Levi's offers 100 percent organic cotton eco-jeans, top designers debuted luxury clothes made from bamboo and soya plants at New York's fashion week, and U2 lead singer Bono and his wife launched a socially-conscious clothing line called Edun (nude backwards). Environmentally-friendly fashion is sprouting all over the world, so much so that activists quip that green is quickly becoming the new black.
The phenomenon hasn't escaped Israel, where water and air conservation and preservation of natural ecosystems make front-page news, prompting a grassroots effort by designers to bypass hemp sacks and Naot for eco-fashion that's actually fashionable.
"There's an expression in Hebrew, pituah bar kayama, which means to be friendly to the environment, to protect it, but to continue to live a modern life," says Galit Broyde, owner with her husband Erez Moded, of eco-brand Cotton. "You can't expect people to wear a burlap sack. Clothing has to be stylish, people have to want to wear it, so we try to combine these ideas and protect the environment while still making attractive clothes."
Cotton started out as a regular clothing brand in 1992, though it was perhaps a bit more "Israeli" and "modest" than others, says Broyde. She and her husband kept their eco-consciences at home, where they reused water, recycled practically everything from paper and bottles to leftover fabric and even made compost out of organic garbage. Five years ago, they decided to bring their lifestyle to the workplace, starting with their catalogues, which alongside eco-friendly clothes display information about environmental issues like pollution.
Now, their clothes are designed based on strict guidelines. No harmful chemicals are used in the production of any of their items (no stonewashed jeans), no shapes or designs are used that will go out of style by next season and thereby waste the material (no skinny jeans), all the seamstresses receive fair wages and recycled materials are used to create clothes when possible.
Most of these principles fall under what the Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP) defines as eco-fashion: the use of organic raw materials, such as cotton grown without pesticides and silk made by worms fed on organic trees; the non-use of harmful chemicals and bleaches to color fabrics; the use of recycled and reused textiles; and fair trade, meaning the people who make the clothes are paid a fair price and have decent working conditions.
Even the changing rooms, tables and stands in Cotton's 12 branches across the country are made from old doors, planks of wood and soda cans. The brand also works directly with organizations like Adam Teva V'din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. The two are currently promoting a 100% cotton T-shirt, the proceeds of which go to protecting the Mediterranean Sea.
"We have no future in this world if we don't protect it," warns Broyde. "The environment is very important to us, and we think the fashion world has the power to make a change."
So does Ariel Doron of Bikaleh, another shop determined to advance the cause through its clothes. Like Broyde, he defines his brand as a "lifestyle," one that stems from his and his wife Tal's intense study of yoga, tai chi and feldenkrais.
"When you do yoga for many years, you start asking yourself what kind of foods you put in your mouth, how you treat other people, what kind of language you use," he says. "It would not be a serious way to practice yoga if we also ate meat and used abusive language or did abusive things to the land."
On Tal's yearly trips to India to study yoga, she had clothes specially made and brought back to Israel, where her clients began to demand the unique apparel. Some nine years ago, out of their Tel Aviv yoga studio, the couple started to sell the clothes they designed in India, and today they have a customer base of more than 6,000.
Everything in Bikaleh is handmade from all natural fibers by workers in India who receive double the minimum wage. But the style is not the hippie look of backpackers in India; rather, Doron says the design is aesthetic and based on the correct form and function for the body.
"Just like a correct yoga position is pleasing to the eye, so are the clothes. They are comfortable and correct; they allow the body to breathe and move," he says. "The purpose is that the clothes should serve you, not the other way around."
When it comes to clothes, the most important detail is this connection between the material and the body, says Shenkar College of Engineering and Design lecturer Chagit Vitman, also a designer herself. She teaches her students that the modern woman knows that it's possible to look good and feel good, and what's trendy isn't more important than what's comfortable.
"Five years ago this wasn't true, but now there's more awareness of eco-fashion and it's even becoming a trend of its own," she says. "We aren't Greenpeace, but we need to understand the personal needs in clothing today, so we teach the students how to really feel the materials with their hands."
