Approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used and discarded worldwide each year. After people use them to carry groceries or clothing, and then proceed to throw them away, they sit in landfills. They will remain there for at least another 1000 years until they decompose. It’s an unpleasant image, one that has yet to spark any international uprisings outside of grocery stores.
This past spring, however, Anya Hindmarch, an upscale British accessories designer whose exclusive “it” bags have dangled on the arms of Keira Knightly and Lily Allen, decided to educate her consumers by dabbling in eco-conscious fashion. And that, oddly, did manage to cause a few riots. In the UK, 20,000 bags sold out in 60 minutes, and the process was repeated stateside at Whole Foods. People waited in line for hours, and the media documented everything, from the fights to the fainting spells.
In fact, not long after her discount shopping bag was released in Britain, Hindmarch was forced to call off several other launches, notably in Southeast Asia, due to “concerns for our customers’ safety.” Since hordes of ladies were willing to practically shiv one another over a tote, one might assume it was a spectacular piece of status craftsmanship — a work of art, really.
Not even close. Hindmarch’s purse wasn’t named after a model, didn’t have solid-gold hardware, and in no way resembled the shape or quality of the infamous Hermès Birkin. Actually, it was made out of unbleached cotton, was priced at five pounds Sterling ($15 for the US version), and was available in supermarkets — hardly a résumé for a haute-couture accessory. In fact, the only thing distinguishing the bag — a plain, cream-colored sack — were the words “I’m NOT a Plastic Bag,” scrawled in snarky royal-blue letters across the side.
Hindmarch wanted people to reuse her bag instead of wasting plastic carrier bags, and, in the process, twist “going green” into something with genuine hipster currency. She did this by producing it in a limited-edition run: the bag’s cheapness rendered it trendy, but its scarcity was what made it cool. Considering the build-up and the circumstances, a healthy dose of backlash was practically guaranteed.
But thanks to Internet hype and runway darling Lily Cole sporting the bag to New York Fashion Week, the counterattack arrived early. The fact that the bag had become a fashion statement and didn’t even follow certain green standards didn’t sit well with environmental groups. The cotton wasn’t organic, the bag was manufactured in China at a factory that didn’t follow Fair Trade practices (although workers were paid double the minimum wage and complied with Chinese Labor Laws), and a number of samples were delivered to editors wrapped in silver plastic bags — an almost comical faux pas, which gave the fashion press reason to doubt Hindmarch’s ethics. Women’s-wear designer Marissa Vanderzee even created a knock-off version when she heard about people lining up outside British grocery chain Sainsbury’s just to buy Hindmarch’s creation. On the side of her bag, in blue lettering, were the words “I’m NOT a Smug Twat.”
Starting from scratch
Hindmarch claims she had only the best of intentions in her anti-plastic venture. As she told the London Times, “If we make people think, then job done.” But the fashion industry’s absorption of the eco-trend — and the subsequent hair-twirling over whether it stands to be more than just a fad — hasn’t always gone smoothly, in no small part due to the traditions of excess in which it is steeped. Is using organic fabric enough, or is a designer required to invent new production and manufacturing methods to be considered truly environmentally friendly? As going green gains a greater cachet, so does the notion that being, say, “lite green” is no longer good enough.
Which means contemporary eco-fashionites not only have the burden of designing with a “hip, not hippie” conceit, they must also decide whether they are willing to risk being written off as “green trendy,” rather than a card-carrying member of the organic-fashion revolution. Neither label is causing any harm: both suggest a designer’s willingness to help, not hurt, the environment, whether it’s for superficial or serious reasons. Still, in fashion, passing snap judgments is as reflexive an urge as sucking in your stomach while you walk. So it isn’t at all surprising that competing for the attention of socially-conscious consumers becomes an ongoing part of an image battle in which most eco-fashion designers are obliged to grapple.
“I think the thing about being green is that it’s in our DNA,” says Deborah Boria, the co-creator and co-designer of Panda Snack. “We set out to do an eco-fashion line, and so I think we are more authentic than a lot of people who are trying to be, ‘Me, too!’ now that it’s trendy.”
Panda Snack is a two-year-old contemporary knitwear line comprising primarily feminine sportswear and denim ($79–$120), the material for which is woven from bamboo, the Chinese plant that pandas — as the name suggests — like to gnaw on. Boria and her business partner, Dearrick Knupp, were at a trade show in China exploring textile possibilities when they first touched a piece of fabric woven out of bamboo fibers. “It was so soft and sumptuous,” she says, “we were amazed to find out that it was bamboo.”