Luxury At A Dark Cost: The Importance Of Sustainable Fashion

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Palm Beachers don’t just buy clothes; they collect fashion like art. But this form of self-expression comes with a darker side. From supporting sweatshops to contributing to environmental contamination, the fashion industry is riddled with flaws.

Building a more sustainable closet can feel daunting, so we’ve explored the green companies and shopping alternatives that are helping reverse harmful impacts. With this knowledge, we can start making more informed decisions about the brands and practices we support.

When we dine at farm-to-table restaurants, we expect the eggs on our plate were collected from ethically raised chickens, we assume the chef plucked the pesticide-free garnishes from the garden out back and we believe the orange juice in our glass came from a local farm, squeezed fresh that morning.

Today, this matters. As informed consumers, we care about our health and ecological footprint, and we demand transparency and integrity from the restaurants where we dine.

But this isn’t about what we put in our bodies. Instead, it’s about what we put on our bodies—and why we aren’t holding our clothes to the same standards as our food.

Questions we should be asking about the blouses, slacks and pumps we slide into daily include: Were the tailors paid fairly and treated ethically? Were the fabrics made using harmful chemicals and processes? Are the materials recyclable?

Seventy-three percent of clothing ends up in landfills, the fashion industry uses 1.5 trillion gallons of water each year to create that clothing and garment manufacturing produces 20 percent of industrial water pollution. This research comes from Lenzing, a textile company that produces TENCEL Lyocell, an environmentally sustainable fabric derived from wood. Some of the designers who use Lenzing’s products include Mara Hoffman, Ted Baker London and Reformation.

Tricia Carey, director of global business development in apparel at Lenzing, says only during the past five years has she noticed a shown interest in sustainable fashion, which she defines as “long-lasting, quality garments made from materials having the least amount of impact on the environment with available technology.”

Tricia Carey, director of global business development in apparel at Lenzing

Carey adds that buyers need to bear some of this responsibility, too.

“Consumers need to look at the content label and ask questions. Our apparel options are evolving and access to information is at our fingertips. Transparency is the new norm.”

Still, learning about the materials in our jeans isn’t as easy as looking at food labels for ingredients. Take, for example, conventional cotton, which requires 5,283 gallons of water to produce just more than 2 pounds, and often requires the use of toxic synthetic chemicals including silicone waxes, petroleum scours, softeners, heavy metals, flame retardants, ammonia and formaldehyde.

This is why Delray Beach–based designer Amanda Perna advocates supporting local brands that are capable of having more intimate relationships with their shoppers in order to share details about their processes. “The good thing about being small is we have the ability to do more sustainable things and make changes quicker than some of the bigger brands because there aren’t as many layers to peel back to get things done,” she says.

Amanda Perna began her clothing line six years ago in Delray Beach. Photo by Angie Meyers

Six years ago when she launched The House of Perna, the entrepreneur was admittedly ahead of the curve. Perna, who appeared on two seasons of “Project Runway,” created her eco-conscious business as somewhat of a happy accident—by doing small-batch product runs using fabrics larger companies had tossed out.

“In creating the brand, I didn’t want it to be something where I had millions of units sitting in a warehouse or trying to deal with going and manufacturing everything overseas,” she says. “I wanted everything to be made locally; I wanted it to be supporting our local business.”

From her studio inside the Arts Warehouse in downtown Delray Beach, Perna continues to make conscious efforts to minimize her footprint, including crafting her handbags using fallen palm leaves that would have been discarded otherwise. “We always laugh that, yeah, you could put your bag in a compost because it’s leather and palm trees,” she says.

Perna launched a second line last year called Neon Bohemian, which includes handbags Moroccan artisans have stitched and embellished using rugs and wedding blankets. No two bags are exactly the same, and each is numbered and given a “rock star” name.

“We’ve had pushback from people saying, ‘Oh your bags are too expensive, I can get this cheaper somewhere else,’” she says. “All of our artisans are paid fairly; we’re really trying to keep it as affordable as possible, but with everyone being treated fairly in the process.”

Perna admits staying ethical and competitive can be a challenge, especially because consumers of fast fashion (cheap and trendy attire) have forgotten that clothing and accessories have value. To help remedy this mindset, Perna designs her bags to be “seasonless.”

“If there’s something that you love and it’s from one collection, you don’t feel like you have something that’s old and outdated,” she says. “So it kind of eliminates the need for people to replace things as quickly.”

Still, Perna can relate to the consumers who are yearning for fresh pieces.

“When you take a lot of pictures, or for me, I have a ton of events to go to all the time, you kind of can’t wear the same thing every day,” she admits. “But I think it’s about creating a collection of clothing that you love, and that you’re proud of, and that you’re happy to mix and match. We have some customers who will buy a capsule of our things, so they’ll buy five or six pieces they can interchange with each other.”

Perna is also a collector of consignment pieces, noting that the way garments used to be made still has an advantage.

“I think there’s something so fabulous about the story behind every piece,” she says. “I think it’s fascinating, and I think there’s something to be said about the way things were constructed in the past—before all of this fast fashion. The finishings on some of these pieces you just don’t find anymore.”

According to online thrift store ThredUp, the secondhand fashion market will reach $51 billion by 2023—and Palm Beach is a destination for finding pieces with character and value.

Classic Collections consignment has called Palm Beach home for more than a decade.

Sally Kimball, CEO and president at Classic Collections of Palm Beach Inc., compares the way she curates her inventory to how museums display artistic masterpieces.

“There is a conscious effort on Classic Collections’ part to recycle and preserve fashion designs by some of the most iconic and revered designers throughout history,” she says. “To us, preserving and protecting these fashion and jewelry pieces is akin to protecting, showing and selling the magnificent, detailed and perfect merchandise to the public.”

Kimball has been operating her consignment store on Palm Beach island for more than a decade. Some memorable pieces she’s sold include a $95,000, pristine, never-worn, vintage burgundy Hermès Kelly crocodile handbag and a $600,000, 15.97-carat, platinum-set, emerald-cut diamond ring.

Amanda Perna’s clothing designs are done in small-batch production. Photo by Angie Meyers

Once, she had enough Louis Vuitton trunks, luggage, handbags and accessories piled in the middle of the boutique that they stacked all the way up to the chandelier.

“Because of the quality and level of our designers, many of the items are recycled several times, giving enjoyment and joy to several customers over the years,” she says.

Long-lasting apparel continues to have the least environmental impact. So, before swiping your card on next season’s collections, consider how you might try styling that blouse hanging in the back of your closet in a fresh, new way.

A fashion sketch by The House of Perna

Or, stop into consignment shops like Kimball’s or scroll through secondhand treasures on sites like The Real Real and ThredUp. Platforms such as Rent the Runway and Le Tote also make it easy to borrow attire for one-off wear. After all, as Perna reminds us, most environmental efforts start with the support of coastal dwellers.

“In Palm Beach, with the fragile ecosystem that we have, the ocean and all of the plastics that we’re seeing wash up on our shores, I think it is really important for all of us to think about what we’re consuming, what we’re using and how it can be repurposed,” Perna explains. “Just because you’re being eco-friendly doesn’t mean you have to give up everything; just start making small choices. All of the little choices you make add up to be one big footprint.”

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