Vitman has two stores, FishnDag and its offshoot, Wabi Sabi, which is based on the Japanese art of the same name of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature and of accepting the natural cycle of life. For Vitman, that translates into working with second-hand materials made of cotton instead of the overly-popular polyester, "which doesn't let the body breathe, aggravates the skin and isn't biodegradable."
Her customers are not of the small, environmental-activist group "that wears organic clothes like they eat organic foods," she says, but instead are buying eco-friendly clothing because it's more comfortable, which, she adds, is a good start.
"We are a society that cares about the environment," says Vitman, "but I don't think the trend in Israel is growing because people care so much about the environment. We have many other wars we're busy fighting here, so it's going to take some time."
BUT IT'S THE younger generation who are doing most of the fighting, and while some more experienced designers focus on eco-friendly fashions, the newcomers are courageously venturing out into the field of recyclable fashion.
Elanit Neutra got her inspiration from walking down the street one day. She found an old tire and was curious about other uses for its interesting texture, which she says is similar to leather. Seven years later, her wallets and bags sell for up to NIS 1,000 - and they are made entirely out of the inside of a tire.
The process of cleaning, shaping and recycling it into an attractive purse is not easy, she says, but is definitely worth it.
"Protecting the environment is very important to me," says Neutra. "It bothers me that people don't respect the globe more, especially in Israel; they just don't understand. For me, it's a way of life - I recycle at home, I recycle at work."
She gets a steady supply of tires from a local garage and sells her wares at Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center Designer's Market, where colleague Ayala Froindlich also sells bags, but made out of old encyclopedias, comic books and inflatable pool floats as part of her effort "to join the struggle to protect the environment." Her bags, which sell for NIS 70-NIS 130, were inspired by her desire to recycle and make new from old, and the bags made out of pool floats can even be inflated and used as pillows at the beach.
Accessories are apparently the least difficult way to break into this business, but when you compare the original material with the final product, the creativity is actually astounding. Irit Vilensky got fed up with everyone throwing away their supermarket bags, which aren't biodegradable, and decided to turn them into stylish handbags and wallets.
"In most places in the world they don't even use plastic bags anymore," she says. "I wanted to take them and make a fashion statement while helping the environment in my small way. It's important, because with global warming and all the other ecological problems, soon we might not even have a place to live."
Zohar Yarom makes beautiful handbags and purses out of the leftover sample materials from sofa catalogues. Both Yarom and Vilensky sell their original designs at Cotton, and Yarom says that as a designer, she felt negligent in creating new things, and looked for a way to fulfill her responsibility to fashion without damaging her relationship with nature.
Even the Land of Israel Museum sells recycled commodities, showcasing Gili Ben-Ami's necklaces, made out of colorful car plugs strung together, in its gift shop.
But it is French-born Brigitte Cartier who is covering the most ground with recyclable design. After studying art and design in Paris, she moved here 11 years ago and has had a love affair with garbage ever since. She uses discarded planks of wood to make new kitchen cabinets, plastic tubing found in the dumpster to make uber-modern chairs and old cardboard boxes to make lampshades and bookshelves. She recycles everything from plastic bottles and soda cans to broken tiles and used textiles to make furniture, hardware, clothing and accessories.
"I started doing this because of the growing consciousness about the environment," says Cartier, who sells her clothes at New York's Rosebud store, "and it's cool to use things that were garbage to make new things. To take a plastic bag and make it into a coat is like magic. You need a lot of inspiration."
Her new project is the Tel Aviv dump, where the city is building an eco-park surrounding the mountain of trash. Cartier is interior designer of the visitor's center, which opened this month, where everything is made from recycled materials.
"I eat organic food and recycle at home, I use organic cleaning supplies - it's the way I live and the way I work," she says. "It's important because it's my life, but it's fun, too, because it's very different. There's always a surprise with the materials. I always find new things and new materials, and for me it's easier to build from existing pieces than to start from a blank page. It's kind of like a game."
