I was inspired after interviewing Myriam Laroche, the founder of Eco Fashion Week in Vancouver (and involved in the industry for 19 years). She has a lot of really important things to say about the fashion industry and talks about what she’s doing to change things to better respect the environment, our pocketbooks, and our sanity.
A fragment of this interview was published in my Gentle Traveller column [link coming soon] for tuja wellness, but this version is much expanded.
Lori Henry: What is “eco fashion”?
Myriam Laroche: “I like to say that it’s fashion that is responsible all the way from the material you choose to the manufacturing of the clothes to the marketing and the packaging, the distribution of it, up to the selling point to the consumer. From the consumer perspective, eco fashion should be the way they buy, use and dispose of their clothes. So I really like the term responsible.
“Eco sometimes is a bit overused and associated just with the planet, when it’s really the planet, humans, a lifestyle, so I like responsible and sustainable as well. Are you doing your best every step of the way when you develop your product? Do you have the lowest amount of waste, are you consuming the least energy? Sometimes you can’t; it’s not about being perfect, it’s very important for people to understand that, but it’s about your values and how it makes you feel to buy that piece of clothes.
“Some people buy overseas but they buy brands that are supporting women, for example, because the clothes are made in a village and the village lives from that. It’s not about what’s wrong and what’s right, it’s about what fits for you and does it have a purpose behind? Are you doing it with your heart?”
LH: Does eco fashion go beyond fashion?
ML: “The fashion industry right now is very unhealthy. We’ve reached a point where it’s not about the clothes anymore. If you go to Fashion Week, it’s about which model is wearing your clothes or which celebrity is sitting front row. Fine, it’s a part that will always be there, but I think we’ve reached an extreme where we buy clothes just to wear them once, there’s no sentimental value anymore; it’s just appearance. It’s so easy to buy cheap clothes and wear it once and who cares. You buy another one after. This is the sad part. I think we’re going to find a balance eventually, that’s why we’re all doing Eco Fashion Week, but the industry is very sad and very unhealthy [right now].
LH: Why is the industry that way?
ML: “For the big guys, the retailers, it’s about money. We have found a way to hypnotize the consumer. I love clothes and I love fashion, it’s my passion, but I’m so proud to wear second hand clothing. I’m not asking for everybody to do that, but for me it has a purpose that I’m reusing, but also it’s exclusive: this is my fashion. I don’t like to be dressed like everybody else. I don’t go to a major chain store and buy a pair of shoes that I’m going to see on everybody. I like to be exclusive, this is my fashion sense.
“I remember when I was in school in kindergarten or first grade, I had kind of a sweat pant outfit, one for Monday, one for Tuesday, my cute dress was for Sunday or Christmas or a birthday. But now the kids are five years old and they need that brand or that brand, they need to look like that. Yes, fashion creates your identity, but I think it has become an addiction. We talk a lot about drugs and tons of other stuff, but shopping can be addictive. We say that people run out of money because of drugs, but some people run out of money because they load their credit cards and they don’t have money anymore. It’s the same, it’s just the damage on your physical body is less when you shop, but mentally it affects you the same.
“I’m not saying we have to stop trends, but when I started to be a buyer in ’97, we had four collections per year: back-to-school, holiday, spring and fall. Now, at H&M and Zara, for example, every month, sometimes it’s every two weeks that you have new stuff. The consumer is always stimulated.
“The consumer has to be more educated and realize, ‘I’m going nuts right now. Does it make me someone better to have 50 purses?’ The retailer has to let go of it. There are ways to do this: focusing on quality and not buying as often, but maybe at a higher price. That doesn’t mean losing money, it means redistributing the money in a different way. It’s the same money. People will spend. We’re in a good place and I think we need to reach these extremes because we can’t improve without hitting rock bottom.”
LH: Have we hit rock bottom or are things improving?
ML: “I think a mix of both. We’re talking about it, that’s a good thing. Are the big retailers that are signing all those agreements, like the Detox campaign for Greenpeace, signing it just to sign it for the moment and figure it out after? Will they live up to their words? We will have to see.
