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Demand is growing for natural-fiber clothes


The freshest produce in the fashion market is green. Ecologically green clothing -- safe for the body, good for the conscience and kind to Mother Earth.

And it's available in new colors and contemporary styles, similar to what's on the racks at the Gap, Banana Republic or the Limited.

Traditionally, two types of environmentally sound clothes have been in catalogs and stores, said Debra Lynn Dadd, author of books on earth-friendly products: those made of unbleached, undyed and untreated natural fibers (cotton, linen, silk, wool or ramie) that are organically grown; and clothes made of unbleached, undyed and untreated natural fibers that are not organically grown -- meaning they might have residues of pesticides or petrochemicals used in growing and processing.

Until now, they were just basic sweat shirts, T-shirts, plain underwear and sleep clothes varying in color from white to wheat, generally worn by people allergic to chemicals and synthetic fibers.

But new, naturally colored cotton fibers, along with low-impact synthetic dyes, have given well-known clothing manufacturers who want to make environment-friendly clothes more options to work with.

Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, for example, recently introduced Levi's Naturals, the first line of naturally colored jeans, shorts and slouchy jackets made without dyes. The zipper-fly, relaxed silhouette 550 jeans come in coyote brown, a natural brown cotton called Fox Fibre that was developed by Sally Fox, president of Natural Cotton Colours Inc. in Wasco, Calif.

Esprit de Corp., another San Francisco-based maker of casual clothes, recently launched Esprit Ecollection. It's a line of clothes, shoes, socks and bags that uses either Fox Fibre or fabrics with vegetable or synthetic dyes that have few non-biodegradable ingredients. And they're fastened by tagua-nut buttons from Brazilian rain forests.

Esprit originally planned to call the collection R&D;, short for research and discovery, which turned out to be very apt, said designer Lynda Grose. She found, for example, that vegetable dyes aren't necessarily better than synthetics because they have metal fixatives, which leave non-biodegradable residues.

"Some Ecollection items use some synthetic dyes that leave only 5 percent to 10 percent non-biodegradable residues in the water during dyeing, compared to 40 percent for most fabrics," Ms. Grose said.

In addition, Ecollection clothes are not bleached; they are enzyme-washed to clean the fabric before dyeing and soften it afterward.

Traditional clothing often is treated with formaldehyde, which acts as a color preservative and makes some clothes crease-resistant. The drawback? It's damaging to the environment because it leaves harmful residues.

Even the environmental impact of the trimmings have been considered. Zippers and grommets are made of alloys that don't rust, and don't require electroplating, a process that leaves residues.

The tagua-nut buttons, which are substitutes for plastic ones, come from tagua-nut trees in Brazilian rain forests, Ms. Grose said. Tagua trees in the Esmeraldas forest are not cut down as long as there's a demand for the nuts.

These subtle details go virtually unnoticed, but they're better for the environment than any bleached, formaldehyde-treated T-shirt with an ecological slogan, Ms. Grose said.

"Ecollection is deliberately designed to look like typical clothes because Esprit is looking to eventually substitute Ecollection-type of clothes in many of its products," she said. ". . . Most people don't want to sacrifice fashion in order to be environmentally correct."

Indeed, in a store, only information hang tags differentiate regular Esprit items from Ecollection's dotted yellow-green cotton shirts, leaf-green denim jackets or unlined sand linen shorts.

The trend has spread far beyond California's borders, too.

Ecosport, a manufacturer of environment-friendly clothing in South Hackensack, N.J., uses coyote brown and green, another Fox Fibre, for a range of casual clothes, including basic sweat shirts, T-shirts, jackets and shorts in children's and adult sizes.

Green Cotton Environment in New York City, a line of T-shirts and sweat shirts using organic cotton, was recently purchased by apparel-manufacturing giant VF Corp. and renamed O Wear, according to marketing manager Chris Vickers. The line will be expanded to include other casual items this year.

"This is a trend, not a fad," the marketing manager said. "It's an alternative to traditional clothes. We want to demonstrate that it's possible to make great-looking clothes and run a business that's socially responsible."

Expect to pay a bit more to assuage your conscience, though. Natural clothing is slightly more expensive than regular lines because the supply of the special types of cotton is limited, Ms. Dadd said.

Levi's Naturals 550 jeans, for example, sell from $49 to $51 compared to $36 to $48 for regular 550s. But as more consumers buy the clothes and more manufacturers develop eco-conscious lines, Ms. Dadd said, prices will come down.

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