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Organic Fashions are Hitting the Mainstream

December 13, 2005
'Green' isn't just a color in fashion anymore
By Samantha Critchell

The Associated Press
NEW YORK - There's a segment of the organic goods market that buys things
out of environmental consciousness, while others buy for the social values
the organic industry promotes. Increasingly, though, organic goods are being
bought by the average Joe, happy to get something green as long as it looks,
feels and costs the same as the things he's used to.

In fashion, organic cotton led the way into the mainstream. This winter,
it's being closely followed by organic wool, which is available in Patagonia
sweaters and Delano Collection coats, among others.

"We see demand growing exponentially. It started with the outdoor industry
and now it's Patagonia for sweaters, Fox River for socks, and there'll be a
lot more," says Matthew Mole, founder and president of Vermont Organic Fiber
Co., based in Middlebury, Vt.
"In the last four to six months there's been a spike in fashion-forward
brands," he adds. "As long as the quality is there, there's no argument not
to do it. There is a price premium built in because we think farmers who are
taking the extra steps to be the stewards of the land deserve to be
compensated, but people seem willing to pay it."

Vermont Organic Fiber currently is developing fine worsted wool for suits,
heavier fabrics for coats and a jersey for diaper covers. Children's clothes
could be a hot market because parents are always looking to put the purest
products next to their babies' skin, but Mole is still working out the kinks
when it comes to the washability of the wool.

Mole, who was raised on a small farm, became familiar with the organic and
natural fiber market while he was a research assistant at the University of
Vermont studying hemp. He saw that cotton had a monopoly on the organic
marketplace. Knowing that sheep were already being raised organically for
the food market, he figured organic wool would be the next logical step.

After talking to farmers, Mole identified mills in the United States that
could immediately begin processing according to organic handling rules,
plants that were already using plant-based soaps and plant-based oils in the
spinning instead of petroleum.

Last year, Patagonia sold out of its limited collection of organic wool
sweaters and it looks like the same will happen this year even though the
company ordered more garments, says Jill Dumain, director of environmental
analysis at Patagonia.

"We do have some environmental customers, but more people just want
durability, quality, fit, color, styling. And if it has an environmental
benefit, all the better. Having something that's good for the environment is
gravy," she says. "A lot of people don't know they're buying organic fibers,
they just liked the garment. That's a compliment to us."

Patagonia, which already incorporates environmentalism into its corporate
culture, was particularly interested in wool because it has a lot of
properties that are conducive to active use, something its customers seek.
"It stays warm when wet and it has a natural odor-fighting capacity ‹ the
holy grail for the outdoor industry for people going on long expeditions.
It's also quicker drying," Dumain says.

For organic clothes to be a serious category in the apparel business, there
has to be an understanding of both what the farmers need and consumers want,
she says, and that's where textile suppliers such as Vermont Wool come in.
"It says something that there is a middleman. It means it's a real

Charles Heckman, president and co-designer of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Delano,
worked with Mole on the woven felted wool that's the shell of the
princess-cut coats in stores now. He describes the texture as "like any fine
wool coat on the market today. ... It's soft and has a great hand."

What makes wool organic

A summary of the Vermont Organic Fiber Co.'s organic wool processing
practices and standards:

All organic wool must be handled separately from non-organic to avoid

Modules or containers of organic agriculture fibers shall be segregated from
conventional fiber to prevent any potential for commingling or environmental
contamination during all stages of handling. Handlers designate a specific
area for storage.

Detergents for wool scouring are readily biodegradable and there is
appropriate treatment of waste water. Scouring of wool and animal fibers use
detergents and degreasers that are readily biodegradable. Waste water from
such operations must either be treated on site to conform to all federal,
local and state environmental regulations for disposal of effluent or to be
disposed in a municipal wastewater treatment facility.

Water sources must be sustainable, and all water released back into the
water supply must meet pollution prevention levels.

Combining and carding machinery must be cleaned of nonorganic fiber prior to
the processing of the organic fiber.

Module feeding, suction feeding systems and initial conveyors, wool and
other livestock scouring trains and basins must be cleaned physically or
mechanically to remove any residue or trash prior to loading or feeding
modules or container units of organic fiber into cleaning or processing
system. Oils used in spinning shall be of vegetable or animal origin. The
use of synthetic oils is prohibited. Processors also won't use synthetic
textile oils, synthetic waxes, silicone or solvent-based surfactants.

All dyes must conform to the Ecological and Toxicological Association of
Dyes and Organic Pigments Manufacturers' guidance documents regarding
residuals of heavy metals and aromatic amines found in finished products.

Allowable dyes include natural dyes, low-impact dyes, azo dyes that comply
with ETAD standards and those which are free of heavy metals.

Only materials that are recyclable or readily biodegradable can be used in
fabric-finishing. Traditional methods of cleaning wool and other animal
fibers by carbonizing fibers using acid baths are prohibited.

All facilities that process organic fiber products practice structural pest
management techniques that stress sanitation, exclusion and prevention of
pests, and nontoxic forms of remediation whenever possible.