DALLAS — No longer just for tree-huggers, organically grown cotton is slowly growing into a viable part of the active apparel industry.

Patagonia, Mountain Equipment Coop and Early Winters catalog are some of the companies that have committed to using only organic fibers in their cotton and cotton-blend clothing. Other firms, such as Nike and Timberland, have introduced organic cotton collections or mixed organic with conventionally grown fibers.

U.S. and Canadian manufacturers of organic clothing experienced 11 percent average annual growth from 1996 to 2000 and are expected to see 39 percent growth annually through 2005, according to an Organic Trade Association survey of its membership. At Blue Canoe, a yoga wear and bodywear maker, sales have increased by 40 percent each year for the past six years and are on track to reach nearly $1.5 million in 2003, said owner Laurie Dunlap. Meanwhile, Prana owner Beaver Theodosakis said the brand’s organic styles should generate $500,000 in sales in the first season.

“There are a lot of people not only getting hip to what it is and wanting to buy it,” she said, “there are also groups that are actively promoting it to consumers to encourage businesses to use organic cotton.”

The outdoor and sports-casual industries are driving the change, according to Sandra Marquardt, coordinator of the Organic Trade Association’s Fiber Council.

“It’s a logical connection that companies that produce outdoor clothing and gear are looking to see how they can step lightest on the planet,” Marquardt said. “They have scrutinized their business practices to figure out how they can make a difference environmentally while maintaining the same quality and function of their apparel.”

Activewear apparel companies that use organic cotton point out that 25 percent of the world’s synthetic insecticides are sprayed on cotton fields, potentially impacting ground water, land, wildlife and field workers. These firms are so supportive of organic cotton farming, which uses no synthetic pesticides, that last fall 28 companies founded the Organic in Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit organization that links manufacturers with sources of organic cotton fiber and fabrics.

“The interesting part is there is a real camaraderie within the industry with helping each other out,” said Jill Vlahos, environmental analysis manager at Patagonia, which converted its cotton-containing clothing to all-organic in 1996. “We share our sources through the Organic Exchange. Most people are really shocked when they hear that.”Styles incorporating organic cotton range from yogawear to knit hoodies, hiking shorts and polo shirts. Among the manufacturers making them are Cutter & Buck golfwear, Blue Canoe yogawear and bodywear, Prana yogawear and climbing clothes, Under the Canopy yogawear and Sportif outdoor apparel.

Patagonia does not break out sales of individual product categories, but sales have swelled to $219 million from $153 million, since it converted all its cotton to organic in 1996. Organic cotton is used in 45 percent of the company’s clothing,

While the list of firms using organic cotton has grown swiftly in the past five years, the fiber still represents only a fraction of the market. Organic cotton represents 0.3 percent of cotton demand and 0.4 percent of supply, according to the Organic Exchange.

Yet that supply and demand is expected to more than double to 1 percent of the market within two years, noted Rebecca Calahan Klein, president of the Organic Exchange.

Organic cotton typically costs 5 to 30 percent more than conventionally grown fiber, yet its prices can be the same as conventionally grown cotton for the lowest grade to double for the finest quality, Klein noted. Prices also depend on the source of the cotton, which is grown primarily in Texas, Turkey, India, China, Tanzania and Uganda.

Early Winters, which is a subsidiary of Norm Thompson Outfitters, was able to keep prices of organic styles the same or lower than conventional cotton through better sourcing, noted Jim Trusky, merchandise manager.

When it converted some styles to organic cotton last year, it cut the price of heavyweight T-shirts by 15 percent to $19.50, while keeping prices of its Smith Rock hiking shorts and pants the same as before. Since going organic, margins have improved and unit sales of T-shirts are up 27 percent while sales of shorts and pants rose 15 percent, he noted.

“We think there is an affinity with our customer for this product,” Trusky said. “But it has got to be the right product at the right price. If you didn’t like broccoli, and I offered you organic broccoli, would it make any difference to you?”

Early Winters currently uses organic cotton in 35 percent of its own apparel line and plans to convert to all organic by the spring of 2006. The cataloger also is looking to buy organic cotton apparel from branded resources.Nike took a different approach beginning five years ago by blending a minimum of 3 percent organic fiber into cotton and cotton-blend women’s, men’s and children’s clothing. Now, more than one-third of those styles contain 3 to 5 percent organic cotton. Last fall, Nike introduced a capsule collection of all-organic women’s sportswear and launched an explanatory Web site at Nikeorganics.com.

Earlier this month at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Las Vegas, 80 people attended a seminar about using organic cotton in apparel. In addition, Timberland is hosting a meeting at its Stratham, N.H., headquarters on Sept. 24 for manufacturers and retailers that want to learn about organic cotton. Overseas, British retailer Marks & Spencer is working to increase use of organic cotton in its clothing, beginning with a yoga line bowing in October.

“There are more and more consumers with enough income to purchase products that are in alignment with their values,” Vlahos noted. “They are concerned about environmental issues and the health and safety of their families. If we can talk to them about the value of reducing pesticide use in the globe, then we can follow close on the heels of the organic food industry trajectory.”

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