what’s in your drawers?
There’s no question that Americans love fashion. From haute couture to the latest yoga shorts, we are eager to whip out the credit card for a chance to own the coolest new threads, including that all-important figure-flattering cotton tee. But did you know that it takes five ounces of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers to grow the cotton in that one tee shirt? Now, check and see whether you are wearing a cotton thong, boxers or briefs. If you are indeed cotton-clad, this means that your precious privates are encased in fibers grown with industrial pesticides and fertilizers that pollute the air, our water supply and deaden farm soil!
If you’re freaking out, relax, because the solution is in stores right now. The organic fiber clothing industry is experiencing an unprecedented growth explosion, becoming a leader not only in clean sustainable agriculture, but also in cutting-edge style. Major designers like Stella McCartney, Armani and Prada are beginning to incorporate organic fibers into their lines and major retailers across the country are beginning to offer regular lines of organic clothing alongside their conventional stock. Realize that simply by choosing to buy an organic cotton tee shirt, you are enhancing the ecological balance and uniting with nature by supporting the cultivation of sustainable fibers. You’re also supporting a new breed of designers and companies who are putting their livelihoods on the line in order to bring responsibly produced fashion to the marketplace. Consider this your guide to beautiful organic and recycled clothing solutions for living and looking great NOW!
Any discussion of organic fiber fashion must begin with the 411 on conventionally grown cotton, which, for a very light fiber, contains a very dark side. By now, most of us understand many of the personal health and environmental reasons why it’s so important to buy organic produce. But the idea that similar concepts relate to our clothes, towels, upholstery and all the other fabrics we use is just beginning to penetrate mass consumer consciousness. While it’s been promoted as natural, cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world. “Conventionally raised cotton is an extremely toxic industry,” says Marci Zaroff, founder and President of Under the Canopy, an elegant but affordable organic fiber fashion line carried in 140 Whole Foods Markets in the U.S. and the U.K.
A 38-year-old and mother of two, Zaroff founded Under the Canopy in 1996 (now closed) with the intention of creating a company that specializes in organic clothing, bed and bath linens for infants, children, men and women. Her garments and home lines are made from organically grown cotton, soy, bamboo, linen, wool and natural silk; she expects revenue at her 13-employee firm to reach $10 million this year. As Zaroff explains, “Most people are totally unaware that conventionally raised cotton is poisonous to the earth and hence extremely dangerous to the farmers who grow it, to say nothing of the land that it grows on.” This is painfully evident in countries like India, where the plight of cotton farmers is at best tenuous and at worst, deplorable.
Since farm chemicals were introduced to India in the 1960s during the so-called Green Revolution, Indian farmers have been drawing a relatively meager income from their efforts thanks to massive pesticide dosage. “While cotton covers only five percent of India’s farmland, it uses 54 percent of all pesticides in Indian agriculture,” says Zaroff. It’s also worth noting that monocrotophos, an insecticide so poisonous that it is banned in Europe and the United States, is commonly used by Indian cotton farmers.
In one of the postmodern world’s saddest ironies, the period when India experienced a boom in agriculture as a result of the introduction of environmentally disastrous chemical use is referred to as the Green Revolution. This era couldn’t have been less green according to our present day use of the word. “A major problem plaguing cotton farmers in India, as well as farmers in other lands who have gotten hooked on pesticides and chemical fertilizers as a result of the Green Revolution, is that they are growing alien varieties of cotton, or cotton seeds that never grew in those soils before. This brought, and continues to bring– new diseases,” Zaroff continues, “necessitating even more pesticide spraying. Cotton blights and insect infestations became immune to the poisons, so farmers got desperate enough to buy newer, stronger and even more expensive chemicals. Costs for the cotton farmers have increased and continue to climb, while soil quality plummets and harvests shrink.”
It appears that Indian cotton farmers use pesticides because they have been taught by their parents, neighbors and pesticide company sales representatives that there is no other way to cultivate cotton. “They survive by taking out bank loans, which they struggle to repay from year to year.” (In India, Zaroff has contracted with cotton farmers to grow organic cotton for Under the Canopy at higher than average rates.) “When cotton harvests yield skimpy results,” says Zaroff, “they apply for loans at their local banks, which turn them down, because the farmers are already in debt,” she says. Desperate to feed their families, the farmers borrow cash from local money lenders, who charge excessive interest rates. If the next year’s crop is poor, which often happens since the soils have been weakened by pesticide and fertilizer use, the farmers cannot repay the moneylenders. This vicious cycle exacts a tragic human and environmental toll.
