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The Green Light

Early failures didn't stop the eco-fashion movement. Apparel makers just moved the idea into flourishing niche markets.


A few years back, there was a ripple of interest in eco-friendly clothing.

The idea was to dress responsibly without scalping the planet. But after a flood of scratchy clothes with a homemade look, the buzz died, and the fashion world cantered off in hot pursuit of The Next Big Thing.

Although it has had some notable flops, the eco-fashion movement isn't dead. Instead, it's heading for mainstream acceptance in several categories--jeanswear, sportswear, sweaters, shirts, lounge wear, outerwear and children's clothing.

Los Angeles-based O Wear, dubbed "America's first 100% certified organic cotton clothing company," was founded in 1989 by fashion industry veteran George Akers. Organic cotton was scarce, but he encouraged area farmers to grow more for his company, which projects sales of more than $20 million by decade's end.

Blue Fish, of Frenchtown, N.J., is a designer, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of New Age clothing made of organic or recycled materials finished with hand-blocked linoleum prints created by local artisans. Although its public relations director, Ta Kimble, is the company's "spirit keeper," Blue Fish is not a hippie pipe dream. It has sales in the millions, and its stock is publicly traded.

But Aveda, well-known for its extensive collection of ecologically correct cosmetics, hair products and fragrances, failed in a bid to add socially responsible fashion to its line. Nicole Ricklebacher of Minneapolis, daughter of Aveda's founder, started Anatomy "to show other designers it can be done." Alas, it didn't fly.

Other failures include Wrangler's Earth Wash jeans, stone-washed in a way that reduced waste, and Code Bleu's much ballyhooed Soda Pop denim jeans, made from a blend of recycled soda bottles and cotton.

"There was no demand or interest from the consumer and very little support from retailers," says Code Bleu's Lainey Goldberg, executive vice president of sales.

One area where it did have success, Goldberg says, was in the children's market. "Schools are doing a good job teaching ecology, and kids are much more committed to taking care of the environment."

Yet Columbia Sportswear Co. in Portland, Ore., successfully produces BioWashed jeans, a biodegradable alternative to chemically stone-washed denims.

And there's Trio Eco-Blend Denim, "a high-tech blend with an ecological conscience." Trio, a jeanswear fabric, is made of Tencel (a rayon-like fiber without rayon's eco-messy production process), EcoSpun fiber and cotton.

Since 1994, Men's Health magazine has periodically published "Eco-Style Guide," a handbook listing sources for clothing, accessories and footwear "made with the Earth in mind, with new fabrics and new production processes."

"The companies listed in our guide have more than doubled from the first issue," says Warren Christopher, the magazine's fashion and grooming editor. "While the eco market is still in its early stages, its growth reflects a shift from a cottage industry to a dedicated niche market. A lot of our younger readers are living ecologically correct lives. In college or newly graduated, they are in tune with the environment. They're buying the unbleached and recycled cottons, the hemp fabric clothes and the soda bottle ski wear."

Almost as lengthy is the listing of apparel companies using Wellman Inc.'s EcoSpun, a fiber produced from recycled soda bottles. "Although we launched it [in 1993] for outerwear, it's used in dozens of categories now," says Judith Langan, Wellman's communications director. "Products and garments made of EcoSpun are sold around the world. The Japanese, especially, love the concept."

Eventually, says Jim Casey, president of the fibers division, EcoSpun production could recycle about 3 billion bottles per year.

Manufacturers using EcoSpun include Ventura-based Patagonia, Colombia Sportswear, Eileen Fisher and Levi's.

Deep in the heart of Texas, another "green" fiber revolution is brewing. The Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, growers of organic cotton certified and regulated by the state agriculture department, have organized a marketing arm, Cotton Plus Ltd., to promote a growing catalog of products, yarns and fabrics.

"Certified organic cotton" is cotton that is grown on land that has remained free of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years. Although this chemical-free cotton is more expensive to buy, because it is more difficult to grow and process, growers say supply is outpaced by demand.

Hemp, a product of the marijuana plant, is trying to rehabilitate its image. Once used nearly worldwide in rope-making, paper and apparel, growing hemp was outlawed in the United States and many other countries earlier in the century as part of the war on illegal drugs.

While growing hemp is still illegal in the U.S., it is not illegal to import hemp fabric from the handful of countries that commercially grow the plant. Hal Nelson, founder of the American Hemp Mercantile in Seattle, imports hemp apparel and other hemp products for more than 1,000 stores, many in California. American Hemp Mercantile had sales of $1.5 million in 1995 and $1.8 million last year.

"The popularity of hemp apparel is growing," Nelson says. "The quality is improving. In three years we've gone from selling beige sack dresses to clothes that are colorful and stylish.

"Manufacturers are investing money for better dyeing, finishing and detailing. Consumers are finding hemp fabrics are better than cotton. The fibers of hemp are long and strong like a supima cotton, yet fewer harsh chemicals are used in its cultivation and processing."

But, he adds, consumers aren't buying because it is eco-friendly.

"Consumers are buying it because it's cool. We have to do more education."

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