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Going Green: Clothes Made from Organic Fabrics Are Catching On

From: Miami Herald

http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/living/13809931.htm

Posted on Wed, Feb. 08, 2006
Going Green: Clothes made from organic fabrics are catching on
BY SAMANTHA THOMPSON SMITH
Raleigh News & Observer

If you want to know one of this year's hottest fashion trends, don't look to
pink. Or black. Or anything metallic. This year, fashion is going green.
Green as in T-shirts and jeans made of organic cottons that haven't been
doused with harmful chemicals. Green as in dresses that weren't made by
Third World garment sewers in sweat-shop conditions. Green as in fabrics
that were made by villagers in India, Africa and South America who are being
paid fairly for their artisan work.

Mainstream America, more than ever, is looking at the uglier side of fashion
and opting to buy popular fashion from retailers and designers as concerned
about fair trade and organic farming as they are about style.

''The natural fibers market is following in the footsteps of organic
groceries,'' said Shari Keller, a clothing designer in Asheville, N.C., who
uses natural cotton fabrics made in India in her collection of clothes sold
at her store, Mehera Shaw, Carrboro, N.C. ``It's really coming into the
mainstream. People who are fashionably dressed are now more willing to walk
the extra mile for these products.''

It's still just a fraction of the $173 billion U.S. apparel industry. But it
is growing, especially where products are more widely available, such as
California and the Northeast. Sales of organic fiber products in 2004 hit
$85 million, up 23 percent from 2003, according to the Organic Trade
Association.

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, said
the key to building the business has been educating consumers on the
conditions most clothes sold in America are made under.

''Nine times out of 10, people don't realize what they're wearing was made
in a sweat shop,'' Cummins said. ``But that's changing. It's still got a
ways to go. It's still where organic food was in sales volume 10 years
ago.''

Leading the charge is an unlikely designer -- U2 frontman Bono. He and his
wife, Ali Hewson, teamed up with designer Rogan Gregory to create a brand
called Edun (nude spelled backward) that pledges higher standards for labor
practices by hiring family-run businesses in Africa and South America to sew
garments. Their Edun brand jeans, just one part of the collection, are sold
at most Saks Fifth Avenue stores.

But long before Bono got involved, people were embracing socially and
environmentally conscious clothing. They were mostly those considered
hippies and tree huggers, who, while being pioneers, also helped create a
stereotype about organic and natural fiber clothes as frumpy and unstylish
-- an image that today's designers are desperately trying to shed.

''If you can make those choices appealing to people and still make it with
the environment in mind, then I think more people who have been wanting to
make those choices will drive to buy those products,'' Keller said.
Her line includes quilted, paisley patterned jackets, billowy gaucho pants
and sensibly tailored button-down blouses, most in earth tones of rust, sage
and lemon. All the fabrics, made of natural cotton, are handmade and hand
stamped, and then sewn by foot-cranked sewing machines in India by villagers
who are paid fairly and are treated humanely, she said.

One of the leading designers in the industry is Stewart+Brown, which sells
its organic cotton fashion to high-end boutiques around the country. Sales
have doubled every year since launching the company in 2002 in Ventura,
Calif., said one of the founders, Howard Brown. He expects business to grow
even more now that Bono is involved.

''That guy can reach a massive audience,'' Brown said. ``That was really the
adrenaline that this whole movement needed. We are very, very thankful.''
Others are getting into it, too. H&M stores are testing the market by
ordering 5 percent organic cotton T-shirts from Turkey and is looking to
expand to India with T-shirts made from organic and conventional cottons.
Nike has been steadily increasing its reliance on organic cotton since first
using it in products in 1998. Cutter & Buck has knit shirts made of organic
cotton. And Nordstrom's Product Group is working toward making 5 percent of
its cotton products out of organic cotton by the end of 2007. Stores also
carry some organic cotton products, including T-shirts and tank tops by
Eileen Fisher.

Other designers are making hip-hugging jeans out of organic cottons. They're
using vegetable dyes to color T-shirt designs. And they're using hemp to
make fitted jackets -- with bones for buttons.

Another stereotype designers are battling is cost. Most people assume
because something is organic, it's more expensive. But designers argue that
organic cotton farmers don't have to spend money on pesticides to care for
their crops and can sell their cotton at lower prices. And since most
designers have small, growing companies, there aren't the typical expenses
that most design houses have, including big salaries to pay executives.
If the social and environmental issues don't sway customers, designers hope
the fabrics themselves will. Organic and natural cottons typically feel
softer than conventional cottons. And most are easier to clean and care for.
''It just washes beautifully,'' said Margaret Hartley, a frequent Mehera
Shaw customer.

She said she's drawn to the clothes not so much because of the social and
environmental care that Keller has put into the business. She just loves the
clothes. ''The colors are fantastic,'' she said. ``What I love is that the
clothes have sophistication.''

Keller hopes to pull even more customers in once she starts using organic
cottons. She and her husband, Mark, who is a partner in the business, are
going to India for five weeks in February to set up a supply chain for
organic cotton they plan to use in new designs.

''From everything I've read and everything I've heard and my personal
experience, it's softer and it feels nicer,'' Keller said. ``I want to make
them into styles that are really appealing. Appealing to taste is the bottom
line.''