Buying goods with an organic label is already deemed sound business sense at every retail level within the US market. And as organics become more commercially appealing so new opportunities are opening up around the world for products which fit this brief.

Once cotton, linen, wool and silk were the sum total of the world's natural textile fibres. Today, as it strives not only to go green, but organically so, the textile trade is trawling an ever widening range of fibre sources.

Milk protein, corn alcohol, sugar cane residue, hemp, seaweed, bamboo and most recently a tropical relative of the hollyhock are among the suggestions put forward as potential answers to rising prices and globally shrinking supplies of oil-derivative synthetic fibres.

It is a situation which also has some of the world's most technically advanced producers thumbing through their archives to recover long-lost textile processing and finishing formulae. Typical of this trend is the recent Japanese revival of persimmon fruit juice as a dyeing agent.

Also in Japan, top textile scientists have been looking at the properties of the kumazasa herb to confer anti-bacterial and deodorant properties on textile yarns.
Kumazasa performs best when used in conjunction with traditional washi, or paper, fibres.

But paper, primarily made from wood pulp in the west, fills ecologists with dread at the thought of encouraging further destruction of fast diminishing forest resources. And this highlights a void between what's genuinely green, and genuinely organic, and what's not.

Symbolic gesture
For UK consumers that question was resolved on 14 February 2003 when the Soil Association added textiles and clothing to the list of products that can be approved to meet its organic criteria. The SA Certification logo is due to appear on commercial clothing ranges from March 2003.

Pure Wensleydale wool sweater from Ford Barton

The Soil Association has been one of the UK's prime movers in the promotion of organically grown foods and has long wished to extend its activities to fashion and fabrics, not only in Britain but globally.

Says David Pearce, managing director of Soil Certification Ltd: "There is a huge potential for organic textiles in Britain, where sales of organic and eco-friendly textiles have grown by 20 per cent over the last two years."

Soil Certification Ltd is the body set up to handle the licensing of the mark and the policing of the scheme by a team of 30 inspectors working in 20 countries around the world.

Pearce adds that it has taken a committee of clothing industry experts as well as chemists, scientific researchers and organic farmers two years to define the qualifications required for use of the symbol.

A key factor will be that all SA Certified fabrics are produced from non-genetically modified raw materials, and processed without the use of heavy metals. AZO dyes are categorically banned.

"All components of textiles or clothing accepted to bear the symbol will also be assessed on their biodegradability and their potential toxicity to aquatic wildlife," he says. "Inputs will not be allowed if they are even suspected to cause illness or trigger allergies.

"On this basis our scheme will offer shoppers the peace of mind which comes from the knowledge that the clothes they choose are made from naturally produced raw materials" he continues.

Chemical culprits
The textile industry is a major user of potentially pollutant substances, with around 8,000 chemical-based compounds currently utilised in fabric processing.

Meanwhile at grower level, Mr Pearce has no hesitation in naming the cotton industry as a major culprit. "A quarter of all the insecticides now employed worldwide are used to protect cotton from pest damage," he says. "And according to World Health Organisation figures, each year 20,000 developing country citizens die from poisoning by agricultural pesticides with a high proportion of such fatalities found among cotton field workers."

Higher up the distributive chain, however, there are indications of a change of heart by major users of cotton within the clothing industry.

Eight years ago Patagonia switched to buying only organically grown cotton. And Timberland boss Jeff Swartz recently declared his intention of launching a commercial range of organic cotton T-shirts as a follow-up to an organic promotional T-shirt collection.

Now Nike is talking of extending its use of organic components in blended fibre products to the introduction of lines which it will guarantee as 100 per cent organic. Already Nike is supporting the organics cause in its role as one of the largest purchasers of certifiably organically grown cotton and has set itself the goal that by 2010 every Nike product employing cotton fibres will contain a minimum of five per cent organically grown cotton.

In the recent past, of course, one of the problems with organic merchandise was that it simply didn't have the styling input to also qualify as fashion.

Today however, with companies like the UK's Devon-based Ford Barton selling certified natural, vegetable dyed woollens produced from their own flocks of organic pasture grazed sheep to the likes of Gucci and Paul Smith, chic seems to be happily co-existent with eco-friendly.

Top UK designer Paul Smith also leans towards the organic approach in his choice of printed fabrics with Teviz, which is a specialist in printed satins, as one of his key suppliers. Teviz first took the organic route seven years ago and has found it an "extremely profitable" direction with sales up 500 per cent since.

Opportunities opening up
As organics become more commercially appealing, so new opportunities are opening up for products which fit this brief.

For instance Italian spinner Franzoni reports growing demand for its Futura range of guaranteed organic yarns from knitwear producers, while in the UK firm Chilton offers organic fibre fleeces.

In wool, meanwhile, the arrival of a guaranteed green and organic version of the Woolmark has almost certainly been delayed by the complexity of developing processes which will allow wool to retain its modern easy-care properties while at the same time conforming to standards set by bodies like the UK's Soil Association.

It's a similar story on leather. Issues slowing the adoption of organic certification on leather within the fashion industry include inhumane slaughter methods and, particularly the USA, the practice of turning the waste products of the cotton industry, potentially containing pesticide remnants, into animal feed. This has recently been highlighted in reports compiled by the Hartman Group.

Expert Analysis

Dyes & Organic Pigments: Forecasts to 2005
Coverage of this US industry includes acid, reactive, disperse, direct, solvent and vat dyes as well as a number of organic pigments, such as diarylide yellow, phthalocyanine blue and rubine red. Historical data for 1990, 1995 and 2000, plus forecasts to 2005 and 2010 are presented in pounds and current dollars by type and market. The study also details market share and profiles major participants in the US industry. Find out more here.

 

That organic is now a commercial option, however, is in no doubt. Buyers from store groups as disparate in profile as Nieman Marcus and Wal-Mart have already declared their intention of attending the Organic Fiber/Fashion Show which will be one of the highlights of the All Things Organic trade fair this year - indicating that buying goods with an organic label is already deemed sound business sense at every retail level within the US market.

The fair is scheduled to take place at the Austin Convention Center in Texas from 14-17 May 2003 and is organised by the Organic Trade Association, whose own statistics show an 11 per cent increase in demand for certifiably organic merchandise since the start of the present century.

Equally active in promoting organic merchandise in the US is the Organic Consumers Association, originators of the slogan "Care What You Wear." It, however, goes one step further by linking the creation of a more eco-friendly world to that of improving the lot of impoverished workers.

One of its aims is to stamp out sweatshop production within the clothing industry. Its target is to ensure that by 2010 at least 30 per cent of all clothing sold in the USA will qualify for its own Organic and Fair Made mark.

To come to fruition such an ambition will, of course, have to take into account the growing tide of imports from third world or emergent nation sources where worker conditions at present leave much to be desired.

There is however hope that even within these areas the "green is good - and organic is even better" message is beginning to make impact with those who could truly institute change. According to Du Yuzhou, president of the China National Textile Industry Council, his country is currently losing out on $7.4 billion worth of export business a year because textile producers fail to conform to international environmental protection standards.

He bases this comment on figures released at the most recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and adds: "China has to develop a green approach if it wants to see its exports continue to grow."

By Sonia Roberts.