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Organic & Non-Sweatshop Clothing Market Taking Off



Can clothing with a conscience be sexy? Bono's ethical experiments in fashion--and brands like American Apparel--are making it so

Chicago Tribune Published May 22, 2005

Moonlighting on Michigan Avenue between sold-out U2 concerts, Bono didn't want to belabor the politics behind his new gig in fashion.

He wanted to talk about bling.

"It's the end of bling, the gold-crayon showy glamor," Bono trendspotted before the Saks Men's Store party for Edun, the hip men's and women's clothing line that he, wife Ali Hewson and designer Rogan Gregory launched this spring.

"This return-to-nature thing is happening with people. People aren't going out the way they used to on the weekend; they're going out in the country and listening to music and staying up late by
lakes. And it's not good-for-you wholesome stuff. It's sexy."

Not bad marketing for Edun (nude spelled backward), whose jackets, jeans, graphic-print T's and romantic blouses are rooted in earthy chic.

But there's more to Bono's message than that.

Edun has joined other brands such as American Apparel and even Nike by weaving ethical platforms--organic fabrics, humane factories, fair trade--into its clothing, with a little more subtlety and a lot more style than the burlap-and-Birkenstock stereotype. Suddenly, it seems, clothing with a conscience has become sexy too.

"We do not want you to buy these jeans because of poor Africans," said Bono, whose goals include promoting trade with Africa, to which Edun funnels some of its factory work, and other areas that have hemorrhaged jobs to China.

"We do not want you to buy this shirt for any reason other than you think it's the most beautiful shirt on the rack. And enjoy the fact that the people involved in the story of how these clothes got to you are glad to be in the chain. That's all."

Well, it's almost all: "I'm aware of how farfetched it is to have someone responsible for the mullet [hairstyle] involved in a fashion line," Bono said, laughingly reassuring his 400 guests at
Saks: "Ali agreed to be involved in Edun only if I wasn't involved in the fashion."

The fraying of a cliche With a sort of Green Lite philosophy, the magazine Organic Style has helped to fray the cranky, crunchy cliche of ecologically conscious clothing.

"We don't believe you have to be totally `eco' head to toe," said Jeanie Pyun, editor of Organic Style, whose readership has risen since 2001 to 750,000 from 400,000, with an estimated 3.6 million pass-along readers.

"Our reader cares about all sorts of issues. --social and environmental. But it's very difficult to live in a way that every item is free of these issues. We're not interested in shaking a finger; we're interested in inspiring people to do little things."

The magazine's ad revenue was up 42 percent in the first part of 2005 compared with the same period last year. Ad pages for beauty products alone are up 78 percent so far this year.

One of the biggest, hottest pairings of style with substance right now reads in tiny print--"sweatsh op free"--on the tags of body-contoured T-shirts, retro terry-cloth shorts and other youthful staples made by American Apparel.

The company's sales are projected to reach $250 million this year, up from $150 million last year, partly on the strength of its wholesale shirts being chosen for scores of promotional purposes--concert tours, sports teams. Plus, its own retail stores, which show video of some of the 3,000 workers in its Los Angeles factory, are opening at the rate of two a week across the U.S. (An American Apparel is coming soon to Armitage Avenue, complementing Bucktown, Gold Coast and Evanston

"Whenever you have an increase in young adults, like this echo boom, it transforms society a little bit," said Dov Charney, senior partner in American Apparel. "They like things that are socially responsible. But it's still got to be sexy. That's more important."

The company is moving away from the sweatshop-free emphasis, he said--not in its commitment to treating workers well, just in advertising the fact.

Cutting the chemicals Digging deeper in the conscious-commerce chain, demand for organic cotton, grown without synthetic pesticides and processed without chemicals that are suspected carcinogens, grew to almost 20 million pounds in 2004 from 6 million in 2002. During the same period, global sales increased sixfold, to $500 million in 2004, with 90 percent of that for apparel, according to the Organic Exchange, based in Berkeley, Calif.

"When we started the exchange two years ago, there was a lot of organic farming, but there weren't many yarns and fabrics," said Rebecca Calahan Klein, president of the Organic Exchange.

Companies such as Nike, H&M, Timberland and Patagonia, she said, have seeded the growth in the supply and the variety of fabrics--a key to more fashionable items.

"They've gone out [to organic farmers] and said, `We want to see what you've got, and if you don't have it, we want it next season.'" Nike, a co-founder of the Organic Exchange, blends a minimum of 5 percent organic cotton into 37 percent of its cotton products, with plans to increase the share. Because labor and certification requirements for organic cotton can add 5 to 20 percent to the cost of a garment, Nike focuses its 100 percent organic cotton in the fashion-forward White Label line, whose consumers are more likely to tolerate the price premium.

"Agronomists speak about the impact of synthetic chemicals and concerns about communities where crops are growing and the workers who handle the fiber," said Eraina Duffy, Nike's sustainable-innov ation director for global apparel. "We use so much cotton, we thought it would be an opportunity to make a positive difference."

Momentum has spread to higher-end and discount brands.

Sam's Club stores, whose parent is Wal-Mart, began carrying Chaus' organic cotton activewear this spring. H&M is adding 10 or so organic cotton pieces a year.

Whole Foods' flagship store in Austin, Texas, has opened an organic clothing boutique.

Barneys New York stores have picked up Loomstate, a new organic denim line from the same Rogan Gregory heading Edun's design.

"Interest is so crosscutting," said Rebecca Calahan Klein of the Organic Exchange. "Lots of consumers like to know the stories behind what they're buying, particularly consumers who have grown up in the information age."

The progress of organic fabric follows the pattern of organic food, which for so long meant granola and brown rice.

"But when it was redefined and modernized, it crossed over to a wider audience," said Marci Zaroff, founder and CEO of online retailer Under the Canopy, whose organic clothing uses cotton, hemp, bamboo and soy. It's also carried in the Austin Whole Foods boutique.

"The breakthrough for food was taste--for fiber, it's fashion."

Truth in labeling Edun co-founder Ali Hewson hopes for a day--soon--when consumers know not only where their clothes are made and of what fabrics but also how they're made.

"People want to wear clothes that aren't made from other people's despair," said Hewson, who has four children with Bono, a.k.a. Paul Hewson, her high school sweetheart. "I know I don't want my children wearing clothes that are made by other people's children."

Clothing labels may not tell much of the story right now. But food labels didn't list details such as trans fats a year ago, either.

So what's Edun's next chapter? Bono is only joking when he responds, "World domination."

But he's earnest when he tells his fans at Saks: "The world changes in ways that are dramatic and ways that are not dramatic--but not less important."

- - -

Why a T's not just a T Erica Brandon and Hyden Yoo helped Q uncover what makes American Apparel's T's tick with hip, young shoppers (besides the "sweatshop-free" part).

Brandon, 29 and an assistant fashion coordinator for a department store, loved the fine-jersey sleeveless T-dress, $26 at American Apparel. She first showed us how she could layer it simply with the orange sheer jersey scarf, $15, as a belt. But here she models the combination as a canvas for a little creativity--she sewed on crystals and an applique at the shoulder of the dress and cut and dyed fabric from the scarf to make slit sleeves. Beneath were jeans with her boots.

Hyden Yoo, 26, who recently started his own dress-shirt line for men, showed us how American Apparel suits his funky side. He layered its red California fleece track jacket, $50, over its pink fine-jersey leisure shirt, $32, and unisex thermal T, $20. With his own jeans and high-tops, a seersucker cap topped it all off.