“More than 2,300 farmers in Maharashtra (the Indian cotton belt) committed suicide in the last six years, usually because their land was repossessed by the bank or a money lender. “Losing the farm invariably means that these farmers lose their social status and resort to becoming day laborers,” Zaroff says with a sigh. “If the former farmers have families, their day wages barely provide enough for survival.”
“At the end of the day, conventionally raised cotton is unsustainable,” says Andrea Scott, a publicity executive for the recently introduced sustainable clothing line Oqoqo, (pronounced “Oh-ko-ko) a division of Lululemon Athletica, a popular fitness clothing line based in Canada. According to founder Chip Simon: “We know many yogis want to live and practice in organic clothing and this is a major reason why we created Oqoqo.”
Standouts from Oqoqo include anything in their underlux line of bamboo undergarments, made from a proprietary bamboo-based fabric called “boolux.” According to Scott, “Bamboo feels great next to your skin because it is super-soft, antibacterial and breathable. Bamboo has an unusual coolness to it and tends to be 1-2 degrees cooler in temperature than your average summer weight fabric. You could almost consider bamboo to be ”˜air-conditioned’ fabric.” The underlux group includes an array of pieces that are redefining what we can expect from our intimate clothing.
Simon’s goal for the entire Oqoqo line is “to create enough critical mass in production to encourage the fabric mills to make the fabrics we desire. We want the mills,” Simon continues, “to put pressure on the farmers to allocate more land to organic farming. We find ourselves in a quandary with rain forests being cut down to grow soy in certain parts of the world, and we are monitoring this,” he says. While Oqoqo is committed to having every garment contain at least 75 percent natural, organic or sustainable materials, the company is working towards the goal of making every Oqoqo piece from 100 percent renewable resources. “Oqoqo’s sustainably sourced fabrics are made from bamboo, soy, organic cotton or hemp. They are dyed with low-impact, environmentally friendly dyes,” says Simon. What’s more, Simon is taking his mission beyond the use of organic fabrics and including the entire production chain in his consideration of the environmental impact of the products he is offering.
While yogis are snapping up organic clothing in stores all over the country, eco-tycoons such as Mark Retzloff of Horizon Organics and AVEDA founder Horst Rechelbacher, who sold his company to Estee Lauder for over $100 million, are walking their talk by investing in Zaroff’s company. “With strong vision, sustainable business practices and great style, Marci Zaroff and Under the Canopy have been spearheading the organic fiber fashion industry since the early 90s,” says Rechelbacher. Marci is an impeccable organic pioneer.”
Back in the early 90s, Zaroff recalls, most organic clothing came in un-dyed heavy fabrics that were best suited for wear by farmers or day laborers. “The fabrics were crunchy-scratchy and the styling was all wrong for the mass market,” Zaroff says. “I knew that if I tried to sell organic clothing like that, it would never work. I took it upon myself to work toward modernizing the organic fiber industry.” She began researching organic farming as well as fabric production, which lead her to start Under the Canopy.
Zaroff figured that once high-quality organic fabrics were applied to styles that people are attracted to, the clothes would take off– and they have. Under the Canopy’s style, which Zaroff dubs “California contemporary,” has made it one of the best selling clothing lines offered in the lifestyle sections being incorporated into many Whole Foods Markets across the country. By offering lines like Under the Canopy, Edun, which was started by U2’s Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, Loomstate Jeans and Green Sage Sustainable Furniture, Whole Foods is setting itself apart as a premiere resource for all things organic.
From 2001 to 2005, U.S. sales of organic cotton apparel such as shirts, robes and jeans and home products including bath towels and sheets increased to $275 million annually from $86 million, according to the Organic Exchange, the Oakland, CA.-based non-profit organization that is committed to expanding organic agriculture (organicexchange.org). With a specific focus on increasing the production and use of organically grown fibers such as cotton, the Organic Exchange has been working with Zaroff and other organic fiber fashion leaders to revolutionize the fashion industry. “Our ten year goal is to secure commitments from leading retailers and brands to use organic cotton in amounts equaling 10% of global cotton production,” says Rebecca Calahan Klein, president of the Organic Exchange.
By making this commitment to use organic cotton, companies support organic farmers who build soil quality, enhance biodiversity and protect the air and water on which we all depend. In addition, these brands and retailers give their customers the opportunity to look good, feel good and do good at the same time. In the past four years, global sales of organic cotton increased 35 percent annually to $583 million from $245 million and are projected to reach $2.6 billion by the end of 2008. More than 1,200 retailers and manufacturers offer organic cotton products to consumers, up from a few hundred in 2001.
