By  on April 10, 2007

For eco-friendly clothing makers, the choice to go green is based in morality.

For some vendors, moving into organic and eco-sustainable clothing and accessories means employing local communities. For others, it's about reusing old materials — including rubber tires and plastic milk jugs.

But whatever their methods, manufacturers across the country who are now focusing on organic lines say they were motivated by a sense of personal responsibility.

"If everybody changes their purchases to a sustainable product, producers will start doing more sustainable products, period. The market will demand it of them," said Marylou Marsh-Sanders, a co-founder of sustainable clothing line Spiritex, in Asheville, N.C. The year-old line is the latest step in a 17-year journey for Sanders, whose previous company, Ecosport, in 1990 became one of the first to mass-produce garments made from organically grown cotton.

"We are trying to come into the marketplace using fair trade and fairly priced fabrics," said Sanders. "Our goal for social responsibility covers not just the organic element, but the fact that everything is sewn locally. It's extremely important to try and center your business so you can support locally grown products instead of using a cheap labor pool from China and paying higher prices for fuel, which is inevitable."

Denise Mari, owner and founder of Organic Avenue, a New York store that has dedicated half its space to sustainable and organic fashion, will introduce for fall her own line of clothing made from ahimsa silk, a type of fabric that doesn't harm the silkworms that produce it, as well as organic cotton and hemp. She will also abandon conventional dyeing processes and instead use vegetable dyes that do not pollute the environment.

"People love the way organic clothing feels," said Mari, "so if something is hot, and it's good for the planet, too, that's extra amazing."

The focus on organic products is happening in accessories as well as clothing. Simple Shoes, a company in Santa Barbara, Calif., that has been around since 1991, ventured into the organic arena in 2004.

"We wanted to be more responsible to the environment," said Monica DeVreese, the company's brand manager. "The reality is that the footwear industry creates a huge amount of garbage. We wanted to do our part to rectify that."The new products, under the name Green Toe, were launched in fall 2005 with the goal of overcoming "the stereotype that eco-friendly shoes are just for hippies, and [to show] that they can look good and be comfortable."

Made of natural materials like crepe rubber, cork mixes and jute, the shoes are constructed using water-based adhesives instead of the typical chemical variety, and as much stitching as possible. The shoes have names such as Toeday and Toetally, and a brand-new collection of eco-friendly sneakers, called ecoSneaks, will offer models like the Satire, Atire and Retire because they are made using recycled rubber tires. EcoSneaks will launch on July 1, and feature elements made from recycled water bottles and organic cottons, and make use of bamboo as a natural odor inhibitor. Even the laces are made from recycled plastic.

"The whole idea is to keep a really lighthearted, feel-good attitude," said DeVreese. "We don't want to be too serious or preachy. We just want to do the best effort we can do in terms of innovation for the season."

The shoes are produced in China, but DeVreese defends that decision: "It's not where, it's how. We make sure that the factories protect workers' rights and [address] environmental issues," she said.

Newcomers to the arena are finding that the public increasingly responds to clothing lines that are produced without harming the

environment.

"I'd been working in fashion for a while, but realized I wanted to do something that had a little more meaning," said Raina Blyer, founder of a line called Ryann. "I was bothered by a lot of practices in the industry — unfair trading and the environmental impact — and wanted to work with a company I could stand behind."

Two years ago, she launched Ryann, based in New York. Every piece has "some eco property," she said, in the form of hemp, recycled polyester, bamboo and soy-cotton blends. But for Blyer, it's about more than just the fabrics; her production is done entirely in New York, and she uses minimal packaging, no hangers and recycled paper for printing. Instead of driving to the factory, she takes the subway, and — as much as possible — delivers orders herself instead of using the mail."It's not just about cutting costs, but also considering the environmental impact," she said. "Every little thing makes a

difference."

Kelly Barry was compelled to begin an organic line after studying environmental science and working in the fashion industry, supplying organic cotton to companies making yoga and baby clothing.

"The larger companies hadn't yet hit on the high-end organic fashion idea, so I saw this niche for fashionable and environmentally sustainable clothing that was really current with what's going on," she said. She introduced her spring 2007 Kelly B collection during San Francisco Fashion Week and signed 15 stores, and has since acquired another 15 accounts. She is based in San Francisco, and all her manufacturers are no more than 30 minutes away, allowing her to ensure that the production is in keeping with her standards.

"I pick and choose who I work with, know that they pay their employees fairly and make sure that the dying processes are what they should be," she said, adding that the factories use dye powder that is especially low in chemicals and the water used is recirculated instead of being dumped into the ocean.

Some vendors see the exercise as a way of giving back to the community. Carmela Pinillos de Brouwer, founder of Inca Mama in Los Angeles, a maker of sweaters using organic cotton, bamboo and hand-woven alpaca, does 80 percent of her production in Centro Victoria, a facility in Lima, Peru, that helps former drug addicts get back on their feet. Every Saturday, she helps fund a breakfast there for 80 children who might be tempted to turn to drugs. The rest of the production is done by a family in Lima that was previously living in a brick-and-cardboard shack. According to de Brouwer, the family earned $30,000 last year working for Inca Mama and have been able to build a home.

"I really wanted to give back to Peru and the community," said de Brouwer, who was born north of Lima but went to school there. "It feels good to give them hope."

Retailers have taken to the concept, as well, and the Inca Mama business has doubled year-on-year.Even long-established brands are entering the arena. OMgirl, a Los Angeles company with a sizable business in the yoga and activewear field, with more than 400 accounts worldwide, will launch an all-organic line next month. Company founder Meghan Fielding said she was so committed to the exercise that she was absorbing most of the cost of making the jump from nonorganic to organic without passing on too much of an increase to the consumer. The Asana collection will be in stores such as Tracey Ross and Planet Blue in Los Angeles, as well as select Nordstrom doors.

Fielding will introduce a line of peace T-shirts benefiting various charities, all made from organic fabrics and thread. Throughout, she is minimizing polybagging and using recycled paper for the hangtags. The tags also will offer eco tips — such as hanging clothes out to dry instead of using a dryer, and washing with cold water — and explain why those steps are better for the environment.

"You just want to make the world a better place," she said. "I've read about migrant workers having a high rate of illness because of the chemicals used in the cotton fields, so I started thinking about what I could do. The whole thing about making a change in the world is that it does start with you, and it's no bigger than all of us."

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