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Being green comes into fashion

February 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

MIAMI — High fashion is going granola. But not the grunge of hippie yoga wear and grainy hemp T-shirts typically associated with organic clothes.

Think soft soy dresses, cropped organic terry jackets and slim-fit organic denim jeans to pair with stilettos, not flip-flops.

Consumers worried about ingesting harmful pesticides have long been purchasing organic foods. But the philosophy is slowly hitting mainstream clothing retailers as experts warn about the dangers pesticides pose to the environment.

Whether shoppers are buying eco-friendly because it's trendy or because they hope to preserve Mother Earth, they no longer have to sacrifice fashion for philosophy.

With major retailers such as Target Corp., Victoria's Secret Stores Inc., H&M and Nike Inc. joining the green trend, there's something for fashionistas of every price range in 2007.

"We're fashion first. The fact that they're organic is a value-added product," said Marci Zaroff, founder of Under the Canopy, one of the world's largest producers of organic clothing.

Organic cotton, which makes up 95% of organic fabrics, is the driving force behind the trend.

Global organic cotton sales more than doubled, from $245 million to $583 million, from 2001 to 2005. Sales are expected to reach more than $2 billion by the end of 2008, according to the Organic Exchange, a nonprofit trade association that works to expand the use of organically grown cotton.

Although more retailers are considering organic cotton, it makes up less than 1% of cotton produced in the world. Designers are also experimenting with eco-friendly fabrics made of bamboo, soy, Ingeo (corn) and hemp silk.

The market is expanding "because a number of very large retailers are actually going to have a lot of product available in 2007," said Rebecca Calahan Klein, president of California-based Organic Exchange.

Target, which carries a number of organic baby clothes, is expanding its line this year. Sam's Club and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are among the top five brands that use the most organic cotton globally, according to Organic Exchange.

Victoria's Secret will also add organic cotton to its collection this year, Klein said.

Nike, which has been using organic cotton for several years, is one of the world's largest retail users of organic cotton. Spokeswoman Morgan Shaw says 52% of the garments the company manufactured last year contained at least some organic material.

Costs are slightly higher but comparable. A men's vintage-style organic cotton T-shirt at Wal-Mart is $9.83, and a similar regular cotton T sells for $8.83. Levi Strauss & Co. started offering organic denim jeans in select stores in November -- $68 for their Red Tab jean compared with $40 for nonorganic.

The look and feel of the clothes are so fashion-forward that many consumers don't even realize they're buying organic. They just like the style, says Under the Canopy's Zaroff.

A yoga devotee with long blond hair and lots of hippie jewelry, Zaroff looks younger than 39. She talks about Al Gore's movie on global warming and other environmental issues at her Boca Raton, Fla., office, where she is working on a high-fashion line debuting later this year.

The 108 line of upscale street wear includes dresses in muted tones made of soft soy and organic cotton voile.

She founded her company in 1996, when organic wear was little more than a hempseed. She expects $10 million in sales this year.

"It was frumpy and boxy and crunchy and all those things people don't want," Zaroff said of older organic clothing. "The consumer was ready. The seed was planted with organic food and beauty products."

High-end designers such as Stella McCartney are including organic fabrics in their collections and celebrity entrepreneurs are also joining the trend. U2's Bono launched his socially conscious clothing line, Edun, in 2005 in an attempt to increase trade and create sustainable employment in developing countries. About 30% of the company's clothes are made from organic cotton.

With celebrities endorsing hybrid cars, vegetarian diets and launching their own eco-friendly clothing lines, experts say it was only a matter of time before the trend caught on with fashion.

"It clearly has gotten more attention now because it's not just an industry sector. It's a global phenomenon," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD Group Inc., a market research firm. "We're seeing it in cars, we're seeing it in homes products, apparel, food."

He says consumers are willing to spend 20% more for eco-friendly products such as organic clothes.

It takes about a third of a pound of pesticides to produce one cotton T-shirt.

About 180 to 300 pounds of chemical fertilizer is used on one acre of cotton in the U.S. About 90% of the fertilizer doesn't stay on the plant; it washes off, ending up in water supplies and habitat, says Klein of the Organic Exchange.

Retailers say it's not just about buying organic; it's about the entire process. Growing organic requires crop rotation, meaning a field that is planted with cotton this year could be used for food the next.

"So if we get a large amount of cotton production moved to organic, we'll also end up expanding the world's access to organic food supply," Klein said.

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