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Ha Joo-Hyun

Wearing the Environment – Eco Fashion

Ha Joo-Hyun

Aug. 2, 2012

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In the past decade, the Korean fashion industry has risen to global ranks, displaying its designs from Paris to New York and Tokyo and joining international collections shown at local showcases like Busan's Pret-a-Porter 2011 and Seoul Fashion Week. The accolades are piling up, too. For example, world-known fashion blogger Scott Schuman called the collection by Korean designer Jeong Wook-joon "the best show" of the 2012 Paris fashion expo for men's wear in January.

The Korean industry, growing nearly 5% annually, is now seen as another swirling force in the "Korean Wave" that is making modern Korean cultural an international brand. However, as it attracts increasing attention and rubs shoulders with global pace setters from Italy and France, Korean fashion companies are elevating themselves into a higher league in which standards apart from creativity and commercial viability are being applied.

Last year, the Seoul fashion show of Italian high fashion house Fendi was almost cancelled after being bombarded by animal rights activists for its use of fur in its collection. But the global fashion industry is being held accountable for more than fur. From water polluted by dyes or wasted on growing cotton for "fast fashion" items that are discarded in just days, the industry is being closely scrutinized. In response, "green" has become the latest buzz word in the industry.

Spearheading eco-fashion is British designer Stella McCartney, daughter of ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney. She not only has her name on luxury brands but also has her own line with shoemaker Adidas. And unlike other luxury brands, her clothing does not include fur or real leather and is well-known for being made from organic materials via environmentally friendly production processes. Furthermore, in order to minimize waste, the fabric is not cut but folded, which is said to be the secret to making the clothes look more sophisticated.

Now, Italian luxury brands are making concerted efforts to distance themselves from their once eco-unfriendly image. For example, Prada, prints snake skin patterns on fabric bags or coats them instead of using real snake hide, Ferragamo manufactures with leather that is produced in an eco-friendly way and Gucci uses eco-friendly packaging.

Going one step further, sports brand Nike developed a method that considers the environment even from the beginning stages of product development. Called "Considered Design," the process uses fewer toxic substances, saves energy, and produces less waste. In Levis' case, it uses recycled buttons and zippers, and a "waterless jeans" dyeing process.

What is noteworthy is that the entire launch product lines may be produced from recycled or bio-degradable materials made from bamboo or soybeans. The maker of every woman's dream shoes, Manolo Blahnik, for example, went as far as to design and launch shoes made from cork. Although many would think "how can you make shoes out of wine cork?" in fact, cork is superior when it comes to water resistance, durability, and is an anti-pollutant. It is also highly likely that it will be commonly used as a substitute for leather when making shoes in the near future. Similarly, researchers in all parts of the world are trying to develop materials made from natural resources, including seaweed, pineapple, and banana leaves.

Enormous effort is also being put into developing technologies that will reduce the impact of dyeing which not only pollutes but entails using a lot of water (85% of total water usage to produce clothing). In order to save water, China's Fongs Industries Company Ltd. has developed a machine that uses air instead of water. Using this machine, the 200 liters of water needed to dye a single T-shirt can be reduced to a mere 50 liters. Similarly, Air Dye, a technology developed by Colorep in the US, employs heat instead of water to transfer the dye directly from paper to fabric. Both processes are significantly more eco-friendly, saving both water and energy and reducing toxic waste.

Going forward, in their new role as fashion trendsetters, Korean apparel companies can expect to come under pressure to replicate or modify those types of eco-friendly practices. Hence, they must begin to seriously contemplate shifting their entire value chain from marketing to producing materials to become more eco-friendly. This will have wide implications at all levels, from the fast fashion businesses in budget retail areas to the chic and glamorous fashion houses. Retooling the way they design and manufacture will require enormous effort but failure to heed the green movement risks blistering criticism by eco-activists, which could seriously damage the industry's image and brand name and dent the industry's more than $25 billion business.

This column originally appeared in Korea JoongAng Daily.
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