By  on October 30, 2007

The denim market faces unique challenges in the drive for eco-conscious apparel.

As fashion continues to become more eco-conscious, denim jeans remains one of the most impractical categories to make truly environmentally friendly.

While organic cotton might make up the actual denim, the process itself — which uses excessive amounts of water, energy, dyes and chemicals — makes the phrase "organic jeans" a contradiction in terms. As a result, producers of denim lines that had once considered going organic are now rethinking that strategy, while others have chosen to focus on alternative ways to produce clothing and run their companies in a sustainable way.

"There is no such thing as an organic pair of jeans," said Mel Matsui, founder of Seattle-based denim brand Christopher Blue.

"It's not just about the fabric. It's what happens after you wash it," he said.

The vagaries of the term "organic jeans" are something that many people in all aspects of the industry are familiar with.

"There's really no difference between conventional and organic cotton fiber," said Robin Merlo, director of marketing communications at Cotton Incorporated in New York. "Fiber to fiber, they're exactly the same. But from the manufacturing point of view, organic can refer not only to fiber, but the finished fabric, dye and detailed finishing, including the thread. The bottom line is that it varies in definition, depending on who's giving the definition."

Therein lies the dilemma for denim companies striving to create an organic jean.

"Denim is hard," said Tierra Forte, owner of Del Forte, an organic jeans label based in Berkeley, Calif. "But just the act of choosing organic cotton, even if it costs more and is harder to find, has a positive effect."

With her line now in its third season, Forte has tried to circumvent the usual obstacles. Ninety percent of the organic cotton she uses comes from farms in California and Texas, and she actively seeks out alternative processes.

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