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Care What You Wear

Moral Fabric: Clothiers Go Organic

Basson, the CEO of Seattle-based Greensource Organic Clothing Company, had recently shipped an order of 200,000 yoga tops to Sam's Club, Walmart's warehouse club unit. At first, the Sam's Club buyer didn't see any particular reason why the organic tops would sell much better than the regular kind; she just felt that organic was a good place to be from an ecological standpoint. But when all 200,000 of the pieces flew off the shelves in three weeks, the pinstriped-trouser boys in Bentonville picked up the story. Then, they picked up the phone and called David Basson.

"Lee Scott [Walmart's CEO at the time] had his people call us and say, 'Come talk to me,'" Basson remembers now. So Basson and a few of his partners got on a plane and flew 1,627 miles to Bentonville, Ark., and did just that. Basson's company had been in business just five years, yet here he was in the executive conference room with one most powerful executives in the world. "We sat across from him and his honchos," the clothier remembers. "It was an interesting meeting."

And a fateful one. A few weeks later, Basson shipped Walmart its inhtial order of 800,000 organic cotton layettes (those baby jumpers that snap together). Then the Mart called again. This time came orders for organic bed sheets and organic towels. Soon, Macy's was interested too, and then Sears, and then Kohl's. Today, Greensource is the eighth largest maker of organic clothing on the planet, with revenues in excess of $50 million. And Basson says that with huge retailers finally catching on, it's only a matter of time before organic clothing (that is, cotton grown without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides) goes mainstream. "Consumers understand the issues," he says. "They want to take care of the planet. Once people get into it, they're not going to go back."

Words easily enough spoken by a man who makes organic clothing, right? But plenty of numbers suggest that Basson is onto something. Not long ago, the mere mention of organic apparel conjured images of Woodstock-era hippies clad in hemp belts and Birkenstocks, mashing up a fresh batch of granola. But such clichés -- if they were ever accurate -- are far from the reality now.

Between 2008 and last year, while recessionary cutbacks in household spending saw overall sales of apparel and domestic textiles drop by 7 percent, sales of organic cotton grew by double digits -- 35 percent to be exact -- according to the trade group Organic Exchange. In fact, organic cotton's annual growth rate has grown steadily for a decade now: 40 percent on average each year since 2001. Organic apparel is currently a business worth $4.3 billion; by next year, it's expected to hit $6 billion.