Eco-Friendly? Take a Deep Breath

Carole Sloan, March 26, 2007

It looks like the world of home textiles is in a real quandary when it comes to the hows, whys, and wherefores of eco-friendly products.

Open almost any newspaper or magazine and there's sure to be an article — or more — on some element involving "green" products and practices. Just last week in The New York Times, there was a major profile on a couple (Manhattanites, of course) who were eco-driven to the point that they walk up and down the stairs from their sixth-floor apartment, among other eco-friendly adventures.

But the new eco-drive that has embraced even the likes of Wal-Mart reeks of a been-there, done-that scenario. It was merely a decade ago that Wal-Mart first introduced its eco-friendly retail stores. And for those of us who frequented the Stroud's golf and tennis outing in City of Industry, Calif., the Wal-Mart there was a mandatory stopping-off point to get an annual update on the program, later abandoned, only to be revived with great p.r. vigor this year.

As our story on Page 20 in this issue points out, the eco-mania of last summer's market appears to have cooled. One reason, for sure: the retailer apathy, based on a combination of things from claims that were not certified to inflated pricing, to aesthetics that won't fly in a competitive marketplace. There just isn't enough organic cotton in the universe to satisfy the needs of a retailer like a Wal-Mart or JCPenney in sheets alone. The Nile River is pretty long, but long staple Egyptian cotton offered by many in home textiles would extend beyond that river's vast length. And so the claims and boasting went on, most without substantive backup.

Now that many suppliers and retailers have taken a deep breath and stepped back to re-review, there might be more clear-headed programs and products that could be developed — and at price points that everyone could understand.

For some, the concurrent push toward feel-good, healthy textiles that remove any number of nasty, crawly things we've lived with for ages, appears to be another confusing element, both at the supplier and retailer levels, as well as with consumers.

Yes, there are the Patagonias of the world that support major efforts in eco-friendly consumer goods. And they will continue to embrace the more adventuresome of the eco-efforts. Rather than trying to market product with extravagant claims, the home textiles world needs to look at product and process one step at a time.

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