Clothes Go 'Green' ... and Not Just for Hippies

It sounds like something you'd put in a salad rather than wear on your body, but organic clothing has finally broken away from the corners of granola culture and made it into the fashion mainstream.

If you want proof, look no further than the American Joe's everyday wear — Levi's Jeans, which will soon offer an organic line. They're already following in the footsteps of such large-scale retailers as Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Target, which offer organic wear at reasonable prices.

Since 2001, the organic-cotton industry alone has gone from $245 million to $583 million, and with other organic-clothing options becoming more and more practical and accepted — fabrics like those made from bamboo, for instance — it looks like being green no longer means having to look like the kind of person the DEA likes to have a word with at airports.

“We saw a total void two to three years ago in contemporary, fashionable clothing that's organic,”
said San Francisco organic-clothing designer Kelly Barry. “Now there's a huge market looking to be environmentally responsible but that doesn't want to sacrifice looking good for that whole Hacky Sack-hippie look, yoga wear, Patagonia outerwear and drawstring sack-type pants."

Howard Brown, co-founder of Ventura, Calif.-based Stewart+Brown, says it's the best year yet for organic couture — and it's still only the beginning.

“Our sales have grown three times what they were from 2005,” he says. “We doubled every year (since 2001). This year, it's tripled. I think our watershed year is going to be this year. But this green revolution that's happening hasn't even peaked."

The rise of organic clothing may have an even greater effect than the popularity of organic food. Of all the world's crops, cotton uses the most artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and when you're talking about a $300 billion industry, that's not small potatoes.

But some insist that the organic-wear movement is an example of the emperor with no clothes —especially for the big-time textile associations.

Cotton Inc., for example, says that there isn't enough organic cotton to supply the world, and that the higher costs of growing organic cotton would mean higher price tags at the store and an additional 6 million acres just to meet the U.S. demand for cotton.

Genetic engineering improvements are also reducing the need for pesticides and water consumption. On the other hand, plenty of people already have issues with genetically modifying crops and the concept of trying to improve on Mother Nature.

Organic-clothing fans say the downsides of the regular textile industry have already been amply demonstrated — in contaminated soil and water, polluted air, the destruction and slow poisoning of the life cycles of plants and animals — including humans.

As for cost, organic prices are slightly higher, but comparable. A men's organic cotton T-shirt at Wal-Mart is $7.88; the same brand in non-organic cotton is $6. Women's organic cotton yoga capri pants are $15; women's non-organic cotton pants are also $15.

There's more of a difference in the cost of denim. Levi's organic Red Tab jeans start at about $68 vs. $45 for non-organic Red Tab jeans.

But as the debate continues, a lot of the factors holding back green garments have suddenly melted away like cheap dye in an old-fashioned hemp shirt.

Producers are making a wider variety of less-expensive organic fabrics for designers to work with; the current fashion zeitgeist is focused on the concept of self-expression; and consumers have become far more familiar with the vocabulary of environmental consciousness and thus feel less alienated when they see a product boasting about being good for the planet.

“I would go into a store eight years ago and say, 'I want something good for me that hasn't been harming me or anybody else,' but I didn't know the language," said Linda Loudermilk, CEO of Los Angeles-based Loudermilk Inc. and consultant for several of the large mainstream clothing and retail corporations who are going greener.

“I would be barraged by 'This doesn't have this,' or 'That doesn't have that,' and 'Everything causes cancer.' It was too much information.”

But perhaps the most significant sign that organic clothing has gone mainstream is that consumers can't even tell the difference anymore.

Kate McGregor opened her store, Kaight, on the Lower East Side of New York City in mid-August 2006, and has purposefully downplayed the fact that the dresses, jewelry and other clothing she offers for sale are organic.

But environmentally conscious or not, they're buying.

“Seventy-five percent of my customers just walk in off the street and buy the clothing without any idea they're organic or have an eco-element to them, which means that the clothes are fashionable enough and appealing to a broad audience,” McGregor said.

“And the people that have those politics are really excited and happy to see stuff that's fashionable."

Because the organic-clothing revolution is relatively new and still small, and because of the nature of the organic debate — that every act of environmental consciousness contributes to the health of the whole Earth — it's hard to say what its impact has been or could be.

But regardless, with the big corporations on board, Brown says the average Joe in middle America can soon expect to be wearing organic sometime alongside the greens and the fashionistas.

“It's going to be a lot different in three or four years,” he said. “This is a revolution that needs to
happen. We want everyone to wear, buy and eat organic. It's about everybody winning.”