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Apparel Firms Join Green Brigade

The American fashion world is finally getting serious about turning green.

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The American fashion world is finally getting serious about turning green.

As the environment takes center stage in films such as the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and in magazines from Vanity Fair to Domino, apparel firms are increasingly getting behind the green movement — using organic cotton, hemp and bamboo; producing hangtags with recycled paper; using reusable boxes for shipping, and replacing light bulbs with energy-efficient versions. (For more on the fashion industry and the Green Movement, see Section II.)

“It has hit a tipping point, where the market has gone from hippie to hip, with every major industry embracing environmental and social responsibility,” said Marci Zaroff, president of Under the Canopy, based in Boca Raton, Fla., an organic clothing company that has seen its annual wholesale volume climb to $10 million since it started in 1996. “With companies like Whole Foods infiltrating the mainstream and Wal-Mart expanding its organic offerings, and people as influential as Al Gore telling the global warming story, the story is getting out.”

While there are green-focused labels such as Loomstate and Edun, more and more mainstream fashion firms are launching environmentally friendly initiatives. Kenneth Cole’s socially conscious ads cover many causes, including environmental issues. Some of them read: “Many think the U.S. is close to reducing global warming, others think we’re just getting warmer. Are you putting us on? — Kenneth Cole” and, “Is it me or is it warm in here? — Kenneth Cole.”

California, of course, is home to a host of clothiers that have environmentally sustainable business practices such as recycling and using organic cotton, bamboo, hemp and other natural textiles. The pioneer was Patagonia of Ventura, Calif., which introduced fabrics made of recycled plastic bottles in 1993. Now, nearly every sector has at least one player that waves the green banner: Liz Claiborne’s Prana (outdoor); Levi Strauss (denim); Stewart + Brown, Undesigned/Carol Young, Hayley Starr and The Battalion (contemporary), and Sector 9, Volcom, Quiksilver’s Roxy and Vans (action sports).

Designer Linda Loudermilk promotes a style movement she dubs “Luxury Eco,” and, in the blank T-shirt business, American Apparel, Article 1 and Arbor offer tops made of organic cotton and bamboo that other companies can buy to screen-print. Further north, in Portland, Ore., start-ups such as Nau and Merrell Apparel laid a green foundation with environmentally friendly textiles. Plus, west of the Rockies, new eco-minded labels are constantly sprouting with names like Green Apple and Moonseed + Mugwort.

This story first appeared in the April 10, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Loudermilk aims to take the green philosophy to the red carpet. At this year’s Oscars ceremony, producer Lesley Chilcott wore the designer’s emerald green strapless gown made of a bamboo and organic cotton corduroy to accept the top documentary prize for “An Inconvenient Truth.” This fall, Loudermilk plans to introduce a fake fur made of organic cotton. “It’s so elegant,” said Loudermilk, whose father had a cotton farm in southern Georgia where she witnessed the effect that pesticides had on wildcats and other animals that lived nearby.

Six months ago, she started a nonprofit organization called Loudermilk Institute for Sustainability to develop a supply network for apparel manufacturers, weavers and chemical companies that want to commercialize new fibers such as seacell, which is derived from seaweed and bonded with wood pulp. In July, she plans to open a store, complete with a 1,000-square-foot roof garden, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles that will support a green lifestyle with clothes, bedding, sunglasses, beauty products, children’s games and anything that can be made sustainably.

Although eco-friendly initiatives are often associated with higher manufacturing costs, those firms that have joined the eco brigade feel it’s worth the expense. They believe today’s consumers are much more ecologically aware and willing to pay higher costs for clothing and other products they believe aren’t damaging the environment.

Acknowledging the growing movement, executives agree it takes more than lip service.

“If people are going to take steps in an eco-friendly direction, they need to make sure it’s real,” said Beaver Theodosakis who, with his wife, Pam, founded Prana 14 years ago. “It’s not for everybody.”

As being green becomes trendy, Theodosakis wants consumers to be aware of what businesses are truly eco conscious. “There needs to be a common language in eco-friendly clothing, so it won’t be confusing to consumers when people are just doing it for green washing,” Theodosakis said. “Consumers have X-ray vision these days.”

Prana tries to make eco-friendly choices at every step of the production process, including using sustainable materials, such as organic hemp and cottons, and “reputable” factories, such as those already doing business with Patagonia; making 60 percent of its products in Southern California and using California-grown organic cotton to cut down on shipping, and encouraging recycling in its offices.

