Norway's take on eco-ethical fashion - it's nice

The whole fashion community has been green-washing itself lately, from multi-brands to the local shopping mall. In Norway the main challenge has been putting good intentions into actual practice. But with a Nordic platform, things are moving forward.

 Norway has an unfair advantage; people think we’re eco-conscious and innately fair-trade to the bone. Why? Probably because we like to meddle internationally, contribute to saving the rainforest, hand out the Nobel Peace Prize and have such vast natural resources we hardly know how to deplete them. But, the truth is, we have exported much of our environmental foot-print. We have become a nation that exports its resources and has virtually no production “in-house”. Whether its fish or wool, converting the raw-materials into consumer goods is so much cheaper in other continents, we prefer to import someone else’s handiwork.

 

Leila Hafzi produces her hand-painted silk couture in Nepal, and has used nettle as raw material.
© Emile Ashley

We’ve also become a nation who embraces cheap chic and McFashion; along with the rest of the world we discard textiles to the tune of 17 tonnes per day being collected by the Salvation Army just in the Oslo region. And that only represents a percentage of what is actually discarded. But our bad conscience is about to find an outcome in a renewed interest in quality, wool and new takes on eco-consciousness fibres. Green may be the new black, along with local sourcing, but thanks to a NICE perspective, designers are getting help to rethink the whole design paradigm.

Nepal & Nettle
Let’s go back about a decade. This is when emerging Norwegian-Iranian designer Leila Hafzi started showing her collections with recycled saris as raw-material and touting more eco-conscious and ethical design, to a head-shaking public who just didn’t get what she was talking about. Today she has red carpet fans, including the Hollywood-set and Livia Firth, Colin Firth’s eco-conscious wife. Using nettle and getting women jobs in Nepal has been two of her ground-breaking tactical moves. Making lighter clothes to lessen the carbon impact of transport along with winding down to collections with a whole year’s longevity (rather than fast fashion’s “new items every week-syndrome”) are also design-moves that are music in the ears of those who have become the voices of eco-fashion.

Solveig Elton Jacobsen, who designs Elton & Jacobsen with her sister, used crab-shell-based textiles in her collection for the NICE-competition.
© Press photo

Winding fast forward into the new millennium designer-duo Arne & Carlos, favourites of Rei Kawakubo, Li Edelkoort and Norway’s Crown Princess, were the first in Norway to source recycled organic cotton for their women’s collection, and got international press for their eco-fashion-forward efforts. They have since moved on to alpaca and tradition-inspired knit-collections, innately eco-conscious since wool and alpaca in a life-cycle perspective represents what is really NICE. The fact that both Comme des Garçons and Urban Outfitters have collaborated with Arne & Carlos gives them enormous fashion credibility, along with the fact that they live and work in a defunct train station building, for the most part decorated and furnished with cast-offs and hand-downs.

But two shining examples do not a revolution make, especially not a fashionable one. Let us again travel back in time – this time three years. To make a long story short, Oslo Fashion Week became an arena for challenging the fledging designers when they were invited to meet representatives from among others Clean Clothes Campaign, the Ethical Trade Initiative and Eco Label. The designers thought they had enough problems in establishing themselves internationally and suddenly they had an additional challenge they were asked to embrace: transparency, but with a twist. Norwegian designers were to be nICE, or rather partake in a new project called Norwegian Initiative Clean & Ethical Fashion.

nICE Goes NICE
Fast-forward again, this time to 2009. nICE has become NICE and a Nordic project run by the Nordic Fashion Association, where Oslo Fashion Week is one of the founding members. Fashion Summit has been held in Copenhagen alongside COP15, showcasing among other things 20 Nordic “new gen” designers showing off just how sexy sustainable fashion can be, using everything from recycled materials and organic wool to crab-shell, sea-grass and milk-based textiles. But along with the chance Ann Kristin Dahle, Fam Irvoll, Elton & Jacobsen and Kristoffer Kongshaug (to mention the four chosen Norwegian designers) had to play around with eco-friendly textiles, the whole industry had the chance to hear inspiring talks from international experts.

At the same event, Norway’s contribution to NICE was launched with HRH Crown Princess Mary in the audience: www.nicefashion.org – a tool for designers and apparel companies to design and source eco-friendly and ethical, and for consumers to find relevant information. The crux of the problem being that we need to buy less and better quality; relearn how to repair and reduce laundering. Yes, conventional cotton is a baddy, but one of the ground rules in the new thinking for eco-fashion is diversifying raw materials, not necessarily going organic. Milk fibre, wool, hemp, nettle, lyocell, mechanically treated bamboo, recycled polyester – mention something that is not cotton, and you’re on the right track.

