Making Green with Green
IN RESEARCHING ORGANIC apparel, one supplier asked why anyone would need an organically produced shirt. “You’re not going to eat it,” he said. When it was explained that the term “organic,” when applied to clothing, meant it was produced without pesticides or harmful fertilizers, the supplier still saw no purpose and asked what difference it would make to the shirt.
It was a bad way to begin delving into a major trend in the promotional products industry, but it touched upon wide-spread misconceptions about the terminology. It also cast some light upon industry practices and viewpoints, which do have far-reaching implications.
The consequences of ignoring environmental concerns have been measurable for some time but are just now beginning to appear in American culture. The realities of global warming are supported by the research and data of scientists across the globe. Pollution is epidemic in some places, and mercury, as a result of mining and energy production, has prompted the government to warn Americans not to eat fish taken from many U.S. waterways.
So it is not the shirt that minds the pesticides: it is people and animals.
When talking about apparel, organic has little to do with the end product and much to do with the process. Whereas with organic foods the difference is
discernible in taste, when it comes to fabric, very little distinguishes an organic item in a crowd. “It’s hard to identify organic cotton or any other kind of organic fabrication,” said Brinden Asher, director of marketing at Los Angeles, Calif.-based Bella. In January, the company launched its organic line and “people are just really ecstatic about the product,” said Asher.
Morey Mayeri, president of New York’s Royal Apparel, also said the look of organic apparel is “really no different.” Royal Apparel has had organics in its line for the last three years and is further along in the development of the products. Right now, the company’s organic products are available in seven different colors. According to Mayeri, Royal Apparel is considering a slightly different look to its organic clothing in order to differentiate it. This may include tags as well as seam stitching differences. Bella, new to the organic market, has not yet codified the dyeing process for organic products. Asher said it is likely, “when we come out with color, we’ll bring out specialty colors.” Right now, Bella offers organic fabrics in the natural color of the cotton. This is an off-white color due to the fact that the cotton has not been bleached.
Part of the reason dyeing is an ordeal when applied to organic apparel is the dyes must also meet special standards and have minimal negative ecological impact. Just getting the raw cotton is more complicated if it is to meet USDA organic standards. For a product to be certified organic, it must be grown in a certain manner. The plants must come from non-genetically-modified seeds. Weed control must be done through mechanical means (tilling or plowing undesirable plants under the soil to kill them) as the first line of defense instead of using herbicides. Pest control must be performed in a similar manner, by cultivating natural predators or plants that pests tend to avoid in conjunction with the desired crop. Different crops must also be grown on a field in rotation, which replenishes soil nutrients without resorting to chemical fertilizers. Crop rotation also helps control soil erosion which can lead to unhealthy conditions in local rivers and streams.
Obviously with this many controls, there are also more costs associated with organic lines. At first glance, one might think the price gap between organic and traditional apparel would be huge, but this is not the case. “The price ranges are very close in line,” said Asher. “You’re paying a little bit more, but you’re obviously paying for a particular reason and, generally speaking, those customers who are looking for organic have no problem paying that additional [cost] because they know what’s behind it.”
Supply and demand also play important rolls in the current price of organics. According to Mayeri, the amount of organic cotton and yarn available is limited and that inherently means higher prices. But Mayeri also said the additional cost hasn’t hindered orders at all. On the contrary: “I see the numbers growing every single week. Where we used to sell a few thousand pieces a week, now we’re selling tens of thousands of pieces a week,” he said.
So who is buying all the organic apparel? Seekers of organic materials are not necessarily granola-eating, unreformed hippies. There are some big businesses looking to organics to prove a commitment to the environment. Oil producers and car manufacturers are just a few of the types of companies looking to outfit organically, this in addition to national
organic food retailers and practitioners of spiritually centered health activities, such as yoga. Asher said the trend is finding its way into retail products as well, a point supported by Mayeri. “It’s really exciting,” he said, because the demand for organics is “coming from all different avenues and walks of life now.”
Most standard promotional products have a life span of only a few months, after which they end up in a landfill. In the promotional products industry, the infiltration of organic and sustainable practices is a welcome relief to environmentally conscious end-users, suppliers and distributors. “The promotional products industry is almost the counter-balance to saving and reusing,” said Asher. “It’ll be interesting to see where people go with organic products in other categories besides apparel.” Only time will tell.
Certain aspects of the organic
market segment are more known, though. It’s safe to say organic apparel is here to stay. “It’s only going to get bigger and better,” said Mayeri. Royal Apparel is trying to keep up. The company continues to add new styles to its organic offering and has one of the most diverse lines available. Meanwhile, Asher said the number of companies offering organic products and introducing organic lines continues to grow rapidly. She noted the market will eventually level off, but that does not necessarily mean the demand will, only the booming growth of supplier lines.
Neither Asher nor Mayeri anticipate organic apparel overtaking traditionally produced apparel. The least expensive products will probably continue to be non-organic because they do not require additional oversight and standards. Of this topic, Mayeri said, “as far as surpassing [traditional apparel], I would hope so, but to be realistic, I don’t think so.”
Perhaps part of the success of organic lines comes from the enthusiasm of the companies involved. A salesman who believes in his product is easy to spot and usually has a success story. The organic producers express an exuberance for sustainable products. Mayeri said Royal Apparel didn’t base the decision to offer organic products on the demand, rather “we just believed in the whole theme and the products.” Asher exhibited similar enthusiasm: “We weren’t just going to create any kind of organic product,” she said. After extensive research and making sure the garments would meet Bella’s quality standards, Asher said, “we’re really proud of the product we have.”
Everyone is an environmentalist at heart. Those that aren’t simply have the good fortune to be far away from the noticeable effects of pollution. The tune always changes when the impact is felt directly. Going green with apparel will help keep the conscience and the planet healthy and clean.