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Hip new world of sustainable fashion

Farmers find a new market as designers seek out locally grown organic fibers. Their goal is to leave a smaller carbon footprint.

January 06, 2008|Garance Burke | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — In a workshop in the city's Mission District, Ally Beran's team of fashion designers is sprawled out over buttons and spools of thread, hoping to stem global warming by stitching new outfits from thrift-store finds.

A brown lace applique from a scrap bin could make last year's castoff cashmere really pop, Beran muses. Or swatches from a tattered leather jacket could double as chic epaulets on a high-end used sweater.

Designers of sustainable fashion are not only dominating New York catwalks and urban boutique racks this winter; many also are providing farmers with new markets. As with the movement for locally harvested food, ecofashion devotees seek to lower their toll on the earth by buying clothes made of recycled materials and sustainably harvested, homegrown fibers.

This year, American Apparel and yoga-gear retailer prAna will start selling shirts spun with cotton grown in the Central Valley and sewn in Southern California to burn less fossil fuel in transporting the materials.

Beran's creations, marketed under the label William Good -- a play on the company's business partner, Goodwill Industries -- are only sold online and in San Francisco area stores to reduce its carbon footprint.

Last summer, New York's Rag & Bone hired model Shalom Harlow as the face for its line of "carbon free" T-shirts, which were manufactured domestically in a process that required no greenhouse gas emissions.

For farmer Frank Williams, the new interest in locally grown, organic cotton has meant he has had to learn how to talk about thread-count and women's skirt lengths with the ecologically minded crowds that tour his fields in Firebaugh.

"These fibers are among the best organic in the world," said Williams, as he led a group of fashion executives from China, Sweden and New York through rows of billowy cotton. "With the right diameter, length and strength, you can really spin the finest yarns that you want."

U.S. farmers grow a small portion of the organic cotton used by the apparel industry, which still sources most of its fibers overseas in countries like Turkey where labor and production costs are cheaper. However, the market is clearly booming: the nonprofit Organic Exchange predicts that sales of organic cotton fiber will reach $226 million by 2009, up from about $19 million in 2004.

As more companies seek to build a greener supply chain, American farmers are hoping that will translate into greater demand for domestic crops.

William Good's CEO Nick Graham said the idea for his new company came as he was wandering around a Goodwill store, thinking about all the used clothing that ended up in landfills.

"I thought we could do an organic line, but then I thought that's just more stuff we'd be creating," said Graham. "It's the American way to say, 'We need more growth,' but what if we created an economy with everything we've already used once?"

Still, analysts caution that until earth-friendly clothes come down in price, only a small group of consumers will think about their carbon footprint.

"We've gotten more people aware or interested in ecological fashion, but most of the world's still looking for cheaper, better, faster," said Marshal Cohen, a fashion industry analyst. "The message will resonate, but it's going to take more time."

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