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Tailoring Organic

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Tailoring Organic

Photo courtesy ofChris Thompson,clothes courtesy ofUnder The Canopy

Most retailers in the natural products industry can probably remember when organic food meant little more than carrot sticks and bland granola. Similarly, there was a time when organic clothing meant boxy, oatmeal-colored garments with a style reminiscent of grandma?s old drapes. Fast-forward to the present day. Just as organic food is now a booming industry with an estimated 20 percent to 25 percent annual growth rate, so too is organic clothing experiencing a sales explosion.

Not only are consumers more aware of the benefits of organic cotton and other fibers, but organic clothing manufacturers are also putting style first when designing their products. The result is an increasing demand for eco-conscious and attractive clothing, and organic apparel companies are ready to provide it.

U.S. manufacturers of organic fiber products saw their sales grow by an average of 22.7 percent, to $85 million in 2003, according to the Organic Trade Association?s 2004 Manufacturer Survey. And retailers can anticipate an average annual growth rate of 15.5 percent overall for organic fiber products between 2004 and 2008, says the OTA.

Dollar signs aside, consider the ecological consequences of growing and selling conventional cotton. ?Conventional cotton is the most heavily sprayed fiber in the world. In the United States alone, 84 million pounds of pesticides are sprayed just on cotton,? says Marci Zaroff, founder of Under the Canopy, an organic clothing company based in Boca Raton, Fla.

According to the Sustainable Cotton Project and Pesticide Action Network, cotton represents less than 3 percent of the world?s agriculture but is responsible for more than 10 percent of the world?s use of pesticides and more than 25 percent of the world?s insecticides. Sixty percent of cotton plants go back into the food chain to make feed for animals—including the prized cotton seeds—so getting organic meat and dairy depends, in large part, on organic cotton, Zaroff says.

Ginny Turner, president and founder of Eco Baby Organics in San Diego and Pure-Rest in El Cajon, Calif., has found new parents to be some of the most health-conscious consumers of organic fibers. ?Once you have children, the importance of buying organic increases tremendously. You want everything that surrounds your children to be pure and healthy,? she says. Eco Baby?s sales have doubled every year for the past 10 years and, according to Sandra Marquardt, coordinator for the Organic Fiber Council, infant clothing and bedding is the second-largest-selling category in organic fibers. Women?s apparel is the sales leader.

Natural foods and independent grocers are the second-most-frequent sellers of organic fibers; first place goes to boutiques and specialty stores, Marquardt says. ?The already health-minded organic food shopper is now looking for the next step in achieving a chemical-free lifestyle, and has discovered organic fibers to be that next step.?

The new trend of fashionable organic clothing has drawn even more customers to the segment. ?People are most interested in the aesthetics of the clothing, and they see the fact that it?s good for the environment as an added benefit. The expansion of color and style options in organic fibers has shown that attractive and health-conscious clothing is indeed a possibility,? Marquardt says.

Zaroff describes Under the Canopy?s mission as connecting the consumer to a creative outlet that also makes a difference in the world. ?We want to marry fashion with a sense of purpose, so that consumers can buy what they love and seek.?

The company?s trendy, youthful T-shirts and organic denim made with recycled indigo are popular with shoppers, Zaroff says, and its organic cotton poncho was featured in Organic Style and InStyle magazines.

Beginning to sell clothing in a food store comes with hurdles, however. Two major obstacles that food retailers must overcome are introducing clothing into a food-based environment and doing so in an efficient and manageable amount of space.

Organic clothing companies are conscious of these concerns, and many have designed specific lines tailored to natural products stores? needs. Eco Baby and Pure-Rest, for example, offer space-saving displays for their top-selling products: baby T-shirts and adult bedding. ?Retailers should try to create an attractive space for the clothing that isn?t too cumbersome,? Turner says. ?And remember that the mark-up price on clothing is much higher than on personal care or food, so taking up space to stock clothing is well worth it in sales.


Laurie Dunlap, president and founder of Blue Canoe in Garberville, Calif., advises setting up clothing displays apart from the store?s food areas. ?Retailers can come up with a lifestyle department, which might include things like gifts, body care and clothing. Kiosks or stands with canopies are good ways to show off the clothing in a distinctive setting that separates it from the rest of the store,? she says. ?Stores should start small, with things like socks, undergarments and baby items that don?t require a changing room, and then move on to bigger items like women?s apparel.?

Marquardt suggests including information boards or pamphlets in the clothing section to remind customers of the benefits of buying organic fibers. ?Awareness of organic fibers has already grown due to increased availability and the fact that mainstream brands like Nike and Timberland are expanding their organic lines, but education is still an essential part of selling organic fibers in food stores,? she says.

Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based free-lance writer.

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