February 4, 2009

Responsible Fashion & the US Economy: Nau’s Scape Jacket and Down Vest.

Picture me staring in horror as my supposedly simple clothing review expands in length and spills over the page break in Microsoft Word. This review wasn’t meant to be so long, I swear, but what can I do? Never before has consuming been so complicated. Thanks to the internet, there are literally millions of buy options at our fingertips. (A google search for “down vest” unearthed 1,960,000 results. Nau was, remarkably, #7. “Eco down vest” narrowed it down slightly to 1,270,000. Nau, strangely, still #7).

And for each item, conscious consumers (those of us who understand the power of our dollars to effect social, political and environmental change) must consider a long chain of consequences. (Life and Debt is a great documentary about the sinister impact of socks and underwear on the island of Jamaica.)

Nau is an outdoor clothing company, long one of elephantjournal.com’s favorites, dedicated to doing business differently. This is evident in their recycled and organic fabrics, their strict fair-labor standards, carbon offsets and earnest pledge to “unf*ck the world.” But Nau is doing something else differently—they’re willing to engage their customers in the difficult questions that surround the garment industry. “If you want to buy this vest,” they say, “then you should know exactly where it came from and who it impacted.” This level of transparency is a risky move in an economy based on a “what they don’t know can’t hurt them” ethos, where everything from diamonds to gym socks to chicken parmigiana can carry some pretty heavy karma.

Made in China vs. Made in USA
Both items reviewed below are manufactured in China, a fact which Nau prominently points out on their website—and is quick to defend. According to the company, because many of their high-tech, recycled fabrics are manufactured in Japan, making the clothes in China means that materials are shipped a shorter distance. This seems to be a somewhat flimsy justification, as the finished products, sold primarily in the US, will obviously have to be shipped halfway across the world to reach their customers (though, to their credit, Nau uses recycled plastic and paper bags instead of bulky packaging).

Nau’s factories are operated under strict social and environmental standards, so we’re not talking about sweatshops. But here’s the—to me—most realistic, and also the most disheartening, justification for manufacturing clothes abroad. According to Nau, “The required skill sets and technologies no longer exist in the U.S.” The company goes on to explain, “The demise of the U.S. textile and garment-manufacturing segment of the economy is a well-known macro-economic trend, in place for many years. While disappointing, this is not something that we, as a small newcomer brand, can truly counteract.”

This is, somehow, news to me. Faced with headlines about our declining economy and rising unemployment, I’d love to buy more Made-in-USA garb, but from the sound of things (confirmed by elephantjournal.com recent reviews of Golite and Patagonia), we’ve long been surpassed in skill and technology by foreign factories. As a consumer, I don’t know what to do about this. (Tax subsidies for domestic ecofashion operations? I’m open to suggestions. American Apparel somehow pulls it off.) But I do commend Nau for making the best of a tough manufacturing climate, and doing so transparently. Hopefully, as the company expands and gains more sway in the industry, they’ll bring some of those jobs home.

Nau’s Down Vest
I like to think of Nau as urban outdoor apparel—their sleek, subtle designs are equally at home on a city sidewalk as they are on the slope or trailhead. While the down vest is a ubiquitous item, gracing the catalogs of every outdoor clothing company, Nau makes theirs slightly more sophisticated, with an off-center zipper. Plus, the lining and outer material of the vest is 100% recycled polyester, manufactured (in Japan) from post-consumer and post-industrial polyester waste. It’s also water resistant, repelling light mist and snow.

The vest is insulated with 850-fill down, which means it’s the highest quality down on the market, in terms of weight-to-warmth ration. Because of this, the vest is extremely lightweight and easily packs into a 16 oz ziplock baggie (yes, I tried), for convenient stuffing into a daypack or carryon suitcase. Down comes from geese, which means that it’s a renewable resource—in the way that chicken fingers are renewable resources—and is also not vegan. Though Nau is working to close the loop and ensure their down comes from humane sources, as a byproduct of geese raised for food and not for their feathers alone (which means geese may get plucked alive—a hard truth we face when buying any down vest), at this time there is no guarantee.

This vest is ideal for layering under a shell, like the Scape Jacket below, or layering over a hoodie. The Medium that I ordered is a bit baggy, with plenty of room for extra clothing underneath. If you plan to wear the vest with only a tee or long-sleeved shirt underneath, I recommend ordering one size smaller than your usual.

Scape Jacket
The Scape is a shell, made for layering over a vest, fleece, hoody or sweater. The jacket is made out of 100% recycled polyester fabric, and can be recycled back into polyester fibers at the end of its life. Like most shells out there, it’s waterproof and breathable, with a removable hood—but unlike most other shells, its design makes it equally suited to a night on the town (and if you happen to get caught in a blizzard or windstorm, you’ll be taken care of).

A zip-up jacket with large buttons along the front and cuffs, the Scape’s wide sleeves and slightly lower hemline in the back makes for a flattering fit. A high collar with buttons all the way up means no scarf is necessary, especially if you have a high-necked insulation layer on underneath, like the down vest. But do be sure to take along your mittens, for although this jacket has plenty of pockets (including one made especially for your iPod) none are in the right spot to stow icy hands.

Nau gets some grief for being expensive, but the two items featured above are surprisingly reasonable. The vest, now on sale, clocks in at about $100. The Scape jacket is $285, more than Patagonia’s less-stylish recycled polyester shell ($200), but for outerwear that will get lots of use, I think that’s money well spent. (Though perhaps, if/when Nau brings some jobs back to the US, we’ll all be better able to afford their nifty duds.)

Conclusion: Two Thumbs Up.
All-in-all, two thumbs up—enthusiastically. Nau is ahead of 90% of the competition in terms of manufacturing, environmental and social ethics. While they have chosen to compete with the big boys, and so by their own estimation can’t afford to manufacture stateside, they are nevertheless helping lead the masses, including we ‘conscious consumers,’ back to a more sustainable future. Secondly, their modern designs get an A+ in style—giving the lie to the myth that all things eco must be ugly. Thirdly, and most importantly perhaps, their line is highly functional. We’re glad to have you back, Nau!

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