Friday, February 6, 2009

Save the Planet With Just Your Shirt

There’s no doubt that fashion is constantly evolving, but one recent trend might not fade away as fast as shoulder pads or perms: eco-chic.

Being environmentally friendly has far transcended switching lights to compact fluorescent bulbs and recycling soda cans. These days, being eco-conscious is all about style. One man working to make this possible is Jeff Fulmer, who started the Tennessee-based T-shirt company Bamboo U about a year ago.

The clothing line, targeted toward college women, makes T-shirts entirely from bamboo and organic cotton.

“I was looking to do something new,” said Fulmer. “I’d been in the T-shirt business before, but wanted to do something more positive that would incorporate the green movement. Organic cotton is the first thing people usually think of, and hemp came up in my research, too. But I came across bamboo and was intrigued. It has a lot of advantages over organic cotton, so I went with it.”

Fulmer explained that bamboo doesn’t use pesticides to grow, meaning less harmful chemicals released into our environment. The plant is also one of the fastest growing on earth, making it highly sustainable. The fibers are biodegradable and are naturally much silkier that regular cotton.

In explaining the goals of Bamboo U, Fulmer employs the same eco terms he uses for his clothes.

“We want to be a self-sustaining, viable company and let the business grow organically, so to speak. But we also want to make people more conscious of their buying habits — more environmentally aware. Clothing isn’t usually the first thing people think of when they think eco-friendly, so we want to educate them,” he said.

Bamboo U targets college students because “they’re more open to new things. That is the time to think outside the box.”

Fulmer said, “They’re more environmentally aware since they have to be — they’re going to be on this planet longer than me. It’s tougher to convince people to try new things as they get older. Your curiosity switches off.”

But can frugal students afford the eco-trend? Fulmer admits this is a challenge. While his T-shirts are priced at $30, less than most designer tees, “If someone just wants a cheap T-shirt, it’s not going to happen.”

Fulmer explained that the bamboo fabric and water-based ink he uses are simultaneously better for the environment and worse for the wallet.

“They are more expensive, which is a challenge in these tough economic times, and students have less disposable income. But when people try it, they like it,” he said. “It sounds cliche, but you guys are the future. You’ll shape how people view the environment. It’ll have to be up to y’all to see how people embrace it.”

Free the Planet president Sony Rane, a junior environmental studies and business major, is precisely the kind of student leader Fulmer depends on. The club is the only environmental advocacy group on campus and works to educate students about issues like global warming and sustainability with Rane at its helm.

“My personal ideology is reuse, so I try to buy everything second-hand. I’d say about 80 percent of my wardrobe is second-hand,” she said.

When she does spring for new clothes, Rane tries to buy organic and fair trade merchandise, but is still grounded by a college budget.

“A lot of the clothes are really expensive, so I think it makes more sense to buy what’s already out there. I go to the Goodwill in South Side a lot — it’s huge,” she said.

Consistent with her reuse mentality is Free the Planet’s annual Swap-o-palooza. The clothing-exchange fair took place earlier in January and allowed students to trade and donate clothing, accessories and shoes. Rane said the group hopes to sponsor another swap toward the end of the year, when people are looking to refresh their closets before moving home for the summer.

For those in Pittsburgh who want to hop on the environmentally conscious bandwagon with brand new clothes, there are shops like Equita, located in Lawrenceville.

The store was opened by sisters Amanda and Sara Parks and Amanda’s husband Michael Solano. Director of marketing and communications, Sara Parks explained that the group was inspired by each of their own experiences spent abroad and working with community development.

“We all wanted products that were stylish and designed well, but were made in a socially and environmentally responsible manner,” said Parks.

“We really wanted to create a forum for the most well designed ethical products and show that there were more options than just organic gifts,” she said. “Here people can see the gamut of available products that don’t sacrifice style or ethics — you can have both.”

Parks sees eco fashion “only becoming the norm. The field is gaining momentum quickly. Young adults and even children are knowledgeable about environmental and social issues. It’s really what fuels our business.”

Equita is filled with organic clothes that are a far cry from the hemp sacks one would expect when thinking of eco-fashion. Chic dresses and jeans from brands like Loyale and FIN fill the shelves. While the clothes are certainly elegant, they’re also a little more costly than what most college students are used to.

Perhaps in response to the high-end organic lines, chain stores are doing their part to incorporate greener tendencies. For example, it’s near-impossible to experience a trip to Target without being confronted with stands of tote bags bragging that they’re the eco alternative to regular plastic shopping bags. However, the discount super store is making strides to make its environmental efforts a little more fashion forward.

Clothing designer Rogan Gregory (who created a collection for Target last Spring) is slated to return this April with a collection based on his eco-friendly line, Loomstate, which launched in 2004. The designs will be spun in 100 percent certified organic cotton.

Another eco store in Pittsburgh is The E House. The Carson Street store was opened 14 years ago by David Molber. E House manager and buyer Tanya Kavalkovich said the store “filled a niche. There was nothing else really like it in Pittsburgh. We sell a little bit of everything — organic cotton, recycled and sustainable gifts, all natural bath products, energy efficient light bulbs.”

The target demographic for the company is growing, said Kavalkovich, as more people realize what’s available. Many of these customers are college students.

“People often assume that eco-friendly items are more expensive, but that’s not always the case. We have bamboo T-shirts that are only $16 and organic cotton lounge pants for $15. That’s a good price anywhere you go, and these are also fair trade. That’s a big difference,” she said.

“Hopefully it won’t just be a passing trend. It’ll have to stay around as people realize resources aren’t infinite.”

*Tshirt image by Bamboo U