By Blanca Torres, MEDIANEWS STAFF
Article Last Updated: 04/21/2007 02:59:49 AM PDT
On a table in the women’s apparel section of the Concord REI lie piles of soft organic cotton T-shirts in assorted colors. Across the aisle hangs a lime green men’s button-up shirt made of an organic cotton and hemp material.
Next to both items are signs asking “Why eco-friendly fibers?” The answer from REI: “because they reduce impact without sacrificing performance.”
For Kent, Wash.-based REI, a national outdoor gear cooperative that has nine Bay Area stores, to carry eco-friendly items may not seem unusual since many of its customers are environmentally inclined. But mainstream retailers like Wal-Mart, H&M and Target are stocking shelves with organic cotton dresses, blue jeans and baby clothes.
“We felt that eco-friendly materials are really hot right now,” said Lisa Sandberg, a U.S. spokeswoman for H&M. “We do research on fashion trends globally. … This was yet another trend that was picked up on by our fashion department.”
Eco-friendly is the new buzzword in fashion now that more products are available in better styles and at more reasonable prices.
But, while the eco trend is growing, it’s also at a fickle stage between nascent and widespread and its success will depend on how well manufacturers and retailers can respond to consumer demand.
“There’s been so much attention on the environment, it’s really raised awareness,” said Shari Hatch Jones, a spokeswoman for Levi Strauss Signature, a division of Levi Strauss and Co. The San Francisco-based company plans to sell a line of organic jeans for men and boys in Target stores next fall.
“People are looking for easy ways to improve the environment,” she said. “This is one way to vote with your pocketbook.”
Accessibility is a crucial factor for many consumers, who may want to buy eco-friendly, but not if it’s a hassle.
“When I come across (an eco-friendly item), I do buy it,” said Heather Claus of Lafayette, who paused in a Wal-Mart recently to look at its George line of organic kids clothing. “I don’t seek it out. When you’re a mom, convenience is a hugefrom Business 1 factor.”
Claus, who is the mother of 4-year-old twin girls, says she is open to buying eco-friendly products, but doesn’t notice much of a difference unless the items are labeled as such.
“With all organic products, they have gotten better,” Claus said. “Now they are easier to find. … Companies are making it more economical to buy those products and it’s easier for people to find them.”
Previously, eco-friendly (the eco is short for “environmentally conscious”) meant rough hemp ponchos in earth tones or high-priced clothing items.
Now people can find a variety clothing made from materials like organic cotton, recycled fibers and bamboo that are not much different from their conventionally made counterparts.
“In the past organic cotton garments were less colorful, more neutral and the feel was different from traditional cotton clothing,” Sandberg said. “Now, fabric production for organic cotton is much more sophisticated.”
Many products now carry labels with terms like green, organic, fair trade, renewable and sustainable. All of which are supposed to signal a benefit for the environment, but some have fluid or vague definitions.
REI, for example, defines “sustainable” as “friendly to the environment and has the ability to meet present needs without compromising those of future generations.”
Eco-friendly is a direction in which many companies want to go if they are genuinely concerned about the environment,” said Mark Messura, executive vice president of Cotton Inc., a trade group based in New York. “There’s also is a segment of the industry that views this as the latest fad to market products.”
Roberto Giannicola of Walnut Creek is committed to living a green lifestyle in terms of his home, transportation, food, clothes and the new business he is launching: Provakare Presentations, a firm that educates companies on environmental issues.
He said he buys most of his clothes online or in Europe, where he says there is a much larger selection of eco-friendly retailers.
In the U.S., he looks at retailer’s labor and sourcing practices and generally avoids big chains, but is glad that some of those companies are taking small steps.
“Walking downtown and trying to find something that is ecofriendly is very difficult,” Giannicola said. “Obviously, for big retailers, it’s looking at the bottom line. They are trying to incorporate green customers into their clientele. I don’t know if they would not do it if they didn’t gain something from it.”
Organic indicates that the plant used to make a fabric was grown without pesticides from seeds that were not genetically altered.
“When you’re surrounded by all these terms, then it starts to look a whole lot like ‘new and improved,'” Messura said. “You see that on so many packages and so many labels that consumers are getting jaded.”
He said that while many consumers care about the environment, they consider other factors when buying clothing.
“Most consumers aren’t buying clothing just for the fact that it’s environmentally friendly,” Messura said. “If you want to market environmentally friendly clothing, you also have to market clothing that has style, comfort and has a good price.”
Retailers like H&M and Wal-Mart, the world’s largest buyer of organic cotton, offer organic apparel at the same prices as products made of conventional fabric.
“We buy in such huge quantities and our production system is so large, that we are able to negotiate good prices overall,” Sandberg said. “We are sourcing so much of the organic product now, it helps to keep it at a good price point.”
Nonetheless, organic cotton represents less than 1 percent of all the cotton grown in the world and organic cotton often costs 50 to 100 percent more than conventionally grown cotton, Messura said.
On the flip side, production of organic cotton is increasing. According to the Organic Exchange, an Oakland-based group that advocates for organic farming, production of organic cotton increased by 76 percent from 2005 to 2006 and demand from manufacturers almost doubled during that period.
Still, it could be too early too tell if these products are as beneficial as some companies say, said Ingrid Johnson, a professor of textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“There’s good things to come out of this trend and there are good solid reasons to pursue it and consumers are ready to pursue this,” Johnson said. “But I’m hesitant to say the products we have now are truly eco-friendly.”
She noted that sometimes clothing is made from organic cotton, but it could have been produced under poor labor conditions or in a factory that emits pollution.
“If you really want to be environmentally friendly, buy fewer things,” Johnson said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I need another T-shirt?'”