Wed, Jan 12, 2011 - Page 13 News List

In eco-jeans, the green becomes harder to spot

Though organic cotton has been dropped from their lines, many brands are refocusing their efforts on making the entire manufacturing process more environmentally friendly

By ALEXANDRA ZISSU  /  NY Times News Service, New York

In 10 or 20 years, cotton clothing may be a thing of the past.

Photo: Bloomberg

Two years ago, when going green was red-hot in the fashion industry, there were plenty of organic jeans to choose from. Brands including Levi’s, Banana Republic, Genetic Denim, 7 For All Mankind, Earnest Sewn, Aristocrat, Loomstate, Del Forte and JBrand offered at least one pair made with some amount of organic cotton, which is grown without environmentally threatening chemicals. (According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, a nonprofit organization, conventional cotton consumes 25 percent of the world’s chemical pesticides and fertilizers.)

Today, none of the brands do. Where has all the organic denim gone?

Some smaller lines were crushed by the recession and a crowded market.

“In a matter of 12 months, I lost 25 to 30 percent of my customer base because of stores closing or scaling back orders and going with more price-conscious lines,” said Tierra del Forte, who closed her eco-jeans line, Del Forte, in 2009.

But other companies are extending their attention beyond cotton to the entire manufacturing process, according to LaRhea Pepper, senior director at Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), a nonprofit organization advocating the spread of organic agriculture.

Factors now being considered include water use, dye impact, soil health, labor issues and fair trade.

“There has been a paradigm shift: It’s about water, toxic waste, scrap on the cutting room floor,” Pepper said. “Across the board we see companies figuring out how to do the right thing, do it in a way that’s economically viable, move the agenda forward and make a difference.”

Levi’s Eco line is no longer in stock, but the company continues to use some organic cotton while rejiggering its eco-efforts.

“We’re shooting for greater impact,” said Michael Kobori, vice president for social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss.

Along with H&M, Adidas and Nike, Levi’s has joined the Better Cotton Initiative, another nonprofit, which focuses on sustainable-agriculture techniques, water use and economic and labor issues. Kobori said that the initiative’s cotton farms in India and Pakistan have reduced chemical use and water consumption by a third. The resulting product, called Better Cotton, won’t likely show up in Levi’s clothing until spring next year and will be blended with conventional cotton at first. But the goal is to use it in everything the company makes.

“We want to shift the way cotton is grown around the world,” Kobori said. “All cotton can be grown this way.”

Shoppers not interested in delayed gratification can buy Levi’s new Water Less jeans, which sell at retail for US$50 to US$130, starting this month. The fading and whiskers on them are done with reduced or no water, Kobori said, saving about 10 liters a pair. The company also advocates the dirty look; it conducted a life-cycle assessment of 501s and Dockers that revealed the biggest water use with jeans is when consumers wash them. So Levi’s is asking customers to wash less, and its labels now read: “Wash in cold water. Line dry. Donate to Goodwill when no longer needed.” (And don’t forget the eco-detergent.)

Lacking Levi’s global resources, designer Rogan Gregory has stopped using organic denim for his self-described “environmentally and socially conscious” brand, Loomstate.

“If you’re not a manufacturer, it’s challenging to execute,” Gregory said.

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