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Organic Consumers Association

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Care What You Wear

Organic Clothing: The Fiber of Organics

With the mainstreaming of organic, many manufacturers and retailers are banking on its success now outside the grocery aisle. As a recent Wall Street Journal article notes, "Williams-Sonoma Inc.'s Pottery Barn is rolling out a new line of duvets, sheets and towels made with organic cotton this spring. Furniture and textile designer Q Collection will soon introduce a line of organic bedding for children. Retailer Gaiam has even added organic cotton shower curtains to its product line." But does organic fiber resonate to today's consumer?

From Food to Fiber

Right now, the world of organic fiber is in a state not unlike that of organic food in the 1960s and 1970s. It attracts primarily very committed organic consumers. But, unlike the category of organic foods, there is not much clarity in the minds of consumers as to what the phrase "organic fiber" means. This is clearly an emerging product category still largely under the radar of most consumers, even those who purchase organic foods on a regular basis.

The table below highlights the main product adoption pathway for organic consumers. As consumers more closer and closer to the core of the World of Organics, organic fiber makes sense and makes a presence in their lifestyle.

Why is organic fiber one of the last products to be adopted in the organic lifestyle? There are three main reasons why organic fiber is not top of the list or top-of-mind: First, most consumers have limited awareness, if any, about the category of organic fiber. Second, if they are aware of organic fiber products, they have not yet seen the necessity of integrating them into their own lifestyle. Third, and perhaps most importantly, consumers initially adopt gateway organic products that benefit them internally from a health perspective, not the once traditionally thought environmental purchase criteria. This stems from a priority for an individual wellness lifestyle over benefits for the environment. As one consumer states: "I'd buy an organic apple before I'd buy an organic T-shirt."

In looking at the dimensions of consumption driving organic consumption, we see the purported health benefits, or internal benefits, of an organic diet are a major motivator for consumers at all levels in the World of Organics. This orientation towards internal benefits focuses on an interest in the personal health and well-being benefits of organic food and beverage consumption.

The link between cancer or food allergies and pesticides or chemicals in food is one that is easily made for many consumers, making the transition to organics an intuitive choice. Toxicity levels and potential health hazards are fairly tangible and measurable concepts that motivate consumers to adopt new foods that they believe will improve their chances for a healthier life. This lifestyle choice, however, breaks down somewhat with the adoption of organic fiber as the benefits here are much more intangible, as most experimenters in organic fiber products appear to draw on their understanding of organic food production, if any, as they think about what this category means and about possible future purchases within it.

So, who's buying the threads?

Core consumers are the most experienced organic fiber purchasers to date and have experimented with a range of organic fiber products. We find that core organic consumers are really the ones asking for and purchasing organic apparel. Women are the primary shoppers of organic fiber products and are likely to purchase them for their children, particularly if they are already purchasing organic products for themselves.

Core organic consumers frequently cite their interest in "ethical farming practices" that are chemical-free, less harmful to the land and the workers. Most core organic buyers explain their frustration with what they believe to be many years of chemical use and damage done to the land and water sources. Concern for the environment is a clear second for the typical mid-level organic consumer - the mainstream. When we talk with these consumers they cannot make the connection between their pair of jeans and the process of growing cotton. This is largely due to the fact that for consumers the connection between a pair of jeans or socks to the original cotton plant is abstract at best, thus the growing practices used are even further removed from their minds.

Outside of the core consumer, however, retailers are really the ones moving this organic apparel trend forward. Today we see a diverse group of retailers offer organic cotton products ranging from soft goods like curtains (Gaiam) to organic apparel offered through Gap, Sam's Club/Wal-Mart, REI, Patagonia, American Apparel, Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Starbucks in the United States. This current surge is changing the lifestyle relevance for many consumers.

What's it going to take...?

First and foremost, consumers have made it clear that organic fibers and fabrics must be aesthetically pleasing. It is a very small percentage of core consumers who will purchase organic for the sake of organic, without regard to the way something looks or feels. Some of the factors involved in making a purchase decision are as follows:

* Texture  
* Style  
* Color  
* Appropriate fit  
* Smell  
* Price  
* Durability

When choosing fiber products, texture and style are more important than the fibers used. Most consumers who are aware of organic fibers and/or have purchased them in the past have complaints about the primarily casual styles, limited color selection and limited items available. They described the styles as "comfortable but floppy," "not as sophisticated," "not practical" and "not versatile." As this trend of organic apparel emerges, we are seeing companies like Patagonia, Levi Strauss, Timberland and Eileen Fisher trying to break the stereotypes of what organic apparel traditionally means to most consumers, offering a high-end product that is also organic, good for the environment and part of the sustainable movement that is gaining much traction with today's consumer.

Key Take Away

Retailers and manufacturers are extending organic products beyond grocery store shelves. Mainstreaming organic fiber products, however, will not follow the same pathways to trial and adoption that food products have taken. To gain wide stream acceptance, organic fiber will require a keen attention to design, highlighting the design features of 100% natural fiber textiles, even focusing on categories that suggest artisanal, small-scale production from authentic producers.

While early organic fiber consumers purchased primarily for environmental reasons, and due to obscure notions of toxicity, these motivations will never mainstream in our opinion because they require people to believe in the omnipresence of toxins. What we saw happen in the world of organic food is that "organic" went mainstream by becoming a generalized marker of high-quality food experiences as juxtaposed to industrial food experiences.

Just as artisanal production is an important cue within the organic food trend, we see great potential for "organic fiber" to be marketed as "artisanal clothing" devoid of industrial trickery used to mass produce high fashion.

Organic fiber will work beautifully to market hand-woven, ultra-delicate textiles that don't seem "industrially" or "commercially" made and small-scale runs in textile products. Much like organic has become a marker of quality in food, organic in fiber, if positioned appropriately, can become a marker of authenticity to consumers. Rather than feeling like they are "giving something up" when they buy organic fiber, they would feel like they are getting the most authentic and highest quality item available.

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