whether it matches your ethics. For example, vegan designers offer great, fashion-forward choices made from innovative (cruelty-free) materials, but those materials aren't always as environmentally friendly as an environmentalist would want. And maybe the human rights supporter wouldn't worry about the textiles or materials as long as the product was made by workers receiving a living wage. Ethical is the new black, but we still need to ask, "How is it ethical?"
Ultimately, aren't we just buying too much stuff, period?
We are in an unusual time. Consumption rates for apparel and footwear are at their highest levels. And we are buying them at an unprecedented (and unsustainable) rate: an average of 62 items per year. And we're paying less per product than ever before: on average $19 per piece. Shockingly, 18 of those 62 garments never get worn; that's almost 1.7 billion unworn articles. But minimalism is starting to take hold, and people are reducing both their consumption and their possessions. And somewhere in the middle is the rise of "well-made goods."