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Eric Wilson
Apr 15, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one easy read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!

Tuesday evening, at Cafe Clover in New York City, the actress Olivia Wilde and Barbara Burchfield, partners in an online marketplace for ethically sourced products called Conscious Commerce, raised a glass to H&M for its latest eco-friendly collection launching in stores this week. Dakota Fanning, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Rosario Dawson all wore items from the collection, made of organic cotton and mulberry silk. Some pieces feature sequins made of recycled polyester.

At roughly the same moment in Shanghai (where it was Wednesday morning), the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report on the first results of its Clean by Design initiative, which encourages changes in textile production to reduce pollution, while also saving money.

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Four prominent retailers, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss, and Target, have enthusiastically participated in the NRDC program, which promotes what the nonprofit agency describes as simple efficiency methods to reduce water and electricity consumption throughout the process of making clothes. Its report on the Clean by Design program noted that the participating Chinese textile mills, which make clothing for many of those stores, saved $14.7 million annually through its recommendations. These include steps like reusing cooling water, improving insulation on factory equipment, and not letting sewing machines sit idle while turned on.

Happening on opposite ends of the world, both events represented a positive development for people who care about how their clothes are made, which in this day and age, should be just about everyone. It is always critical to remain skeptical about the claims of environmental friendliness by retailers, especially for high-volume producers and particularly those whose business model is dependent on the aggressive consumption of clothing. And these, in terms of numbers, really represent nothing more than drops in the bucket of the bigger picture.

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But they are important drops. It’s hard to fathom that savings of $14.7 million among 33 mills would really add up to much in terms of profitability for retailers that operate on the level of billions. But more impressive are the potential benefits to the environment. Among those mills, according to NRDC, water usage was reduced by 36 percent, energy by 22 percent, and chemicals by 400 tons. As the Clean by Design program expands in scope and ambition, so could the rewards. While these changes so far have targeted only the low-hanging fruit of the problems, it’s at least something tangible.

H&M, which has made sustainability a key focus in its business practices (as will as in its communications and annual reports), understandably also faces questions about how it can do so while maintaining its rapid growth with more stores opening and more clothes sold around the world. So do all other retailers for that matter.

To some, H&M’s Conscious Exclusive Collection, may look more like window dressing, but the designers there believe what they are creating will eventually become a better blueprint for manufacturing across the company’s many divisions. It was this point that motivated Wilde to appear in the collection campaign.

"H&M doesn’t have to do what they’re doing," she said. "They’re doing just fine without investing heavily in sustainability. But they're making it the ethos of their company, and I'm incredibly inspired by that."

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