WASHINGTON — Like many people working from home, Natalie Rico was accustomed to wearing lounge clothes for the last two years.
"As I was transitioning back to the office, I really wanted to be sustainable. Stylish, but I also wanted to be comfortable," Rico said.
It's what led her to Bitter Grace in D.C., a clothing store with a focus on sustainability.
"So I'm wearing this blazer with some silk pants and very comfortable shoes. There's like no plastic about them," Rico shared as she told WUSA 9 about her new sustainable digs.
Cute, But Environmentally Ugly
While Natalie has made a choice about more sustainable fashion, if you sift through some clothing racks you'll find that all garments aren't cut from the same cloth. It seems fashion is putting a wrinkle in the environment.
Let's start with using water. Your favorite pair of jeans on average takes about 10,000 liters of water to produce. According to Harvard, that's enough to water your lawn for nine hours straight or flush your toilet more than 1,000 times.
Each year global fashion soaks up 93 billion metric tons of clean water, according to Columbia Climate School.
Then there's pollution. Dyeing fabrics, which is known to use toxic chemicals, can pollute water. When clothes are laundered, micro plastics from fabric can end up in the soil, rivers, and oceans.
And finally, climate change. The fashion industry produces 1.2 million metric tons of CO2 each year, according to the McArthur Foundation. CO2 contributes to warming the planet.
So called "fast fashion" is also fueling the problem. These clothes are mass produced and sold cheaply, some of which ends up in landfills because the clothes don't last. That's something Bitter Grace owner, Anne Marie Johnson, doesn't want to see.
"I wanted to create a place that was great for the planet and sort of also interconnected us with people," Johnson said.
The store features a myriad of sustainability from a light fixture that was made from a tree branch that Johnson's husband found on the side of the road. Shelves made from wood and scrap sprinkler pipes. The store features clothes that are 100% silk and dyed using plant ingredients. Yoga mats there are machine washable and made from recycled bottle caps. And leather tennis shoes that are vegetable tanned and made from the milk of the rubber tree.
"I have this personal responsibility to contribute to a larger cause and to be able to share different perceptions around how people truly see clothing. That clothing is not disposable and is actually a very valuable tool," Johnson shared.
Her approach is something customers have responded to.
"The quality of items is really important," said Rachel Delaney, a Bitter Grace customer. "The ability to be able to re-wear it over years to come."
"I feel authentic, I feel beautiful," Bitter Grace customer Lauren Lee said.
The Future of Fashion Is Circular
There's another shift in consumer behavior that is saving money and the planet - consignment shopping.
"Consignment has always been green, before green was green," said Katrine Callison, owner of Secondi, a popular D.C. luxury consignment store. Callison has been helping people look stylish since the 1980s at Secondi.
A survey by Vestiaire Collective and Boston Consulting Group found secondhand clothing will make up 27% of closets by 2023. The luxury consignment retailer The Real Real reported 5 million new subscribers. Industry leaders say the future of fashion circular.
"I believe people are recycling. They are really feeling the pinch of the dollar and they're getting a little bit more savvy," Callison said.
Researchers say also driving this change is "conscious consumption", where shoppers buy items that have a good social, economic and environmental impact. In some cases, this is leading to owning fewer garments, but purchasing ones that last longer.
"They want quality. They don't want to go to fast fashion all the time," long-time Secondi sales representative Lexi Lauer said.
Some people are also renting clothing, which may save on water and energy, but also create emissions from the constant shipping of the item as it is used again.
It Still May Not Be Enough
While the clothing industry is making some strides, Kenneth Pucker, the former chief operating officer of Timberland, writes that "sustainable fashion" is a myth.
In the Harvard Business Review, Pucker wrote:
"Less unsustainable is not sustainable," he wrote. Pucker said when it comes to businesses operating sustainably, it's complicated. It's a complicated balancing act between profits and being sustainable.
"Pressure for unrelenting growth summed with consumer demand for cheap, fast fashion have been a major contributors. So too are the related facts that real prices for footwear and apparel have halved since 1990 with most new items made from non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics," he wrote.
Pucker said that some companies tout sustainability, but lobby against regulations that would require them to do so. Pucker also believes that the environmental good of recycling, renting and consignment maybe helpful, but the benefits may be overblown.
"Asking consumers to match their intention with action and to purchase sustainable, more expensive fashion is not working. Were consumers really willing to spend more, sifting through claims, labels and complexity is too much to ask. At the same time, it is also “greenwishing” (a term coined by ex-investor Duncan Austin) to hope that investors, with their short time horizons and index-based performance goals, will pressure companies to respect planetary boundaries," Pucker wrote.
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