The dream of eco-friendly, fashion is not wearing well. While high-profile new eco-clothing lines from the designer Katharine Hamnett and Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde may give the appearance that it is boom time for environmentally friendly fashion, stagnant sales figures are leading analysts to question whether there really is a market for sustainable style.
Hamnett will launch her long-awaited organic jeans line – seven years in development – at Paris fashion week in October, while Hynde is collaborating with her Welsh producer-boyfriend J P Jones to create a rock-inspired eco-fashion line of handbags, skinny jeans and cowboy boots.
The ventures are brave. Earlier this month, Edun – the organic, fair-trade label launched by Ali Hewson, the wife of U2 frontman Bono – posted yearly losses of a whopping £5.8m. While global sales of organic cotton are rising, a recent report from the Soil Association estimated that sales of organic textiles in the UK flatlined in 2009, remaining at 2008 levels of £100m – a tiny fraction of the country's £30bn clothing and textile industry. Experts have cited the recession, a lack of fashion-led eco-designs and even growing consumer indifference as possible reasons for this lack of growth.
"Many companies slowed their programmes in 2008 and 2009 because of the economic climate and the lack of finance," said Simon Ferrigno, an organic cotton consultant. Cotton makes up about 90 per cent of the UK's organic textile market. "There remain problems with consumer awareness and education. Celebrities in this sense are a big help in bringing consumers on board."
The power of celebrity endorsement was demonstrated with the much-trumpeted launch of Emma Watson's new collection for the Fair Trade, environmentally friendly brand People Tree. While the firm claims the Harry Potter actress has given sales a lift, it was unable to back this up with figures.
Industry watchers believe that environmentally friendly fashion needs to be more design-led if it is to compete. "As much as I admire eco-shops, it has got to be in mainstream fashion shops," said Hamnett. Her 30-piece denim collection is going to be sold in major upmarket retailers, and will cost between £100 and £150.
"The eco look for me is the kiss of death; it has got to be just the same as other clothes," she continued. "A lot of people who weren't from a fashion background went into organic clothing, and fashion is a highly competitive industry. The fact that it is ethical or environmentally friendly isn't enough."
Other brands have shrugged off disappointing sales growth, saying they are motivated not by demand from their customers but by a belief in the long-term advantages of environmentally friendly practices.
"This is not just consumer focused; it is also producer-led," said Mark Sumner, sustainable raw materials specialist for Marks & Spencer. "We think in the short term that many of our customers don't know where fabrics come from, but that our customers are going to become more interested in the eco-message."
The company aims to get 25 per cent of its materials from sustainable sources – which include both Fair Trade and organics – by 2015.
The autumn will see environmentally friendly fashion thrust further into the spotlight with London fashion week event Estethica. The event, which promotes cutting-edge sustainable designers and is funded by the British Fashion Council, has expanded over its nine seasons from showcasing 13 designers to 37.
While sales of organic clothing in the UK may have slowed, the latest Organic Exchange market report highlighted that the worldwide market for organic cotton grew 35 per cent from 2008 to 2009, from $3.2bn to $4.3bn.
However, reports by Ecotextile magazine found that over-optimistic growth forecasts have resulted in an oversupply of organic cotton, pushing the price down by 15 per cent, which has had a negative effect on farmers. It also points to the need for environmental costs to be included in market prices, arguing for a guideline base price for organic materials.