Prana — which means “breath” in Sanskrit — also launched a natural power initiative two years ago, buying wind power to make up for energy used in the company’s facilities, as well as in the homes of its employees and athletes, and then by its distributors. Last year, the wind power Prana bought saved as much polluting energy as removing 5,300 cars off the road for a year, according to Theodosakis. Prana tripled its support of wind power in 2007, and has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for the creativity of the project. Prana also is part of One Percent for the Planet, a network of some 400 businesses, that pledge to donate 1 percent of their sales to environmental charities. Prana’s parent, Liz Claiborne, has a wind power program to cover the energy used at its New Jersey offices: 25,000 megawatt hours. “Prana has influenced us from Day One,” said Robbie Karp, Claiborne’s senior vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel.

Prana is the only green line in the Claiborne portfolio. “Do I envision more green components in our lines? Yes. Do I think all of Liz Claiborne will be green? No,” said Robbie Karp, senior vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel. “It won’t be our competitive advantage or what we look to lead on, but we will do what we can.”

But there are challenges to going organic, according to Amy Taub Kahn, president of Rousso Apparel Group, which hopes Naturally Organic World, an organic line it launched for spring, will generate sales of $3 million to $5 million in its first year and then $5 million to $8 million in the second year.

Among the hurdles companies face in going green:

— The lead times are longer — more than six months, as opposed to Rousso’s typical four months — because a vendor must commit to organic yarns and time in organic-certified factories, according to Kahn. Because of the limited number of factories and farms with organic certifications, a vendor can’t scramble for space at the last minute, so its prediction becomes its commitment.

— Colors are a challenge when vegetable and fruit dyes replace traditional ones. Without bleach or chlorine, optic white is not an option. And if, for example, the raspberries in one batch are darker than in another batch, the shirts will range in color, as well. “It’s not like you hand over Pantone tabs,” Kahn said.

— Natural fibers don’t necessarily make the best commercial textiles. Mark Boehmer, fabric and materials manager for Merrell Apparel, said he always gets pitches about promising fabrics such as milkweed, soy and corn. But he said he hesitates to use them because they have problems with pilling or dyeing, delivery is unreliable and prices are lofty.

— Proponents of organic cotton wonder how much farmers can supply as Wal-Mart, Levi’s and other conglomerates ramp up demand. That’s why Prana’s Theodosakis wants to rally designers and manufacturers to use basic cotton, which still requires some pesticides, albeit 80 percent less than what is sprayed on conventional cotton. “There is only so much organic cotton,” Theodosakis said.

— Making a line organic can add about 30 percent to costs, which Naturally Organic World passes on to the customer. Shirts wholesale for $16 to $38, and sweats go for $38 to $54. The line is carried at Dillard’s, which Kahn said “has really gone after green business,” and specialty stores.

Still, many fashion firms believe the extra effort is worth it.

In 2001, Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder and steward of its environmental practices, cofounded One Percent for the Planet, which includes Volcom’s V.Co-Logical subbrand and Alima Cosmetics.

By 2010, Chouinard wants Patagonia to make all clothing from materials that have been or can be recycled. So far, Patagonia is recycling its organic cotton T-shirts, polyester underwear and Polartec fleece. Upping the ante, Patagonia said it also accepts Polartec fleece made by its competitors such as L.L. Bean and VF Corp.’s The North Face for its recycling program. While polyester underwear and fleece are sent to Japan’s Teijin Ltd. and reprocessed as virgin polyester, the organic cotton Ts are shipped to Italy so they can be finely cut up and respun into new fibers, a Patagonia spokeswoman said. Patagonia said it aimed to recycle nylon and polyester shells by the end of 2008.

Last year, L.L. Bean decided to use only biodiesel fuel for its entire transportation fleet, instead of just part of it, as it had been doing the previous two years, said Carolyn Beem, public affairs manager. The mail-order business and retailer, based in Freeport, Maine, even uses some biodiesel buses to transport people to its Outdoor Discovery Program, which includes kayak lessons, skeet shooting and other activities.

L.L. Bean works with Apparel Footwear International RSL Management to avoid using toxic chemicals in its products. L.L. Bean continually looks at the paper sources it uses for catalogues and packaging to be certain the paper comes from sustainable managed forests and that “a chain of custody is in place,” she said. The company also contributes to land preservation and open space conservation every year. Last year’s donation was $2.5 million, Beem said.

At Eileen Fisher, protecting the environment has become a part of its mission statement over the last two-and-a-half years. Fisher herself has been an active participant in the Clinton Global Initiative. In addition, organic cotton jersey is a key element in the collection, and the company has been alerting customers to the items on its Web site, eileenfisher.com. This spring, the brand introduced new weaves and knits such as organic cotton voile, and an organic cotton double knit for a jacket. An organic cotton sweater is hand knit by artisans in Peru, and this qualifies for the Fair Trade Seal.

