Fiber sales are the third-fastest-growing category of all non-food organic products, reports the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass. with sales of $160 million in 2005--up from $85 million in 2003.
"Consumers have the belief that organic is better, and they're looking for all kinds of ways to reduce the impact they have on the environment," says Matt Mole, president and founder of Vermont Organic Fiber Co., an organic wool wholesaler based in Middlebury, Vt. "They want to do that with the light bulbs they use, the cars they drive and the clothes they wear."
Still, those fibers represent only the tiniest percentages of the apparel world. About 1% of the world's cotton is organic, as is about 0.1% of the wool. Traditionally, green fabrics have been more expensive and less practical. And from a fashion perspective? Let's just say organic clothes have been better suited to sincere grad students than to someone like Anna Wintour.
H&M, which began selling organic cotton in certain children's lines several years ago, has been expanding its use of the fabric and has worked it into the spring collection, which debuted last month. And Gap recently introduced its Organic Cotton T-shirt for men in more than 500 stores, which retails for $16.50. "Our customers have shown a real interest in responsibly produced products," the company said when it announced the shirts.
Environmental maverick Timberland is also pushing organic T-shirts linked to Earth Day on Sunday. And Nike, which blends organic cotton with non-organic, continues to be among the leading consumers of organic cotton.
But while certain core consumers are becoming increasingly committed to these earth-friendly fibers, mass marketers have their work cut out for them selling organic clothes to John Q. Public. Part of the problem seems to be that as marketers have begun using words like "organic" and "sustainable," consumers have lost sense of the terminology. In a survey, Cotton Inc. found that four out of 10 respondents "freely admitted to having no idea what the terms "sustainable agriculture" and "renewable" mean.
And surprisingly, Cotton Inc.'s survey also found that while marketers are making more of an effort to promote sustainability and much more of an effort to communicate that to customers, most clothing shoppers themselves are less interested. "Since 2000, there has actually been a 12 percentage point drop (from 34% to 22%) in the number of consumers who find environmental friendliness an important aspect of an apparel purchase decision," the report says.
What's more, most consumers aren't terribly surprised when marketers lie about the environmental footprints their products have. When asked how they would feel if they purchased a product they thought to be organic and then later discovered it was not, 60% of respondents said they "might be bothered, but would do nothing," 26% said they "would not be bothered," and just 15% said "they'd be bothered enough to complain about it," according to the survey.
Insiders chalk that up to confusion. Getting educated about the environmental correctness of fabric takes a certain amount of commitment, especially because conversations usually cross over into other areas of political-correctness in an instant. For environmentalists, the cotton versus polyester debate should be an easy one, until consumers begin to learn not only how many pesticides are required to produce cotton, but how often cotton production violates U.S. standards of labor. Silk and down are both renewable resources--but both are denounced by groups like PETA for their cruelty to insects and birds.
"There's definitely consumer confusion from countering messages," agrees Mole, who thinks that even more mainstream consumers are becoming gradually more comfortable with the idea that for any given product, "sustainability" is a complicated question.
"It's more holistic, and consumers are beginning to understand there's a whole story--it's not just the kinds of feed that the sheep eat, it's also the kinds of chemicals used in processing the fiber, and the wages paid to the people who work with it." Sustainability, he says, isn't a black-and-white question: "It really is a continuum."