By  on April 22, 2008

Two California apparel companies are set to pioneer selling garments with a new category of eco-friendly U.S. cotton grown with fewer chemicals.

PrAna activewear of San Diego next year will market two basic cotton T-shirts for women and men, and Los Angeles-based American Apparel plans to soon use the fiber in its jersey sportswear production.

Basic cotton has been tested by California farmers since the late Nineties as part of an environmental campaign by the Sustainable Cotton Project, based in the Central Valley agricultural belt. Basic cotton became an option as U.S. organic cotton acreage has been displaced by more lucrative crops and competition from lower-priced imported organic apparel.

"Initially, like everyone else, we thought organic was the answer to reducing pesticide use on cotton," said Lynda Grose, marketing director for the Cotton Project, noting that organic cotton makes up just 2 percent of worldwide cotton production.

Last year, 2,000 acres of California basic cotton resulted in the reduction of 7,000 pounds of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and 250 acres of organic saved 1,125 pounds, Grose said. The program also is being expanded to Georgia and Arizona.

The basic cotton supply chain includes 22 California cotton fields, yarn spinner R.L. Stowe of Lupton, Tenn., and Montreal-based knitter Manoir Inc., in addition to PrAna and American Apparel.

Erika Martinez, who oversees American Apparel's sustainable sourcing programs, said basic apparel cotton should cost less than organic, but at this point it's hard to say by how much. American Apparel is weighing whether to create 100 percent basic cotton apparel or use it in a blend with conventional. "Our ultimate goal is not to use conventional at all," she said.

It's taken PrAna two years to get its basic cotton T-shirt to market. For 2009, design manager Linda Leuthe said the company will buy 5,000 pounds of basic fabric from Manoir to make 10,000 Ts that will retail for $28, 10 to 15 percent higher than a conventional cotton shirt, and roughly the same price as an organic shirt, she said.

"The price is a little high," said Leuthe, noting that the company hopes consumers will understand after reading the hangtag about basic's environmental benefits.Getting yarn spinners involved also has been challenging. "Because organic has gotten such wide's been difficult for some [mills] to use what might seem like a poor substitute for organic," said Marshall Johnson, vice president of marketing with R.L. Stowe.

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