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May 2-8, 2007

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Indigenous Designs

Purchasing power: We take a page (quite literally) from Indigenous Designs.

Conscious Clothing

The frump is finally gone from eco-friendly duds

By Patricia Lynn Henley

It's the right size, perfect style, great color and at a rock-bottom price. What could possibly be wrong with this fashion find? Well, where was it made? And by whom? Under what conditions? Out of what types of materials? Those are all questions that Santa Rosa resident Chrissy Kaufman asks before she buys.

"People who really love clothing and love shoes and love makeup need to be the ones who speak up and not fall into [thinking] that you have to walk around in oversized hemp socks to promote earth awareness," Kaufman asserts. "You can look great and know that you're spreading compassion and righteousness."

A jewelry and fashion designer--she co-founded Sunmoon Company of Sebastopol, which contracts directly with Bali craftsman to manufacture jewelry--Kaufman tries to tread lightly in all areas of her life, including her clothing. She looks for tags showing a name or photo of the person who made the item, or labels indicating it wasn't mass-produced in a sweatshop halfway around the world. She patronizes thrift stores and small boutiques whose owners' know the origins of their stock, and she makes a lot of her own clothes.

And yet, occasionally, Kaufman will find something beautifully well-made in a chain-owned department or discount store and--despite all her good intentions--she'll buy it. "Sometimes I'm still just a plain old consumer," she admits, "and I want something that's cute."

Which means having a fashion conscience isn't an all-or-nothing situation. Even a little bit of awareness can go a long way toward making things better.

"It would make a difference with a capital D if mainstream America was thinking about this," Kaufman explains. "We can make a huge dent if we were each just a little more careful. There's tremendous potential for change."

Awareness of that potential is crucial, says Candi Smucker, co-owner of Baksheesh fair trade stores in Sonoma and Healdsburg (a St. Helena location opens later this month). "Fair trade" means the weavers, seamstresses and others artisans are guaranteed to earn a living wage in their country. Smucker says it's possible to develop a healthy fashion conscience in small, do-able increments.

"The first step is to just read the label," Smucker explains. "It doesn't mean buy it or don't buy it; it just means educate yourself about where it's from."

Next, ask the sales clerk what the company's policy is on clothing made in a particular country. "The clerk won't know," Smucker adds wryly. "If you're really into it, ask who in the company would know. And if you're really, really into it, don't buy it."

Like Kaufman, Smucker patronizes thrift stores and smaller shops with direct ties to the clothing makers. "That might mean I spend more, like at Silk Moon in Sebastopol, which has beautiful silk pieces from Southeast Asia. For the quality they're a wonderful bargain."

She won't but anything labeled "Made in China," because the Chinese government doesn't allow independent verification of workplace conditions. This eliminates more than half the items in most stores. "Shoes are a real problem," Smucker laughs.

Never buying "Made in China" items may be a symbolic action, but it's an important one to Smucker.

"Every time I make a purchase, I am contributing to justice--or injustice," she says. "How I spend my money affects people. That realization haunts me, but I cannot allow it to paralyze me. Instead, it motivates and empowers me to find new ways to make all trade fair trade. If each of us as consumers ask for this, it can happen."

One of the for-profit companies turning that ideal into a reality is the Santa Rosa-based Indigenous Designs, a pioneering natural-fiber wholesale clothing company that has been offering fair trade, sweatshop-free, organic and sustainable fashions for 14 years. The company works with 275 cooperatives just in Peru alone, and most of the workers are women, says Scott Leonard, the company's co-founder and CEO.

"It makes such a difference in these people's lives to be paid fairly and to have part of their destiny, their livelihood in their control," Leonard says. "People have literally risen out of a poverty situation and are now providing education and a better family life."

All Indigenous Designs apparel is made of environmentally sensitive or low-impact materials, right down to the natural dyes. The fabric is organically grown cotton blended with quality silks or tencel, a cellulose fiber made with wood pulp from sustainably harvested trees.

"When we set out 14 years ago, we wanted to show that you could do the right thing and still be profitable," Leonard recalls. "We have been very successful."

The company's designs have draped models strutting down New York runways and are available in a number of mainstream catalogues as well as Whole Foods stores from British Columbia to San Diego, and other retailers nationwide.

"We're in the fashion business," Leonard says emphatically. "First and foremost, we have to keep our eye on looking good. The days of wearing frumpy organics are long gone. You have to make a clear fashion statement, you need to look good, you need to be comfortable and also be fair-trade and organic at the same time."

He agrees with Kaufman and Smucker that consumers can make a big difference by simply being more mindful and aware.

"Respect your own purchasing power," he advises. "It makes such a big difference."

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