Food, Fashion and The Future
Alden Wicker for Zady
Last Wednesday we teamed up with Whole Foods New York at their Bowery Street location for an evening of discussion titled, “Food, Fashion and the Future: Where Will Conscious Business Take Us Next?”
As attendees, including journalists and New York City designers, nibbled on delicious, organic hor d’oeuvres and sipped organic Italian sodas, experts from the sustainable fashion and food worlds discussed the current state of conscious consumerism, and what they see coming in the next few years and decades.
For fashion, Bee Shaffer of The New York Times moderated a panel with our own Maxine Bédat of Zady, Summerly Horning of Tau Investment Management, and Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
In general, there was the sense that consumers are ready for a more sustainable fashion model. “We live in an era of conscious consumerism. Consumers don’t want to feel that if they shop or shop affordably, what’s at stake is somebody’s life. That’s not acceptable in 2014,” Cline stated.
Bédat pointed out that consumers started clamoring for organic food because they could see that they were ingesting pesticides and chemicals. But clothing is just as important. “The clothing we wear on out bodies has dyes and chemicals as well. So it can affect us just like food that we ingest,” she said.
Of course, the anniversary of the Rana Plaza Collapse in Bangladesh is approaching at the end of the month. “Retailers split into two camps,” Cline explained of the aftermath. “Some European retailers signed a legally binding accord on safety. The American companies signed a nonbinding, non-legal agreement. When consumers see that, it’s so confusing. They want to know, ‘Is it ok for me to buy clothes from Bangladesh?’”
Things have slowly been getting better, but just baby steps have been taken. “Sure, they put in a fire door and fire extinguisher, so they checked those boxes, but are they using the extinguisher to prop open the door?” Horning said of factory improvements. “We still have a ways to go … What has been missing is the capital to invest in these turnarounds,” she said, which is where Tau Investment Management hopes to come in.
Panelists even brought up normcore, that fashion trend of wearing completely untrendy, Seinfeld-type clothing. “At first we were excited to have immediate access to these trends we see on the runway,” Bédat said. “Normcore seems to be this general reflection that we’re tired of it.”
Cline agreed. “It’s this fast fashion fatigue, going out and buying a trend and being tired of it three weeks later,” she said. “I hear people all the time who complain about quality. If they could pay a little more for something that wouldn’t stretch out or fade after a couple years, they would.”
Still, it’s hard to know what you’re getting as a consumer. “Some fast fashion brands have more progressive sustainable initiatives than some luxury brands. So you have no idea what you’re buying,” Horning said. And Bédat described the experience of visiting a huge fashion trade show, and asking brands, “Where does your product come from?” Most brands had no idea. Only one in a hundred did. “If you ever want to not buy anything ever again, go to a fashion trade show,” she quipped.
The hot topic of price was also discussed—making ethical clothing almost always costs more. “We think about things in terms of cost-per-wear,” Bédat said. When looking for brands to feature on Zady, Bédat and Darabi ask themselves, “’Do we want to wear this for the next ten years?’ If the answer is yes, we bring that product on.”
“We’re definitely going to see in the next ten years the price of ethically made clothing come down,” Cline said. “I do think, though, there’s going to have to be shift in the consumers’ mindset. The pendulum is going to have to swing the other way. We’ve got to have a consumer who is willing to pay $45 to $200 for clothes.”
“The other thing about slow fashion is that it’s going to have to compete on style and quality,” Cline pointed out. She often gets frustrated herself with shopping. “It reminds me of being vegan in the 90s, trying to find food,” she said.
After a quick break for more organic snacks, attendees reconvened for the panel on food. Moderated by Danielle Sandars of Whole Foods, it included Tanya Steel of Epicurious, Bart Potenza, found of the organic NYC restaurants Candle Café and Candle 79, and Tim McCollum, founder of the fair trade chocolate company Madécasse.
The tenor of this panel was more celebratory, as the panelists discussed how far the movement has come. “I remember when the USQ farmer’s market opened. It was a shocking thing you could go to the farmer’s market in this druggy place. I would come out of the subway at 8 am and be offered a joint!” Steel told the laughing audience.
“In the 80s, conscious consumerism was ‘I don’t want my dollar to support a bad cause.’ Now it’s one step better, it’s ‘I want my dollar to do something good,’” McCollum said.
Panelists also got into a debate about the availability of fresh, healthy, organic food to lower income people. “I would like to think if you value organic food, you can get it,” Potenza said, pointing out that the French spend a high proportion of their income on food. But Steel wasn’t so sure, saying that a single mother sometimes only has a few dollars to spend on food, and she’s likely to choose a Happy Meal.
But McCollum pointed out, just like with fashion, that a product shouldn’t just be ethical. It should be attractive and–in the case of food–delicious. “If you’re a conscientious consumer, you don’t want a product that does good,” he said. “You want a better product that does good.”