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Annual Organic Clothing Sales in U.S. Reach $85 Million

By Ira Dreyfuss

May 15, 2004

CHICAGO ­ Some of Scott Leonard's cotton sweaters come in a red called
"watermelon" and greens called "mint" and "herb."

The similarities to things people eat do not end there.

The cotton in the sweaters is organic ­ grown like organic foods, without
chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Those who believe such chemicals are
bad for health and the environment can stack organic alternatives in their
closets as well as their pantries.

"There are no nasty chemicals being put into the cotton," said Leonard,
marketing director for Indigenous Designs. The Santa Rosa, Calif., company,
which sells clothes to stores as well as directly to consumers, displayed
its products at the Organic Trade Association's exposition in Chicago this

While the cotton may be 100 percent organic, Leonard acknowledges that his
company used chemical dyes. "Plant dyes, the colorfastness is horrible," he

Organic clothing, including cotton and wool, had a small part in the All
Things Organic show, which was dominated by foods. But the organic label is
important to some clothes buyers.

These consumers are "concerned about doing something right for the
environment," said Matt Hyde, senior vice president for merchandising at
REI, the outdoors retail chain based in Kent, Wash.

Some fans of organic clothes take the position that whatever chemicals
remain in conventional cotton could get through the skin and affect health.

"A lot of the buyers go organic for health reasons," said Raya Newbold,
president of Round Belly Clothing of Shoreview, Minn., which sells maternity
and children's wear. Newbold, pregnant with her fourth child, believes
"there is no way to go but organic."

The conventional cotton industry disputes that idea.

"The processes that a fabric goes through prior to and during dyeing and
finishing would remove any traces of crop-protection products," said Phillip
Wakelyn, a senior scientist with the National Cotton Council in Washington.
"From a residue-free standpoint, there is no difference between
conventionally grown cotton and organic cotton."

As for the environment, conventional cotton growers are sparing with their
pest-control chemicals, to control costs, Wakelyn said. Some modern biotech
cotton plants even produce their own insecticides.

For most people, however, the bottom line is how the style looks, so REI
treats organic as "a bonus," Hyde said. "It's not the No. 1 selling angle we

At REI, organic cotton items are single digits or low double-digits compared
with overall cotton sales, Hyatt said.

Some customers care a lot and others are mostly interested in something that
looks nice, said Jill Vlahos, director of environmental analysis for
Patagonia. At the Ventura, Calif.-based outdoors clothing and gear company,
the entire cotton product line is 100 percent organic.

Nike began blending small amounts of organic cotton into some clothing in
1998. It now has two organic lines ­ one 100 percent and the other a blend
of organic and conventional fiber. Organic cotton gets about three percent
of Nike's overall cotton use, said Jill Zanger, a Nike spokeswoman.

According to the Organic Trade Association's survey of manufacturers, the
overall organic fiber market, including clothing and home textiles, grew
almost 23 percent in 2003, accounting for about $85 million in U.S. sales.

The amount of organic cotton available is relatively small.

In the 2000-2001 growing season, the world grew an estimated 14 million
pounds, less than 1 percent of all cotton production, the Organic Trade
Association said. An Agriculture Department cotton expert, Leslie Meyer,
said industry estimates are that organic cotton accounts for less than 1
percent of all U.S. cotton.

Leonard said the higher cost of organic cotton fiber, plus the inability to
mass produce on the scale of conventional cotton clothing, keeps prices for
100 percent organic clothes as much as 10 percent to 15 percent above
conventional clothing.