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Once Down to Earth, 'Organic Lifestyle' Goes Upscale

September 17, 2001|ELIZABETH LARGE | BALTIMORE SUN

A decade ago, if you admitted to having an organic lifestyle, you might have been labeled a granola-eating kook.

These days the phrase "organic lifestyle" has taken on a certain cachet. It suggests you have the money to buy produce at one of the upscale natural foods supermarkets, use expensive cosmetics such as the plant-based Aveda line, and wear supermodel Christy Turlington's yoga-inspired sportswear from Saks Fifth Avenue.

No matter that organic produce can be found at most regular supermarkets, that Aveda cosmetics are natural but not organic, and that many of Turlington's clothes are made with spandex and Lycra, not organic cotton. "Organic" has become a high-end lifestyle concept as much as it is a certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A glossy new magazine called Organic Style was launched last month. The first issue offers information on mad cow disease but also an interview with celebrity chef Charlie Trotter. It features a cutting-edge fashion spread, beauty advice and a look at a California architect's high style and almost incidentally environmentally correct house.

The word that once referred to food grown without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides has been broadened to include something more philosophical. At its best, "organic" means living a "greener" life, more in tune with nature and making less of an impact on our environment. Often, though, it's less about the world around us and more personal: How is this good for me? Organic Style's mantra is "The art of living in balance."

"The tagline is as much what the magazine is about as the name," says Maria Rodale, whose company, Rodale Press, publishes Organic Style as well as many books on the subject. "We're redefining it to mean authentic and true to yourself. It's more about you, and you feeling good about your life."

The redefining of organic would probably never have happened if the American public hadn't come to take organic products for granted. It hasn't hurt that some celebrated chefs have embraced organic ingredients because they believe naturally produced food tastes better. And there are negative reasons people have turned to what they consider "safer" foods.

Remember the Alar health scare of a decade ago? Worry about genetic engineering of foods also has increased the public's interest in natural produce.

Twenty years ago, an organic apple was likely to be undersized and a bit misshapen, even if it tasted great. But over the years farmers have learned how to produce a fruit that's just as good-looking as any in a regular supermarket.

"As organic fruits and vegetables have become more similar [to traditional produce], more people are finding reasons to buy them," says Julie Huntemann of Hartman Group, a research firm focusing on the healthy lifestyle and wellness market.

That juicy red apple you're about to eat is what Huntemann calls a "gateway to organic behavior." Market analysts talk about shoppers going from experimentation to heavy usage as if they were discussing an illegal drug. Take a bite of the pesticide-free fruit, which has been allowed to ripen on the tree, and who knows where it may lead? If you decide the produce is worth the extra cost, you could move on to organic milk to avoid feeding your child growth hormones, to natural beauty lotions, even to eco-friendly cleaning products. But the fruit comes first.

Over the last decade, according to the Massachusetts-based Organic Trade Assn., sales of organic products have increased more than 20% each year.

"The greatest change is the acceptance by mainstream Amer-ica," says Margaret Wittenberg, a vice president at Whole Foods, the largest retailer of natural and organic foods. "Now 'organic' is more of a household word."

Why has this led to an interest in organic style now? Analysts, as so often happens, look to the baby boomers for at least a partial answer because they are such a large group. As boomers have gotten older, they have moved into their peak earning years.

"A good place to be if you're buying all-natural anything since the prices are often higher," points out Michelle Lamb, publisher of the Trend Curve.

Aging boomers are a big reason for the growing interest in "wellness" products, neutraceuticals (foods said to provide medical or health benefits) and preventative medicine through diet. And being children of the '60s, they are comfortable with what once would have been considered tree-hugger concepts.

Organic style was the next logical step once Americans with disposable income decided that yoga could be as beneficial as jogging, that a visit to a spa not only felt good but was also somehow good for you, and that feng shui was a perfectly reasonable approach to decorating your home.

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