By  on April 10, 2007

As consumers cotton to eco-conscious products, the fashion industry must work to educate its audience on the subject.

Brands and retailers are racing to hop on the eco-friendly bandwagon, but the message to consumers might be getting muddled in the process.

The proliferation of eco-conscious products and brands is forcing the industry to educate consumers. As a result, consumers are being confronted with labels, logos and terms whose meanings can vary widely. Is the item 100 percent organic or does it use only a small percentage of organic fiber? Is it made from renewable fibers, recycled fiber or does it come from a sustainable source? The confusion reaches even to those working in the apparel industry, begging the question of whether consumers will be willing to spend time deciphering terminology when looking to purchase T-shirts.

Surveys conducted by Cotton Inc. indicate that, despite the rise of the eco-friendly movement, consumers are increasingly tuning the message out. In one survey, consumers were asked what action they'd take if they purchased an organic garment and later discovered that it was not. The majority of respondents, approximately 60 percent, said they would be bothered but not enough to do anything about it. In fact, only 15 percent said they would be bothered enough to return the item. The survey also suggested that consumers' interest in "green garments" has dropped since 2000. Terminology figured largely in this drop, according to Cotton Inc.

"The marketing associated with these laudable initiatives, however, is proving too much of a good thing for many shoppers, who are faced with a litany of often bewildering terms. Stores have become classrooms of sorts, especially where eco-friendly fashion is concerned," read a recent issue of Cotton Inc.'s Lifestyle Monitor, which included the survey results. "The lesson that consumers have learned is that there is a lot of terminology out there."

Mark Messura, executive vice president of global product supply chain at Cotton Inc., said another survey conducted in conjunction with the Organic Trade Association illuminated how easily consumers could be confused by terms. The survey of 1,000 people who said they had recently purchased an organic cotton item asked if organic had the same meaning as 100 percent cotton. More than half, 51 percent, said they believed the two terms to have the same meaning, while only 29 percent said they were different. When asked if an organic cotton product could contain soy, 28 percent said yes and 33 percent said they weren't sure."It's a good example of something that's completely unrelated to organic cotton, but consumers are so confused over labeling that they can't make the distinction between a food and a clothing product," said Messura.

Messura also said consumers don't realize that the amount of available organic cotton is extremely limited. The world's organic cotton crop in a year could fit on one average-sized cargo ship, according to Messura.

"If you made jeans out of all the organic cotton in the world, you would have approximately 4 percent of all jeans sold in just the U.S. market," said Messura.

Ultimately, Messura believes the saturation of environmental messages will "jade and confuse" consumers and make them unwilling to pay more for the goods.

Overseas garment manufacturers are fielding a steady stream of inquiries about organics and other eco-friendly products. In some cases, these manufacturers have witnessed how even some of the fashion industry's well-recognized labels share similar confusions.

Benjamin Lam, vice president of Fountain Set USA, a fabric and garment manufacturer for companies including Nike, Marks & Spencer, J. Crew and Lacoste, has been making frequent presentations about organics to his clients as of late. In some of those meetings clients have ascribed seemingly magical powers to the use of organic fibers. Lam said he once was asked if an organic garment might improve one's complexion. Admittedly, this was one of the more unusual questions he received. Most questions centered on issues of quality and performance.

"Before they got to know organics they thought it was something that you couldn't get in brilliant, bright colors," said Lam. "Some also thought it meant it was in a very raw or natural state. They didn't realize we can treat it like any fabric."

Brands have also failed to consider that while they may decide to go with organic fabrics, those fabrics are often dyed and finished in harsh chemicals. Lam said Fountain Set's discussions with clients about organics include using low-impact dye stuffs as well as discussion about placing orders early in an effort to avoid shipping goods by air.

"We are just trying to move one step further toward a perfect environment," said Lam. "We're not saying it will happen tomorrow, but we want to show our passion for taking steps."Lam said Fountain Set's organic business was minimal in 2006, somewhere between 5 and 8 percent, but he anticipates significant growth in 2007. At the moment, he doesn't see any problems acquiring enough organic cotton to meet his clients' needs. However, that could soon change with mass channel retailers like Wal-Mart and Target moving more aggressively into organic apparel.

John Cheh, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Esquel China Holdings, which manufactures more than 60 million cotton shirts a year, said the company has started growing and stocking its own organic cotton in anticipation of a boom. The company already produces organic blends for Nike, Marks & Spencer and Nordstrom.

"We think it's for real, that's why we are doing research and development on organic farming," said Cheh during his presentation at the WWD Sourcing Leadership Forum in March. "We have 200 tons in stock."

Cheh is not alone in his optimism. Global sales of organic cotton are expected to grow from $1 billion in 2006 to $2.6 billion by the end of 2008, according to the Organic Exchange, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that supports production of organic goods.

Rebecca Calahan Klein, director of program development for Organic Exchange, believes the apparel industry has reached a tipping point in regards to organic and sustainable apparel.

"The overall awareness and interest in the possibilities for organics and sustainable products has really grown, that's a good thing," said Klein. "Just like anytime something new comes up, there's interest, but then you start getting into the questions of what does this really mean."

The questioning, said Klein, is a positive sign, one that shows that consumers are engaging with the issue. Klein believes the apparel industry needs to better understand the environment in which it enters product.

"Manufacturers have to understand that they have to come into a marketplace with a lot of clarity," said Klein. "A lot of manufacturers haven't really done that."

Klein points out that the term "organic" is clearly defined and regulated by major markets like the U.S., Europe and Japan. It's the sustainable side of the eco-friendly family where the messages become confused."What's great is that manufacturers and brands are able to tell a better story about different options," said Klein. "I think that's the fundamental story that's getting told right now, which is that there are some more options."

More choice might be a good thing for now, but it won't keep consumers engaged. "It's kind of where we'd expect people to be in this point in the process," said Klein. "I think it will have to get better and clearer because consumers will want to go beyond just having more choices."

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