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Patagonia & American Apparel Set the Stage for U.S. Clothing Industry to Go Organic

Ventura-based clothing company Patagonia recently tied for second in the Organic Exchange's spring 2006 Global Organic Cotton Market Report that ranked businesses in terms of global organic cotton consumption.

Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard established the company in 1973, intending to rappel the limitations of the original outdoor climbing industry. Now, Patagonia¹s success comes at a time when the use of organically-grown cotton is becoming a trend in the apparel industry.

The company, which generated $260 million in sales during 2005, boasts that its entire line of cotton sportswear is not only 100 percent organic, but is designed to last for years.

Jen Rapp, public relations manager for Patagonia, revealed the secret to the company's level of achievement.

"Patagonia's success is three pronged: we believe it has to do with quality, product innovation and our commitment to the environment. When we started using organic in 1996, we were one of the only 'large' companies using it  Rapp said the company hasn't looked back since it made the decision to go organic.

"Our founder and owner says that he'd rather go out of business than go back to using conventional cotton," Rapp said. "He always says, "Whenever I've made a decision for the environment, I've made money.""

The second place ranking from the Organic Exchange speaks to the changing state of the retail industry, Rapp said.

"More important to Patagonia than our own ranking is the number of other businesses that are now using organic cotton," she said. 'While organic cotton used to be a big point of differentiation for Patagonia, we hope to see organic become status quo in the sportswear market some day."

In 1993, Rapp said, the company did an environmental life-cycle analysis of the four fibers used most in their clothing: polyester, nylon, cotton and wool. She said by isolating their problem areas, they were able to develop its current product line.

"We were shocked to find that cotton was the most polluting and toxic of the four fibers,² Rapp said. ³We gave ourselves a couple of seasons to make the switch to organic, knowing that it would increase the cost of our products and reduce our profit margin. It was a big business risk to the company. However, Yvon knew that it was the right thing to do."

The company realizes that it pays to be mindful of the growing needs for environmental awareness, Rapp said.

"Our mission statement is to use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis and getting on board with organic [cotton products]," she said.

In addition to ranking individual brands, Organic Exchange nonprofit trade association working to expand the use of organically grown cotton increased 55 percent annually, from $86 million in 2001 to $275 million in
2005.

That same report identified Los Angeles-based American Apparel as one of 30 companies with growing organic cotton programs.

American Apparel manufactures organic cotton t-shirts, sweaters, jackets and accessories for men, women, children and dogs for purchase online, wholesale and at its 29 retail locations in the United States.

According to the American Apparel Web site, the $210 million-company consolidates all stages of production to its downtown Los Angeles factory, where its 3,000 employees have the capacity to produce 1,000,000 shirts per week.

"People choose to buy organic because it's complimentary to their health and well-being; the benefits extend outwards," said Roian Atwood, spokesperson for American Apparel. "Consumers get tired of cheap products, but American Apparel is a high quality brand. People recognize American Apparel as a brand that represents more than just a t-shirt."

Downtown Santa Barbara will soon be home to the company¹s new store at 1019 State St., joining its existing tri-county location at the Camarillo Premium
Outlets.

American Apparel was established in 1998; however, around 2003, the company introduced its Sustainable Edition of organic cotton clothes that were chosen from the 10 most conventional styles, Atwood said. He also said in the future, American Apparel would like to implement more materials in their line that would benefit the environment.

"You can make clothing out of a variety of things, like hemp" he said. "Bamboo is a good example of sustainable fibers since it grows at an expedited rate of a foot-and-a-half per day."