As environmental concerns increasingly dictate consumer choices, the organic cotton industry is witnessing a boom in Europe with the green fibers gracing catwalks and adorning the racks of apparel companies.
More and more apparel stores are turning to organic cotton
Organic cotton is looking fabulous these days.
Berlin Fashion Week recently featured "green living" in all its sexy, multi-colored glory. Eco-clothing has broken free of the "grim ethics of sacrifice" that defined the 1980s. Europe's fashionistas can now wear organic cotton and still make it past the bouncers.
Not just for hippies
Organic cotton is forecast to have an annual growth rate of 116 percent between 2006 and 2008 and to reach $2.6 billion (1.9 billion euros) in global retail sales, according to an Organic Exchange's cotton market report. Globally, the organic cotton market is evenly split between Europe and the United States.
German consumers led Europe's organic cotton demand in the 1990s, with mail order companies such as Hess Natur making it a cornerstone of its strategy.
Demand in Great Britain and France is quickly eclipsing Germany, said Damien Sanfilippo, cotton project officer for the Pesticide Action Network (PAN.) He estimates that three out of every four High Street retailers in the Britain now offer organic cotton products, nearly all of them since 2003.
Eco-chic in the big leagues
Farmers benefit from organic cotton
Organic cotton clothing lines are showing up both in Europe's high-end fashion boutiques and stores for the masses such as H&M and Zara.
Last year Swedish-based H&M used 30 tons of organic cotton. This year it expects to use 1,100 tons. The organic clothing lines are selling so well that the company has expanded it to be available in all departments, including men's clothing, said Karolina Dubowicz, a project leader in H&M's press relations department.
Customers have shown they'll buy organic if the clothes look good and are priced right, she said. Using organic cotton is part of the company's corporate responsibility plan.
"We do a lot of things to contribute to a better environment," Dubowicz said. "This is one of the ways that we do this. It's an investment in a better environment."
Inditex, the Spanish retail giant which owns Zara, announced a green strategy which will slash energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in the upcoming years. Zara, famous for bringing the latest trends to market quickly and inexpensively, sells organic cotton T-shirt for about 10 euros.
Too good to be true?
Ethical consumers are going organic
Farmers and the environment are the main beneficiaries of organic cotton and other products. Organic food is an easy sell compared to organic cotton. Many consumers feel an organic peach is healthier than a conventional one and will spend the extra money to buy it.
And retailers in Germany are finding that many shoppers are willing to do the same for clothes, according to Simon Ferrigno of the Organic Exchange, a nonprofit trade association working to expand the use of organically-grown cotton.
But consumers only experience a health benefit if the cotton is processed in an environmentally friendly way without harsh chemicals, said Katharina Schaus, a garment engineer who founded the German company It Fits.
Schaus has helped develop standards that allow companies to certify the entire process as organic. Most retailers want to label the entire product, not just the cotton, as organic, she said.
H&M uses the same techniques and dyes for all its cotton, which Dubowicz said is strictly regulated to make sure it poses no risk to consumers' health.
Children are often recruited to help with the cotton harvest
There has been some concern as cotton has become big business that some of the gains organic farmers have made will be lost.
"Now that the big retailers are involved, they have a way to do business which is a different way than the specialized organic cotton companies," said Sanfilippo of PAN. "We hope that they'll promote organic agriculture overall."
While this year's obsession with African prints will be in next year's trash bins, organic cotton seems to have staying power. Companies have shown long-term commitment to organic cotton by making big changes to their supply chains, experts said.
"It's for the long term," Ferrigno said of the interest in organic cotton. "It's responding to consumer demand and quite a sophisticated consumer."