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Jennifer Marks

Eco-Friendly Merchandising On the Rise

It may not be easy being green, as the song says, but that hasn't prevented a raft of companies from hanging the "green" tag on their products.

That's because there are so many ways of being green, although goods produced from certified organic fibers are considered the "purest."

But there are so many other fibers on the green horizon, according to John Anderson, director of the Textile Technology Center at Gaston College in Belmont, N.C.

"You can make polylastic fibers out of all kinds of things. People are now working with spider silk. Products being made from soy. Products are coming along that being made with other biomass sources," he said.

For many consumers the question is, "Is it nature, or is it natural?" said Bob Hamilton, marketing director of Welspun, which is conducting ongoing consumer research on organic, eco-friendly, and other environmentally-aware product features.

"As [consumers] look at the whole subject of organic, the most significant issue is the Earth-friendly feature of products. Things that harm the planet to a lesser degree — the soil, plants, air," he said.

In a recent study, 76% of women consumers polled for Welspun said they wanted products that are "safe for the environment," he said. When asked about organic textiles, 69% said they would choose to buy them — depending upon pricing and availability.

Organic fiber consumer sales totaled $160 million in 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the Organic Trade Association's 2006 Manufacturing Survey. Sales of organic sheets and towels totaled $20 million in 2005, up 38% over the previous year. Sales of organic pillows and mattresses totaled $2 million in the same year, up 32%.

Products that are "eco-friendly" earn their green credentials in other ways besides the "organic" qualifier. They might be biodegradable, recyclable or made of recycled yarns. Their fibers might be spun from renewable, sustainable resources such as corn, soya or bamboo. They might be produced through processes that reduce carbon emissions.

"They're all good things. Eco fabrics are a step in the right direction. Organic is even better," said Lori Wyman, a textiles specialist and education and information services administrator for the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

"It's not all or nothing," added Lisa Lai, president, EA International, which plans to introduce a variety of eco-friendly packaging innovations this year. "Somebody's saving some gas. Somebody's saving some weight in the freight transportation. There's a balance there."

The only strictly regulated distinction remains "organic." In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorizes agencies to certify crops — including cotton — as organic under USDA regulations. However, while there are legal standards for organic farm production, the processing standards are voluntary, according to OTA's Wyman.

Important to note: All cotton marketed in the United States as organic must meet the same U.S. standards as if it was produced in the United States. Only a USDA certifying agent can verify that the cotton meets those standards, regardless of whatever overseas certifications it might carry.

But there's a growing debate in the organic vs. non-organic cotton worlds.

Proponents of organic decry conventional cotton farming as an environmentally destructive activity, taking an enormous toll on the earth's air, water, and soil, with the fertilizers used making a significant impact on the health of people living in cotton growing areas.

Organic pioneer Marci Zaroff, founder of direct marketer Under The Canopy, told HTT last year that there are two pounds of pesticides in the average cotton sheet. "Cotton is the most-sprayed crop. Skin is your largest organ," she pointed out.

But conventional cotton growers are fighting back. In the United States, that effort is led by Cotton Inc., which portrays cotton as "sustainable, renewable and biodegradable." Only 0.009 ounces of total pesticides are applied per pound of cotton produced, according to the promotional and marketing organization for the cotton-growing industry.

Further, the organization continues to work on new technology such as insect-resistant and drought-resistant varieties that will reduce the need for pesticides and water, as well as boost yields to reduce land consumption.

"These practices, as adopted in the U.S. from 1996-2004, have reduced CO2 emissions by an amount equivalent to removing over 27,000 cars from the road — permanently," according to Cotton Inc.

Organic cotton supply is estimated at only 0.1% of global cotton production.

For open-end yarn producer Jimtex, a division of Martex Fiber Corp., the eco push is meshing nicely with its core business: creating regenerated fibers and yarns by recycling cut and sew clippings from apparel manufacturing. To capture the wave, Martex created a new brand: eco2cotton, which is billed as "naturally responsible."

"The eco spin is that there is no new growing, no new herbicides, no new dyeing, no additional effluent going into the waste stream," said Harry Matusow, president of Jimtex. "It's more friendly than organic. Organic doesn't yield as much, so it takes more acreage, and more acreage means more irrigation."

Matusow said the company's apparel supplier and retailer customers are now focused on calling out attributes on hang-tags and improving the eco-profile of packaging.

"Look, when you have a retailer the size of Wal-Mart pushing eco-friendly products, eco-friendly packaging — that certainly makes a ripple effect in the market," said Matusow, whose company also supplies to decorative pillow producers and upholstery manufacturers.

Welspun's Hamilton also sees more prominent point-of-sale efforts on the way to call out eco-friendly features.

"There will be a lot more focus on telling the story at retail in the next calendar year," he said. "The consumer is not going to understand it by assumption."

Organic Fiber Sub-Category Performance, 2005

'05 Sales ($Mil) % Growth
Source: Organic Trade Association
Men's Clothing 28 56%
Women's Clothing 57 43%
Child/Teen Clothing 13 52%
Infant Clothing/Diapers 40 40%
Sheet/Towels 20 38%
Mattress/Pillow 2 32%
Organic Fiber Total 160 44%

Organic Non-Foods Channel Distribution, 2005

'05 Sales ($Mil)
Source: Organic Trade Association
NF Grocery Chain $264
NF Ind Groc $228
Mass Market Groc $40
Mass Merch $9
Club $30
Farmer's Market $9
Internet $45
Mail Order $53
Bout/Spec $51
Dept Store $15
Total Organic Non-Foods $744

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