Amy Cortese

 

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March 20, 2005


Wearing Eco-Politics on Your Sleeve


By AMY CORTESE 

THE scene was like so many others in New York during Fashion Week last month. Models sauntered down a catwalk to a pulsating soundtrack, showing off the latest work of designers including Oscar de la Renta and Proenza Shouler.


Except for this: Every garment was made with fibers spun from bamboo, corn, organic cotton and other materials that promoters said were more eco-friendly than traditional materials.


The show, called FutureFashion and sponsored by Earth Pledge, a New York-based nonprofit group that promotes environmental programs, challenged designers to create fashion using only fabrics that were renewable, reusable or generated less pollution than conventional material. The message was clear: Eco-style need not be an oxymoron.


A gimmick? Sure. But even some fashion veterans said the idea could have legs. "I was shocked," said Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director for Barneys, the high-end retailer in New York. "It was as interesting as anything we saw on the runways all week."


Green, say some in the fashion world, may become the new black. "We're taking the market from hippie to hip," says Marci Zaroff, founder of Under The Canopy, a line of clothing and home furnishings made from organic cotton and other natural fabrics.


Eco-advocates and some apparel executives say they believe that goods made with so-called environmentally friendly fabrics - including clothing and home furnishings - could follow the path of organic food and beauty products, which have crossed over from niche to mainstream to become a $15 billion business.


Organic cotton, the largest category of eco-apparel, accounted for just $85 million of retail sales in the United States in 2003, the latest year for which statistics were available, according to the Organic Trade Association. That was a very small fraction - about 0.05 percent - of the American apparel market that year.


But some pieces are falling into place: new and high-quality fabrics, designer interest, budding consumer awareness and a developing supply network that makes it easier for companies like Nordstrom and Timberland to take the plunge. "I think it's on everybody's radar," Ms. Gilhart said.


Shoppers will start to see more choices this spring. The designer Rogan Gregory, whose $240 denim jeans are coveted by some shoppers, will introduce organic cotton denim clothing under the Loomstate label in high-end stores such as Barneys and Fred Segal this month. For the more cost-conscious shopper, Sam's Club will start selling 100 percent organic cotton active wear by Chaus at its 550 stores this month, with prices starting at $10.


Whole Foods, the organic food market chain, is jumping in. It began selling organic cotton clothes and linens from more than 10 companies - including Under The Canopy, based in Boca Raton, Fla., and Green Babies, in Tarrytown, N.Y. - at a new megastore in Austin, Tex., early this month.


Why the fuss over the organic credentials of something people don't eat? According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the use of organic cotton, a third of a pound of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are used to produce the cotton for one simple cotton T-shirt. Then ammonia, formaldehyde and other chemicals are used to process and finish it. Many of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens.


The new ecologically friendly fabrics are made with materials that their proponents say cause less harm to the environment, like cotton and wool produced without synthetic chemicals or pesticides, or hardy, fast-growing plants like bamboo and hemp that are produced with relatively little pesticides or fertilizers.


Advances in materials science are leading to other new materials. These include biopolymers made from corn and soy, including a corn-based fiber called Ingeo by Cargill that is used by Versace and other designers. Clothing makers are focusing first on cotton because it is the most widely used fiber and, according to the Pesticide Action Network, an environmental group, it accounts for 22 percent of all insecticides used - about $2.5 billion worth worldwide each year.


When Patagonia, the outdoor apparel maker based in Ventura, Calif., commissioned a study of the environmental impact of its raw materials in the early 1990's, it assumed that oil-based synthetics like polyester and nylon would cause the most harm to people and the environment. The company said it was shocked to find that cotton was worse. In 1994, Patagonia decided to convert its entire cotton line to organic - and did so in just 18 months.


At first, the company took a financial hit: finding a consistent, high-quality supply of organic cotton was difficult, so Patagonia produced less inventory, and higher costs cut into margins. But the company worked out the kinks and restored its margins within a few years, said Jill Vlahos, Patagonia's director of environmental analysis, who said that Patagonia also uses recycled plastic in its fleece and in some polyester fabric, and now offers organic wool clothes.


Ms. Vlahos conceded that it was easier for Patagonia to take risks because it is privately held. But, she added, the efforts have proved successful in the long run. "We have found a model that works," she said. "Hopefully it will inspire others."


As Patagonia's experience illustrates, many obstacles thwart the wider adoption of environmentally friendly apparel. Supply, for example, has been vexing. In many cases, companies had to develop sources from scratch. "We're building the brand at the same time we were building the supply chain," said Scott Hahn, the chief executive of Rogan of New York.


When Duncan Berry, the chief executive of GreenSource, decided in 1999 to add organic cotton to his business, which makes T-shirts and other clothing sold under the GreenSource and other brands, he found that organic yarns were prohibitively expensive. He hired an agronomist and began working with farmers in Pakistan to make his own. Organic farming requires rotating crops to maintain soil health, so he continues to help finance the farmers in seasons when cotton is not being grown, so they will not use pesticides to grow other crops.


Price is another issue. Generally, organic cotton costs more to grow than conventional cotton, but the economics differ depending on variables like quality and location. Organic cotton from India, for example, where labor costs are low and organic farms have been operating for more than a few years, can be cost competitive with conventional cotton used to make T-shirts, denim and medium-quality fabrics.


Many companies and growers are still leery of organic cotton, in part because of past failures. In the mid-1990's, for example, companies including Gap and Levi Strauss dabbled with organic cotton, but retreated after finding it costly and consumers cool to the generally uninteresting styles. The number of acres planted with organic cotton, most of it in the United States, plunged as a result.


MARK MESSURA, vice president for strategic planning at Cotton Inc., an industry marketing and research organization, said organic cotton was still a novelty in the notoriously low-margin apparel industry, and added that "there is no evidence of customer demand or willingness to pay more" for it. The amount of organic cotton produced worldwide each year, 24 million pounds, is less than 1 percent of conventionally grown cotton.


Still, the number of brands using organic cotton is accelerating - to more than 250 in the United States today from fewer than 100 in 2002, according to the Organic Exchange, an industry-sponsored organization in Berkeley, Calif., that acts as a clearinghouse for suppliers and manufacturers of organic cotton. "We're starting to see a real market," says Rebecca Calahan Klein, president of the exchange.


The most powerful nudge has been from big companies like Nike, whose long-term commitments to organic cotton have given suppliers a measure of comfort. It has set a goal of using organic fibers for at least 5 percent of its cotton-based garments by 2010. That means more than five million pounds of organic cotton a year. Marks & Spencer, the British retailer, has pledged to use 5 percent organic cotton in its private label line by 2012.


Even the most ardent advocates acknowledge that consumers will not buy organic clothing for its own sake. Style and price still rule. "The ultimate business model is no compromise," says Ms. Zaroff of Under The Canopy. "If you can give people fit and style and value, and also appeal to their values, it's not 'Why would I buy it?' It's 'Why wouldn't I buy it?' "

 

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