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Sustainable fashion proves popular in pandemic

Slower pace of life meant people were keen to buy clothes that would last a long time, not just a good time

White & Green

White & Green

 

Those of us still wearing our pyjamas will not be surprised to hear that 2020 wasn’t the best year for fast fashion. According to the UN Environment Programme, the fashion industry is responsible for more carbon emissions than all international flight and maritime shipping combined. But that was before the coronavirus swooped in and transformed our disposable shopping habits, with the demand for clothing that is both ethical and sustainable soaring almost overnight. The slower pace of life meant that people were keen to buy clothes that would last a long time, and not just a good time.

And those of us forced to shop online but still eager to keep it local, the good news is that there are a number of contemporary Irish fashion brands that tick both those boxes. Not only are they making a name for themselves for their high design and quality, but also earning deserved kudos for insisting on ethical and sustainable practices in the production of their clothes.

According to Bébhínn McGrath, it is possible to be both green and fashionable. She launched her eponymous label of handmade clothing and accessories four years ago and is the first to admit that even then ethical or sustainable clothing wasn’t exactly viewed as trendy.

The higher price point for clothing that promises longevity has been something that people have gradually come around to

“When I launched first, it was all bamboo and hemp clothing, but now it’s so different. I use sustainably made linen and merino wool so it’s traditional fabrics but with a modern spin,” she explains.

The higher price point for clothing that promises longevity – McGrath offers a lifetime guarantee on her knitwear and will mend an item on request – has been something that people have gradually come around to, she adds.

“At first people didn’t really get it, they thought it was too expensive and it was cheaper to buy something from the high street but in the past year or two there has a been a huge spike in people seeking a more sustainable option and willing to buy something that is made to last.”

Beibhinn McGrath
Beibhinn McGrath

Waterford-based McGrath deals directly with a local mill so that she only buys exactly how much fabric she needs and everything is made-to-order for the individual customer, instead of simply offering a wide size range. This significantly reduces waste, but she also says that her customers love buying something that’s unique. “They are investing in something they love that’s made just for them and that they will have for a long time.”

Operating with a similar ethos is White & Green, a luxury organic bed linen company, founded by Rebecca Winckworth along with her mum Sari and sister Danielle. “As a family growing up in the countryside it was always natural for us to be quite sustainable in terms of our consumption – we would try to buy organically and locally,” Winckworth explains.

Their goal was to create a bedding range that was not only comfortable and high-quality, but also ethical in its production

The idea for the business came about when Sari, an interior designer, was attempting to source ethical bed linen for her interior design customers with no success. “It simply wasn’t available in Ireland. No one seemed to know what organic cotton was or why that would be a big deal or why it should be available,” says Winckworth, who has a master’s degree in development studies and is passionate about sustainable consumption and ethical production.

Their goal was to create a bedding range that was not only comfortable and high-quality, but also ethical in its production. “Textiles is one of the world’s most polluting industries, and especially cotton as it uses a huge amount of water and pesticides and chemical fertilisers. We only use organic long-staple cotton, which creates softer, longer lasting sheets and uses 81 per cent less water than conventional cotton. Even the dyes that we use are organic-certified, and we are also moving away from plastic packaging as we are just about to start using biodegradable paper-based mailer bags.” Indeed, White & Green is a more than apt name – they also offer to plant a tree for every product purchased.

Following requests from a large number of regular customers, White & Green brought out a range of cotton face masks last year. “They are really soft and breathable, and they don’t irritate people’s faces. They come in a set of five so people can wear a different one Monday to Friday, and they have been really popular,” Winckworth says.

White & Green linens
White & Green linens

She agrees with McGrath that people are now willing to pay that bit more for quality and longevity, as they become increasingly cognisant of the high price of fast fashion.

“In 2013, when the factory in Bangladesh collapsed that was associated with Penneys/Primark, that kind of woke people up that the clothes that we wear or the sheets we put on our beds, they are having a devastating impact on the lives of people on the other side of the world.”

The pandemic has instigated big changes in consumer behaviour, and Winckworth says that Irish companies such as her own have benefited from this, as people are less keen to support “the big boys”.

“There has been a huge move towards buying Irish and supporting local businesses. And now with Brexit we are seeing tariffs on goods from the UK, so it also makes even more economic sense to buy local.”

McGrath agrees. “We were very worried when the pandemic kicked off, but we have had a really good year. We thought we would miss the international tourists, but the staycationers during the summer were amazing and online has really kept us going while the shop is closed.”