Agriculture

Wearing Green

Josie Hua of Fountain Set fabric mill checks out a field of organic cotton during a tour in early November in Firebaugh.
Josie Hua of Fountain Set fabric mill checks out a field of organic cotton during a tour in early November in Firebaugh. AP

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a workshop in the city's Mission District, Ally Beran's team of fashion designers is sprawled out over buttons and spools of thread, hoping to stem global warming by stitching new outfits from thrift store finds.

A brown lace applique from a scrap bin could make last year's castoff cashmere really pop, Beran muses. Or, she reckons, swatches from a tattered leather jacket could double as chic epaulettes on a high-end used sweater.

Designers of so-called sustainable fashion not only are dominating New York catwalks and urban boutique racks this winter; many also are providing farmers with new markets for their crops.

As with the movement for locally harvested food, ecofashion's devotees seek to lower their toll on the earth by buying clothes made of recycled materials and sustainably harvested, homegrown fibers.

This year, American Apparel and yoga-gear retailer prAna will start selling shirts spun with cotton grown in the Central Valley and sewn not too far away, in Southern California, to avoid burning fossil fuels in transporting the materials.

Beran's creations, marketed under the label William Good -- an anagram of the company's business partner, thrift store giant Goodwill Industries -- are only sold online and in stores near San Francisco, also to reduce its carbon footprint.

Last summer, New York's Rag & Bone hired supermodel Shalom Harlow as the face for its line of filmy "carbon-free" T-shirts, which were manufactured domestically in a process that required no greenhouse gas emissions.

For Firebaugh farmer Frank Williams, the new interest in locally grown, organic cotton has meant he's had to learn how to talk about threadcount and women's skirt lengths with the ecologically minded crowds that tour his fields.

"These fibers are among the best organic in the world," Williams said as he led a group of fashion executives from China, Sweden and New York through rows of billowy cotton. "With the right diameter, length and strength you can really spin the finest yarns that you want."

Farmers in the United States grow a small portion of the organic cotton used by the apparel industry, which finds most of its fibers overseas in countries such as Turkey, where labor and production costs are much cheaper. The market clearly is booming, however. The nonprofit Organic Exchange predicts that sales of organic cotton fiber will reach $226 million by 2009, up from about $19 million in 2004.

As more companies seek to build a greener supply chain, U.S. farmers are hoping that will translate into more demand for domestic crops.

The Sustainable Cotton Project, a nonprofit based in Davis, has helped about two dozen cotton farmers penetrate the fashion industry by promoting cotton grown in California using Biological Agriculture Systems in Cotton methods. The cotton is not quite organic but is farmed using techniques that reduce pesticide usage by up to 73 percent.

San Diego-based prAna recently snapped up hundreds of pounds of BASIC acala cotton for its "Homegrown T-Shirt," and American Apparel has committed to buying nearly half a million pounds, said Lynda Grose, a sustainable fashion design professor at California College of the Arts who helped broker the deals.

Coral Rose, who spearheaded Wal-Mart's first purchase of organic yoga clothes in 2004 when she was a women's apparel buyer at Sam's Club, said that after companies start switching to natural fibers, it's only a matter of time before they start thinking about other sustainable design practices. Wal-Mart is the biggest seller of organic cotton products worldwide.

"It's a total mind-set shift at the design level," said Rose, now a consultant based in Fayetteville, Ark. "It holds the designer accountable for their designs and their impacts."

William Good CEO Nick Graham, a veteran designer who founded Joe Boxer in the 1980s, said the idea for the new company came to him as he was wandering around a Goodwill store, thinking about all the used clothing that ends up in landfills.

"I thought we could do an organic line, but then I thought that's just more stuff we'd be creating," said Graham. "It's the American way to say we need more growth, but what if we created an economy with everything we've already used once?"

Santa Barbara-based Simple Shoes is promoting that concept as well with its ecoSNEAKS, a line of shoes and boots that hit stores last fall featuring treads made from recycled car tires.

Still, analysts caution that until earth-friendly clothes come down in price, only a small group of consumers will think about their carbon footprint before they reach for their wallets.

"We've gotten more people aware or interested in ecological fashion, but most of the world's still looking for cheaper, better, faster," said Marshal Cohen, a fashion industry analyst at the NPD Group. "The message will resonate, but it's going to take more time."

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