By  on October 28, 2008

In this dreary economic environment, where consumers are less willing to spend on discretionary products, many retailers are finding that interest in sustainable or organic apparel is still strong.

Barneys New York made a commitment to organic and sustainable products when it launched a major initiative in February 2007 with the introduction of casualwear collection Loomstate for Barneys Green in its 12 Co-op units. Barneys also held a “green” holiday in December 2007, with store windows, advertising and catalogues displaying an environmental theme.

Julie Gilhart, senior vice president and fashion director of Barneys, who helped spearhead the effort for the retailer, said demand has not waned at the luxury level. “The economy has not dampened our efforts to bring quality, authentic, sustainable merchandise into the store,” she said. “I think it is a misconception that [organic or sustainable] is more expensive to produce and slightly higher-priced at retail. The fact is that during tough economic times, a store must bring in merchandise that is the best quality for the price and definitely showcase the newest, most interesting merchandise. A store must engage the customer. Anything sustainable we have in the store has great quality, good design and a fair price.”

Perhaps luxury customers, who have started questioning the price of designer goods and rejecting five-figure gowns and four-figure handbags as gauche in light of the country’s fiscal health, see virtue in sustainable products.

“We address the sustainable issue in products at all price levels and all product categories, from ready-to-wear to accessories to cosmetics,” Gilhart said.

For the holiday season, Barneys will offer an organic resort collection from Stella McCartney. “We had an event last April where our customers brought in their old T-shirts and Loomstate refashioned them into refurbished Ts with very cool graphics. We created a limited edition T-shirt that has a peace sign graphic on it [for holiday].”

Other products due in stores include a Barneys New York Collection eco-friendly cashmere ruffle-front sweater dyed with natural vegetable pigments; an organic hemp with natural tanned leather shopper; hand-loomed shawls from Virginia Johnson made from wool from small farms in India and using low-impact dyes; scents from Intelligent Nutrients, which are the first to be made with USDA-certified organic food ingredients, and one-of-a-kind patchwork hats made from recycled sweaters by Face to Face. There’s also Cathy Waterman 22-karat recycled gold charm necklaces with six charms, each depicting a woman’s role, such as muse, goddess and dreamer.

Wal-Mart sells organic apparel such as Norma Kamali organic cotton tanks, T-shirts and henleys, George organic cotton infant and baby clothing, Faded Glory and No Boundaries for juniors, as well as many others. When Wal-Mart puts its enormous buying power behind a product or raw material, it can change the industry. For example, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer is the world’s largest purchaser of organic cotton and creates agreements with farmers to help them make the transition to organic farming. In April, the retailer said it purchased 12 million pounds of organic cotton to help boost the supply of certified organic cotton in the market. Wal-Mart has also sold apparel made from transitional cotton — from farms changing over whose crops are not yet certified — and RPET, a material made from recycled plastic bottles.

According to the International Sustainable Apparel Market, mass merchants led other retail channels, capturing 30 percent of the market for sustainable apparel in 2007, followed by online sellers with 22 percent, outdoor retailers with 18 percent, department stores, 16 percent, and specialty stores, 14 percent.

Nordstrom’s Pacific Northwest roots and the area’s active, outdoor lifestyle make sustainability a natural for its customers to embrace. “At Nordstrom, we have a long history of caring for the communities we serve,” said a spokeswoman. “We’re developing a comprehensive, company-wide corporate social responsibility strategy that’s being implemented this year. It focuses on four main areas that are important to our customers and employees: human rights, community giving, retention and recruitment and the environment. Through this strategy, we hope to develop stronger relationships with our customers and be a better global steward.”

Nordstrom is making an effort to reduce its impact on the environment through waste management, packaging, product innovation and energy efficiency. “We think it’s the right thing to do, and more importantly, we want to be responsive to our customers and employees,” the spokeswoman said.

Nordstrom introduced a reusable fashion tote illustrated by artist Ruben Toledo and priced at $21.95 in the spring. The tote is available at Nordstrom stores nationwide and online at In an effort to offer healthy skin care and beauty products, Nordstrom in March launched Well Beauty cosmetic boutiques in 25 stores and online. Well Beauty features a collection of brands from natural and organic to chemical-free, including Caudalie, Korres, Juice Beauty Organics, Pangea Organics, Care by Stella McCartney, Origins Organics and Shea Terra, among others. Products are chosen because they are paraben- and petrochemical-free and sold in recycled packages.

Nordstrom’s selection of organic apparel includes Viridis Luxe, Edun, Organic by John Patrick, Eileen Fisher, Nike, Loomstate (men’s) and Quiksilver (men’s).

“We’ve expanded our environmentally friendly practices within Nordstrom Product Group, the division that contracts to manufacture Nordstrom private label merchandise,” the spokeswoman said. “We’re successfully working toward an initiative to increase our use of organic cotton. For example, Nordstrom added a new exclusive women’s brand, Stem, in early 2008. All of the cotton used in this trend-driven casual brand is 100 percent organic.”

Nordstrom’s environmentally friendly packaging introduced in the spring includes recyclable shopping bags, gift boxes and gift card holders.

“We have seen an increased demand for our Loomstate brand and items containing certified organic cotton, signaling overall support for a new paradigm in fashion,” said Scott Hahn, founder of Loomstate, which uses 100 percent certified organic cotton. “Retailers are more enthusiastic about this sector because they are now comprehending the permanent nature of the trend.”

Hahn said consumers generally don’t associate ‘green’ with more expensive. “Most individuals who are committed to green understand that it will always be cheaper over time to buy intelligently or sustainable [items]. Short term savings around conventional thinking pale in comparison to the ecological capital reduction of irresponsible consumption. Buying organic is like putting money in a saving account, but the effective interest yield is something society is just learning to define and quantify, thus making sense of potential organic product price premiums.”

Macerich, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based developer and mall operator, commissioned a survey in August to find out how female shoppers feel about the environment. Eighty-two percent of respondents said it would make them feel better about their purchase to know it was supporting an environmental cause, 7 percent said it would make them feel worse about the purchase and 16 percent said it would have no effect on them.

However, a 2008 survey by the Hartman Group that found shoppers possibly losing interest in organic foods carries implications for organic and sustainable apparel as well. “What’s actually happening is some organic categories still have a lot of consumer interest, a lot of relevancy, a lot of room for growth,” said a spokeswoman. “For other categories, consumers are kind of saying, ‘I don’t really see the value of organic in those categories, and I’m really not interested anymore.’”

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