One of the biggest signs that sustainably produced cotton is powering a financially viable sector of the fashion industry is evidenced by super-retailer Wal-Mart’s position on organic clothing. This company’s dubious record on personnel treatment and general business practices have alienated many people of all social classes but especially forward thinkers. Last year, however, Wal-Mart C.E.O., Lee Scott announced his plan to offer both organic food and clothing at affordable prices and proclaimed additional moves toward more sustainable business practices.
Wal-Mart, which also owns the Sam’s Club chain of stores, recently introduced an organic yoga outfit in a select number of Sam’s Clubs. The entire stock, numbering almost 200,000 units, was sold out in ten weeks. This unprecedented response prompted Wal-Mart to expand its line of organics to include select bed, bath and baby products in Wal-Mart stores across the country. According to the Organic Exchange, this shift has made Wal-Mart the single largest purchaser of organic cotton products in the world. Since it began offering organic cotton products, the Organic Exchange estimates that Wal-Mart has prevented over 50,000 lbs. of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers from being used on earth.
Though the company still has a long way to go before it can be considered a model of social and environmental consciousness, this embrace of sustainability is bringing the idea that organic products are preferable to their conventional counterparts to a segment of the population that has traditionally had little or no access or exposure to organics. Wal-Mart’s introduction of organics represents a fundamental shift in the way these products are perceived in the marketplace. Rather than a fringe industry reserved for the affluent left-wing consumer, organics are now for everyday people.
While mainstream retailers are picking up on the potential of organic products, some of the prime retail outlets for organic fiber fashions include yoga studios and, naturally, spas. According to Susan Miller, co-owner of Bella D’Ora, a day spa in Carlsbad, CA. “Wearing organic clothing and using organic home linens allows us to connect with Nature on a moment-to-moment basis.” Bella D’Ora, which carries stylish yet affordable organic fiber fashion lines such as Sworn Virgins and Living Planet in their spa boutique, views educating customers about organic fiber fashion and organic body care products as an integral part of its mission. “We are in the business of caring for people and teaching them how to practice healing care on themselves and others,” says Miller. “Bella D’Ora regularly offers special incentives to buy organic clothing and body care products,” Miller continues.
Other plus factors associated with wearing organic fiber fashions include the fact that for those with allergies or sensitive skin, organic threads make for more comfortable garments. “Chemical sensitivities are on the rise, but organic fabrics are a solution for many people seeking more natural products in their lives,” says Jenefer Palmer, owner and founder of OSEA, a Malibu, CA.-based chemical free skin care line.
It is also worth considering the relative durability of organic fabric, which means that you’re getting a lot of wear for your money. According to fashion design consultant Susana Mele, whose clients include the Milan-based couturier Gianfranco Ferre and the luxury cashmere firm Armand Diradourian, “The fibers in organically grown bamboo, cotton, hemp, etc. are far stronger than those in conventionally grown fibers, since the plant grew up free of toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical fungicides and weed killers. Organically grown fibers,” Mele continues, “make stronger, smoother, more resilient and longer wearing fabrics.” Besides making good fashion sense, “An organic garment may last two or three times as long as a similar one made from conventionally grown fibers,” Mele concludes.
No matter how you slice it, you are what you eat, and we’re now realizing that we are also what we wear. Fashion is no longer solely a reflection of our aesthetics. Fashion is now also a reflection of our values. It is an opportunity for us to display our commitment to a future of health, sustainability and beauty. “I see living in organic clothing as an essential part of wellness,” says Miller. “Most of us spend several hours a day connected to computers and cell phones, living and working in a virtual world. What better way to revitalize than by wearing organic clothes or using organic towels and sheets?” Long live the yoga of environmentally sustainable fashion.
Looking for organic threads that use mainly organic fibers and offer workers optimal working conditions? Here are just a few of the growing number of sustainable labels to choose from:
Ashley Paige – Environmentally conscious swimwear. ashleypaige.com
Beyond Skin Ethical Footwear – Beautifully crafted stylish footwear produced using cruelty-free materials and methods.
Blue Canoe – All organic women’s yoga apparel that allows your mind and body to rest easier.
Edun – Women’s line backed by U2’s Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, designed by New York’s Rogan Gregory. Comprised of elegantly tailored jeans, t-shirts, jackets, blouses and dresses.
Eco-ganik – Young fresh collection utilizing fair trade and certified organic materials. ecoganik.com
Linda Loudermilk – Sophisticated and couture yet organic and fair trade clothing. lindaloudermilk.com
Stella McCartney – All-vegan collection produced without animal-derived materials. stellamccartney.com
Undesigned – Los Angeles boutique offering a variety of organic cotton pieces. undesigned.com