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The new north: why Scandinavia is leading the world in eco-design

Ruth Styles

9th August, 2011

The Nordic flair for design has taken eco-fashion to new heights and is setting an example for the rest of the world to follow, says Ruth Styles

Stockholm and Copenhagen Fashion Weeks might not rank as highly as London, Paris or Milan on the international circuit, but they’re second-to-none in terms of eco design. From Camilla Norrback to FIN Oslo, Noir and Nudie, the four Scandinavian capitals are home to a wealth of green design talent disproportionate to their size. Not only do these designers’ pieces display the famous Scandinavian flair for design, they are also make use of organic or sustainable fabrics or do wonderful things with vintage material and offcuts. And it isn’t just the established designers whose work is making fashionable hearts beat faster.

Last week’s Copenhagen Fashion Week saw the debut of The Baand – an ultra-cool indie eco-label specialising in hip, pared down pieces. The opening show, meanwhile, saw the pale, ethereal designs of Anne Sofie Madsen take centre stage. Even the country’s fashion bloggers are getting in on the act with Danish eco-fashion spotter, Copenhagen Cycle Chic, recently described by The Guardian as ‘the Sartorialist on two wheels.’ And with Stockholm Fashion Week just kicking off, more stylishly green pieces look set to follow, with hotly tipped eco-design talent Mika Modiggård among the 12 new designers taking part in Stockholm’s ‘Rookies’ project. So why is Scandinavia so good at green design and what’s made it so popular?

Unlike in the majority of fashion markets, Scandinavia’s fashion councils are making centralised efforts to boost green design – not just in terms of dedicated eco-designers but in the industry as a whole. This spring saw representatives from the four Nordic fashion associations come together to discuss a project called NICE. The first of its kind, NICE or Nordic Initiative Clean and Ethical, is a Scandinavia-wide attempt to highlight social and ecological issues and boost sustainability in the fashion industry. Delegates from the Swedish Fashion Council, Helsinki Design Week, the Icelandic Fashion Council, Oslo Fashion Week and the Danish Fashion Institute have put together programmes to boost the use of waste fabric and to promote the use of local, Norwegian wool. The five countries even agreed a 10-year plan on reducing water use, carbon dioxide emissions and waste, along with bad labour practice and minimising the use of chemical dyes.

‘There was a big wave of interest that started in 2006, when a lot of attention was focused on the [environment] in both media and education,’ explains Swedish eco-designer, Johanna Hofring. ‘Because of that, there was a very nourishing environment for designers working with eco-friendly materials, which is one reason why there are so many now.’ The list of current designers is long and impressive. Whether Minna Hepburn’s delicate dresses or Swedish Hasbeen’s wood-soled shoes, Scandinavia’s designers are producing pieces that cater to all tastes and all price points. But what makes the Scandinavian design scene particularly sustainable is that what we would dub ‘green fashion’ – locally made from locally grown textiles - isn’t seen as a niche in Helsinki or Oslo – it’s seen as an obvious choice.

‘It’s just the way of life,’ comments Finnish designer Minna Hepburn. ‘In Finland, people don’t shop that much but there’s nature everywhere, so people are more aware of the impact [of their choices]. In Sweden, [green designers] get a lot of support while in Finland they don’t, but people in Finland are really proud of things that are made here, prints that are done here…they really think about where things come from.’ Given that the Scandinavian bloc – Norway’s shameful record on whaling and fossil fuels aside – tends to be ahead of the curve when it comes to environmental matters, perhaps this focus on localism in a fashion context isn’t so surprising. Take Denmark for example. With a raft of green measures covering everything from recycling incentives to power use, extending the green approach to the national wardrobe looks like a logical next step. And it’s a step that’s already being taken in the country’s capital Copenhagen, where green design and vintage emporia are a constant presence on the shopping streets. Organic fabric, hemp, bamboo and upcycled pieces aren’t seen as a niche; they’re seen as the norm.

‘People shouldn’t have to ask specifically for eco-friendly fashion,’ comments Hepburn. ‘Everything should just be eco-friendly, regardless of whether it says it is or not.’ And she’s not alone. British designer William Tempest has quietly been making what most of us would describe as eco-fashion for years, but says that using his green credentials as a marketing tool would send the wrong message to consumers and the industry alike. ‘With my own brand, all the fabrics are natural and are produced to high ethical standards but it’s not something I focus on getting across [to people],’ he says. ‘People tend to expect that green fashion will be ugly but it’s something that we all could do. You can do really creative things with natural materials.’ This understated approach to green fashion is shared with many of Scandinavian design’s hottest new talents, for whom good design is paramount with natural, ethically sourced fabrics coming as standard. Put together, the result is sustainable clothes that people actually want to wear – a huge shift away from the impeccably green but horrible to look at eco clothing of the past. What’s more, this sea change has seen sales spike and interest in green design gather momentum – not just in fashion circles but among Scandinavian consumers in general.

‘Here [in Stockholm] there are designers, consumers, different kinds of sustainable activities and people who together support sustainable development,’ says Swedish designer, Anja Hynynen. ‘Many Scandinavian eco designers know each other and work to boost the amount of organic clothing on offer together. But it is about more than organic clothes; it’s about creating better society for everybody. Perhaps eco design has grown stronger here than in some other places, but it should be everywhere. Clothes that respect all life should be for everyone.’ 

While Scandinavia, with its myriad designers and forward-thinking environmental initiatives, remains ahead of the curve for now, British designers are catching up. From Esthetica’s championing of new green designers such as Christopher Raeburn to the ethical ranges produced by fashion titans such as Vivienne Westwood, the UK has more than a few style successes of its own. But the fact remains that for now at least, Scandinavian design is driving the green clothing industry forward. Whether you choose Righteous Fashion, Obscur, Pia Anjou or Noir, Scandinavian eco-fashion is just as good for your wardrobe as it is for the planet.

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