Nina Skarra’s couture dresses have tickled the interest of Livia Firth, Colin Firth’s wife.
© JLukas Renlund

Not-so-NICE
So what tracks are Norwegian designers following, besides those that lead to a run-down train station? Being so small and flexible, many designers have a unique starting-point. And many have taken action, acknowledging that this is a process, and processes do take time. One of the first to tout their eco- and ethical profile, was FIN Fashion, who quickly made a splash internationally. But since transparency is trendy, suffice it is to mention that they have not paid their factories or suppliers after declaring bankruptcy.

Others have fallen in to the same trap: Kari Traa, sports-wear designer and ex-sports star, claimed her milk fibre underwear was organic. Eco-friendly, yes, but not organic. It becomes even more complicated when Green Square, who has its flagship store in fashionable Aker Brygge in Oslo, launched their collection with NiPON®, and now also an underwear collection. The textile is mechanically treated organic bamboo, but bamboo is often advertised as an eco-friendly textile with natural antibacterial properties, but for the most part it is actually viscose (which is chemically treated), and in the US and Canada illegal to call anything but viscose. Making the consumer understand the difference is of course a challenge. Those small steps seem hard to add up.

Wonderful Wool
Anouk, another small designer, has been using lyocell (a third generation viscose which is produced very eco-friendly and from sustainable wood-pulp for the most part), organic cotton and satin twill based on organic cotton in her simple and beautiful tops. Adele McDonald, the designer, is also looking in to sourcing wool-fabrics locally produced, which is part of one of the projects NICE now is involved in: Valuing Norwegian Wool. iiS of Norway, the wonderful and quirky knit-designs from Siv Elise Seland, has committed herself to going even further: Sourcing organic wool in Norway.

Two other designers, Fam Irvoll and Cecilie Melli, are also looking at locally sourced and eco-friendly wool. Even though Made-By, the Dutch textile-tracing company, recently dumped wool in last place in their sustainable index (only tracked up to spinning), Norwegian wool is widely known as eco-friendly (we don’t dabble in mulesing or chemically treat our sheep). But in Northern Norway Nordavind wants to change the face of Norway’s industrial “let’s kick back and die”-tract. They are cooperating with Rauma, one of the last bastions of Norwegian wool production. And this is where Cecilie Melli and Fam Irvoll are now working on proto-types which may end up being truly sustainable fashion. The fact that they want to use wind power as their energy source, greens their life cycle imprint. Which is, of course, what it all is about: Rethinking the Box.

Reuse & Recycle
Reduce, reuse and recycle – the three r’s that keep popping up whenever eco-consciousness are brought up have a mission. Norwegian designer Veronica Glitsch has implemented this in to her Rethink collection, reusing textiles in combination with organic cotton. Fretex Redesign (an off-spring of the Norwegian Salvation Army) has their own redesign division with among others Liberty in London as a prestige outlet for their wonderful tops, skirts, pillows and warm-water bottle-covers.

But it is one of the big truths of eco-design that prolonging the use of a fibre or a piece of clothing is actually the most eco-conscious thing you can do. The solution (officially endorsed by the Norwegian Government) of burning fibres for energy gives 4,5 kWh. Saving the textiles and giving them new life saves up to 90 kWh (for polyester, for cotton the sum says 65 kWh). Again: Do the math, which is why a second project under SIFO – the National Institute for Consumer Research – alongside the wool project, is underway: Textile Waste as a Resource.

In Norway the reality is that the bulk of clothing sold and bought is sports-related, not fashion. But Norrøna, a family-owned sports brand paves the way in the eco-landscape. Organic cotton and recycled polyester are two of their staple textiles, but the fact that they generally repair whatever they’ve sold free of charge if it’s a quality-issue, is so the new black and amazing. Stormberg is another company that has implemented what fast fashion companies are dreading – take-back and return-towards-new-purchase.

But then the last and actually most important aspect of sustainability is about longevity. Producing thing that last and where the costumer almost signs a contract to keep on the item, even in tandem with the fashion label. Designer Nina Skarra has a plan to be part of this universe, with her concept of “instant vintage”: Designing clothes that will last … and last and last. Evidently Livia Frith has caught on, and the red carpet is about to turn green, greener by the minute actually.


Arne & Carlos live in a defunct train station building in Valdres, and were the first to use recycled organic cotton in a fashion collection in Norway.
© Bent René Synnevåg


 


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