“In the next 10 years we’re going to still have challenges and resistance, people resist change, it’s working right now strategy-wise, ‘I’m making money,’ but the long term vision…
“But yes, money is leading everything. The new business that will be successful will have money in mind, that’s how you buy, but does money have to be a piece of paper? Can second hand clothes or barter come back? We need to see things differently. People who are doing it because they love it and they start businesses with their heart and not for the money, are going to be the ones that are going to last more and more.
“I think it’s a lifestyle: it goes beyond the clothes, it’s about the way you feel, the way you take care of yourself, those are the new leaders who’re going to make a difference in consumerism.”
LH: What does Eco Fashion Week consist of?
ML: “EFW is still evolving, I would say. We’re doing our sixth season and when we started it, I started it really like a regular fashion week. A fashion week is a tool for buyers to see designers collections and place orders. It’s a business tool. But we realized that if we want people to shift towards a more responsible way of manufacturing clothes and buy responsible brands, you need to educate them.
“To say, ‘Hey, buy this because it’s eco-friendly’ [there’s not much response]. But if you show them a video of the impact the clothing industry has on the planet, for example, if you go to India or China, there are pink and purple rivers everywhere because of the dying. The damage is huge and you see it visually. We’re so far away that if you don’t show it, people do not understand why they have to make the shift. ‘It’s so great here,’ they say, ‘where are the pink rivers? We don’t see it. We hear about some stuff but we’re in a beautiful country.’ The educational aspect is very important. This season, in April, for the first time, we are going to kick off with the Seminars, which are the educational aspects.
“What we did last season with Value Village, who is one of our major sponsors – they’ve been amazing – one of the statistics that really made me realize that things aren’t going very well is 68 pounds is the amount of textiles and clothing the average American throws away every year. Not donations, garbage. And I thought, ‘68 pounds?! What could we create from that?’
“So we asked Kim Cathers, who was in the top six of Project Runway Canada, season two, to take 68 pounds of textile and clothing from Value Village, but not what is on the floor, what Value Village removes from the floor after three weeks because it’s not selling. They either ship it to Africa or sell it to a textile recycler. So it’s not even what’s on the floor, it’s the discarded stuff. Kim created an entire collection from that and you know what? We did not even use the 68 pounds! Those are inspiring things.
“I know H&M won’t do that, but for them to see it and think, ‘Hmmm, we have overstock and we’re shipping it to Africa right now but maybe there is something we can do with it. We could create new patterns.’ I think it’s GAP who had an agreement with Good Will to take second hand clothing back. How great would it be if you have GAP stuff, you can bring it back to them and you get a discount. Then they choose if they donate it or reuse it. They could even have a second hand section in their stores, why not? There’s a lot of creative thing we can do.
“What is the right thing to do? We don’t know. Five years ago bamboo was the thing, the ‘eco’ thing to do. Yes, bamboo has an eco-friendly aspect because it’s like a weed, it takes nothing from the soil and it doesn’t need pesticides. But when you transform it and you dye it, it still has a damaging process to the planet.
“When you buy a piece of clothing, ask where it is from. I don’t mind if it’s from China or local, but if it’s from China, where exactly is it from? We’re not going to stop manufacturing things in Asia, so instead of trying to fight and boycott, let’s be sure that they have certification and that they do not dump dye in the rivers anymore. I don’t believe in radical movements. I think we need them to inspire us but to tell me not to do something, it has never worked for me.
LH: Talk about some of the events at Eco Fashion Week this year
ML: “We’re going to have the 68 pound challenge for the second time. Kim Cathers is doing it again, creating a collection from 68 pounds of men’s suits only. We were wondering if we should ask another designer, what should we do, and she said, ‘I would love to do it again, but I would like a bigger challenge.’ What an inspiration.
“We also have the Thrift Chic Challenge for our third season. We choose three thrift stylists and they all receive $500 in gift certificates from Value Village. They have to style 10-15 looks, head to toe. There’s no sewing, it’s really just about styling. That comes from me because I’m a stylist, I’ve been doing that forever. 80% of my wardrobe comes from Value Village, and there’s not one day where I don’t receive a compliment like, ‘Oh, I LOVE that!’ It’s just to inspire the consumer to be creative.”
Dates of the next Eco Fashion Week
April 21-24, 2013 at Robson Square in Vancouver. The next one will be in October.