YET IN THE bigger picture, these eco-friendly fashions are somewhat of an anomaly. Most established designers disregard the green phenomenon, because, as Cartier puts it, "nobody really cares about this issue here," and it is primarily the greenhorn designers who dare to brave the new frontier.
"Because awareness has grown in the last few years, it seems it's the newcomers who are getting into environmentally-friendly fashion here," says one public relations executive who works closely with top local designers. "With all the talk about global warming and caring about the environment, if I were a young designer starting out, I would also think how I could touch on this issue, whereas designers who are more established are less likely to initiate changes now. That doesn't mean they are against the environment, but it's just not on their agenda."
Broyde of Cotton points out that for designers who are already successful, exploring the unfamiliar terrain of eco-fashion can be a very thorny endeavor.
"Some just don't care," she admits, "but for those who do, they aren't getting involved in it because it's not easy." No organic materials are made here, she explains, so everything has to be imported. But the responsibility also lies with the consumer, she says.
"Just as designers should pay attention to the materials they use and to workers' wages, a conscious customer should think before they buy, do they need this, can they wear it for a long time, is it 'dry clean only,' which also isn't good for environment because of chemicals. Everybody can do something for the environment, we don't need to wait for the government."
The government, in fact, has absolutely nothing to do with the eco-effort in the fashion industry. A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Ministry was unaware of efforts by designers to be more "ecologically-correct," and says the ministry is not involved in the fashion industry. The ministry does work with factories regarding reducing pollution and having cleaner production, he adds, and says that while it doesn't promote organic farming over regular farming, it does promote farming that is less harmful to the environment.
This despite a Yediot Aharonot report last May that Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra reclassified crocodiles and ostriches as "nurtured wildlife," meaning they can be traded for various purposes, eaten, skinned and even hunted if encountered in the wild. These two species are among the most abused in the fashion industry, and thanks to the ruling, can now be legally used for commercial purposes of any kind.
Greenpeace's local branch is also not involved in the fashion industry's grassroots effort to go green, and neither is the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. SPNI, however, does have a monthly free market run in conjunction with Green Course, at which people bring their hand-me-downs and swap for new, old clothes. The organization is also putting out a "green map" for Jerusalem that highlights all the eco-friendly establishments - second-hand bookshops, a hemp clothing store, a vegetarian restaurant - throughout the city.
Though infamous for championing the legalization of marijuana, the Green Leaf Party is also contributing to the fight. Its incredibly popular slogans will now be printed on hemp and organic cotton T-shirts, with the current logo, a picture of a marijuana leaf inside a nursery (mishtala), a play on the Israel Police (mishtara) logo.
While the fact that designers are starting to use more 100% cotton is already an improvement over harmful materials like lycra and polyester, according to STEP, it is likely that the cotton you are wearing was grown using large amounts of strong synthetic pesticides and fertilizers because cotton isn't a food product, so the laws on the use of chemicals are not very strict. As a result, dangerous chemicals seep into the air, soil and water around the cotton fields, harming and killing farm workers and wildlife. Local designers complain that organic cotton is difficult to obtain and doesn't feel as soft as regular cotton, but each year, according to the organization, 3 million people around the world suffer the effects of pesticide poisoning and 20,000 die.
Hopefully, says Broyde, more in the fashion industry will get involved in the effort. "The better we treat the world," she quips, "the better it will be here for us on Earth."
Bikaleh's Doron notes that though the issue is making waves, eco-friendly fashion is still just a growing trend, and trends have a tendency to fade with time.
"It will always be a niche because it's more expensive, but I don't think it will go out of style," he says. "I think many more people realize today that the environment is changing. Everybody feels the effects of global warming. It's much harder to deny it today, and I think it will be an issue for many years to come. Yes, there will always be big business and commercialism fighting against the environmentalists, but I don't think ecology is a trend, it's an issue, so the environment can never go out of style."