From recycling bin to your closet

May 08, 1997

From recycling bin to your closet

The eco-fashion movement isn't dead

By Wendi Winters

For AP Special Features

A few years back there was a ripple of interest in eco-friendly clothing.

The idea was to dress responsibly without scalping the planet. But after a flood of scratchy clothes with a homemade look, the buzz died, and the fashion world cantered off in hot pursuit of the next new trend.

Though it has had some notable flops, the eco-fashion movement isn't dead. Instead, it's heading for mainstream acceptance in several categories - jeans wear, sportswear, sweaters, shirts, loungewear, outerwear and children's clothing.


The Los Angeles-based O Wear, dubbed ``America's first 100 percent certified organic cotton clothing company,'' was founded in 1989 by fashion industry veteran George Akers. Organic cotton was scarce, but he encouraged farmers to grow more for his company, which projects sales of more than $20 million by decade's end.

Blue Fish, of Frenchtown, N.J., is a designer, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer of New Age clothing made of organic or recycled materials finished with hand-blocked linoleum prints created by artisans. Though its public relations director, Ta Kimble, is the company's ``Spirit Keeper," Blue Fish is not a hippie pipe dream. It has sales in the millions, and its stock is publicly traded.

But Aveda, well-known for its extensive collection of ecologically correct cosmetics, hair products and fragrances, failed in a bid to add socially responsible fashion to its line. Nicole Ricklebacher of Minneapolis, daughter of Aveda's founder, started Anatomy ``to show other designers it can be done.'' Alas, it didn't fly.

Other failures include Wrangler's Earth Wash jeans, stone washed in a way that reduced waste, and Code Bleu's much ballyhooed Soda Pop denim jeans, made from a blend of recycled soda bottles and cotton.

``There was no demand or interest from the consumer and very little support from retailers,'' according to Code Bleu's Lainey Goldberg, executive vice president of sales.

One area where it was successful, Goldberg said, was in the children's market. ``Schools are doing a good job teaching ecology, and kids are much more committed to taking care of the environment.''

Yet other manufacturers, such as Columbia Sportswear Co. in Portland, Ore., produce BioWashed jeans, a biodegradable alternative to chemically stone-washed denims.

And there's Trio Eco-Blend Denim, a ``a high-tech blend with an ecological conscience.'' Trio, a jeans-wear fabric, is made of Tencel, a rayon-like fiber without rayon's eco-messy production process; EcoSpun fiber produced from recycled soda pop bottles, and cotton.

Since 1994, Men's Health magazine has periodically published ``Eco-Style Guide,'' a handbook listing sources for clothing, accessories and footwear ``made with the Earth in mind, with new fabrics and new production processes.''

Warren Christopher, the magazine's fashion and grooming editor, notes, ``The companies listed in our guide have more than doubled from the first issue. While the eco market is still in its early stages, its growth reflects a shift from a cottage industry to a dedicated niche market. A lot of our younger readers are living ecologically correct lives. In college or newly graduated, they are in tune with the environment. They're buying the unbleached and recycled cottons, the hemp fabric clothes, and the soda bottle skiwear.''

Almost as lengthy is the listing of apparel companies using Wellman Inc.'s EcoSpun fiber, introduced in 1993. Judith Langan, communications director, says sales have since risen 450 percent.

``Although we launched it for outerwear, it's used in dozens of categories now,'' she says. ``Products and garments made of EcoSpun are sold around the world. The Japanese especially love the concept.''

Eventually, according to Jim Casey, president of the fibers division, EcoSpun production could recycle approximately 3 billion bottles per year.

Manufacturers using EcoSpun include Patagonia, Colombia Sportswear, Eileen Fisher and Levi's.

Deep in the heart of Texas, another ``green'' fiber revolution is brewing. The Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, growers of organic cotton certified and regulated by the state agriculture department, have organized a marketing arm, Cotton Plus Ltd., to promote their growing catalog of products, yarns and fabrics.

Certified organic cotton is cotton that is grown on land that remained free of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years. Though this chemical-free cotton is more expensive to buy, as it is more difficult to grow and process, growers say supply is out-paced by demand.

Hemp revival

Hemp, a product of the marijuana plant, is trying to rehabilitate its image. Once used nearly worldwide in rope-making, paper and apparel, hemp-growing in the United States and many other countries was outlawed earlier in the century as part of the war on illegal drugs.

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