“Customers are reacting to it,” said Amy Hall, the director of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher. “Interestingly, on the retail side, in March 2006, our organic cotton sales represented a little over 4 percent of our sales, and this year, in that same month, they are almost 9 percent of total sales. It’s about a 150 percent increase retail-wise. There is a customer who cares that the product is organic and just loves how it feels and performs. It has a soft and luxurious feeling.”

Hall expects the trend will grow in the future.

“For us, it’s finding the marriage between what is going to sell, fashion- and style-wise, and the perceived value,” she continued. “It’s simply that for us, our price points are already at a place where our customers are comfortable, and if we were to raise them 20 percent, the customer has to feel that there is a value there because the [organic] fibers are more expensive.”

Firms are attempting to counteract that, however. Anvil Knitwear, based in New York, introduced an affordable product to the organic world this March. Distributed through Alpha Shirt Co., T-shirts with 100 percent organic cotton and dye wholesale for $3.50. Though the price is more than the $2 the vendor’s comparable nonorganic shirts go for, it is far short of what is traditionally associated with organics. Manufacturing more than 100 million units a year, Anvil can produce organic at a price.

Anvil entered the market after “watching organic cotton go from a fad to a trend,” according to chief executive officer Anthony Corsano. “Organic has taken on sufficient traction that it made sense to go mass market,” he said. “Our size allows us to take a fad that the market is paying too much for and run it through our overhead to make it priced right.”

Lululemon, a Vancouver yoga apparel company, always has had a holistic message, but its Oqoqo line adds a full organic element. The price of Oqoqo’s organic offerings is about the same as Lululemon’s technical apparel.

“Sometimes making eco-friendly choices doesn’t cost any more, and sometimes it’s substantially more. Probably the biggest cost is learning how to work with these fabrics, like bamboo, which is more delicate,” said Deanne Schweitzer, Lululemon’s director of product.

While 20 percent of Lululemon’s line come fall will be in organic, the entire Oqoqo line uses eco-friendly fabrics, dyes and processes.

“We make a different decision for every fabric. In the running group, we do not necessarily use organic cotton, but rather recycled polyester, because we want the performance elements,” said Schweitzer. “There are trade-offs between fabrics: Organic cotton uses less chemicals, while soy and bamboo use less water.”

John Patrick, owner and designer of Organic, a contemporary line made of completely organic fabrics, isn’t designing his line just to save the environment.

“A few years ago I was traveling in Amsterdam. I rented a bicycle and as I was riding around. I realized how compact and simple everything was,” he explained. “They just have a simpler way of life, and I wanted to think of a way to simplify my life and work.”

So he closed his hat business, moved to upstate New York and opened his business there, where people were living a simpler life. Patrick began studying processes of making clothing and became fascinated.

“There are so many things you can do with organic cotton, and I never even realized it,” he said. “You can actually grow cotton in various colors, which I think many people don’t realize.” While these colors are still rare, Patrick said he had begun to experiment with new ways to color organic fabrics, using organic dyes made from vegetables.

Panda Snack was founded in 2005 on the premise of bringing a more fashion-forward point of view to eco fashions, using mostly bamboo. It was launched with crewneck shirts and tank tops since and has expanded into bamboo cashmere sweaters and bamboo cashmere dresses. “The only limitation is in one’s imagination,” said Dearrick Knupp, a partner. The collection, which wholesales from $28 to $150, is sold at Stanley Korshak in Dallas, Fred Segal in Los Angeles and Kaight in New York’s Lower East Side.

Another label that touted being green before it was a hip marketing tool is 13-year-old Indigenous Designs Natural Fiber Clothing in Santa Rosa, Calif. But the $4 million company, which relies on 275 cooperatives in Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and India to knit and weave its clothes, has had to change with the times. For spring, it launched a label called Urban Legend that costs about 12 percent more than its core line and tries to appeal to trend-conscious 25- to 35-year-old women by offering purple and orange floral prints and crocheted knits. “Just because you are doing a natural product, you cannot be perceived as a granola company,” said Indigenous chief executive officer Scott Leonard. “You have to be perceived exactly as the opposite.”

Even trade show organizers are getting into the green movement. The Designers and Agents show is making green a component of its upcoming exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles in May and June, when it is kicking off an initiative called “Go Green.” D&A in recent editions has had an increase in ecological lines, including Stewart Brown, Co Exist, Organic, Zen & Bunni, Loomstate and Edun. Bel Esprit, the “virtual” fashion designer showroom, has partnered with Nouveau Collective to introduce Mondo Bello, a show for ethical, ecological, cruelty-free and fair trade fashion. The show will be previewed at Nouveau Collective in May, and a full launch is set for September.

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