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Fashion Goes the Way of Food: Organic

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America's closets are turning green.

The same environmental sensibilities that have swept the foodie world (farm-to-table, organic produce) are making inroads in the fashion universe as the environmental movement continues its rise and new technology produces refined synthetic and recycled materials.

For example:

--Saks and Neiman Marcus last March settled a lawsuit charging they labeled real fur as faux fur to escape disclosing its source (raccoon dogs, in this case) -- a ploy that turns marketing on its head: Fake sells better than real?

--At a Last Call by Neiman Marcus in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, stylish faux-leather vegan motorcycle jackets with faux crocodile trim (prominently labeled as such) fill up a rack in the high-end discount store.

--High-heeled vegan pumps by OlsenHaus ($225 retail), made of all-synthetic materials, recently showed up on the online shopping site MyHabit.com next to leather platforms by more traditional high-end shoe purveyors such as Calvin Klein and Cole Haan.

Red-carpet endorsements by celebrities don't hurt: Actress Natalie Portman regularly wears vegan shoes, and designer Stella McCartney has become synonymous with ethical fashion, rejecting fur and leather in her high-priced couture.

"Initially, when green fashion started to make any kind of inroads into the apparel industry, it was headed by activists," says Sass Brown, acting assistant dean of the Fashion Institute of Technology's School of Art and Design and an eco-fashion blogger (www.ecofashiontalk.com). "Now it's headed by designers and all tiers of distribution and all taste levels and all price points."

Green apparel and accessories still make up barely more than 2% of the $200 billion fashion business in the U.S., says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm. Still, that's about $5 billion.

"Just a decade ago, it was not even half a billion dollars," he says. "That's a huge difference."

Social consciousness -- ethical treatment of animals, protecting natural resources -- is a big motivator. But the average consumer would not be putting these clothes on their backs and feet if they didn't look good. Remember pleather jackets in the '70s (cringe)?

ECO-FRIENDLY, AND CUTE, TOO

High-end department stores and boutiques now carry green fashion. Top designers are embracing synthetic and recycled materials.

"When eco-fashion started, the fabrication wasn't as great," says Lynette Pone McIntyre, Luckymagazine's senior market editor. "It felt very burlappy. The quality wasn't quite there. Over the past 10 years, technology has changed so much. You can't tell what's eco-friendly or not."

Strict labeling laws let the customers know most of the time. And if the clothes look good and are "ethical" in their manufacturing or construction, shoppers want them.

"People are really caring where their clothing is coming from -- anyone from 10-, 12-year-olds to 90-year-olds," McIntyre says. "Just like they care where their food is coming from, their carbon footprint."

Jose Medina, 22, a political science student at the University of Chicago, agrees. "It's an ideology," he says. "If you disagree with the belief system or what a company represents, it's less likely you're going to align yourself with them. ... Eco-fashion and sustainability, it's very easy for people to align with that."

That's where technology, designers and large retailers come in. The focus is not just on the materials used but how they're manufactured: Timberland, the Stratham, N.H., maker of sporty footwear and apparel, has made its largest investment in ecological products and manufacturing processes since the brand was invented 40 years ago, says Chris Pawlus, senior global creative director.

"It's a brand mission," he says. "We really look at the idea of sustainable design and sustainable products. The fact that our logo is a tree at first glance is poetic, but it's connected to social justice and doing the right thing."

Result: the Earthkeepers collection. Introduced in 2009, it now makes up 75% of all Timberland footwear. The company set an SPG goal: Style, Performance, Green. It worked with vendors and manufacturers to reduce water usage, pushed for the use of recycled plastic bottles in linings, laces, uppers and even faux shearling. Rubber soles are made out of recycled rubber. When cotton is used, it's organic.

"One of our newest fabrics we call ReCanvas," Pawlus says. "It has the look and feel of traditional cotton but is made from recycled PET. Across the board, everyone has had to adapt and renovate, and it's modern technology that's allowed them to do these things. It's not a cost-cutting exercise."

Once in place, it can save money. Leather scraps destined for the trash pile, for example, are recycled and reused to make more shoes.

"We're at a point now where aesthetics are not hindered by green materials," Pawlus says.

H&M GOES BIG WITH GREEN

Swedish fashion retailer H&M, a hit in the U.S. and 47 other countries for its affordable but hip clothes, has introduced its Conscious Collection. All designs are made out of recycled polyester, hemp, organic cotton, linen and Tencel.

The Conscious Exclusive collection will target red-carpet events. It's already been worn by actresses Amanda Seyfried (a blue tuxedo blazer and short) at a London premiere and Michelle Williams at the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards.

Collaboration with designer Stella McCartney in 2007 "opened the eyes of our fashion department," says Catarina Midby, H&M fashion and sustainability expert.

Since then, the company's clout -- 2,500 stores worldwide and the world's biggest buyer of organic cotton -- pressured suppliers to produce fabrics that use fewer chemicals and natural resources. The company and other major retailers such as Ikea and Walmart developed an education program for cotton farmers to teach them ways to water crops from the ground up and cut chemicals.

"It's not all that difficult," Midby says. "It's just that it hasn't been done."

Polyester is still used. But now it's recycled polyester.

The company's social-consciousness campaign now extends to a Garment Collecting Program in 1,500 stores. Customers can drop old clothes in a bin. They're sorted and some go to charity, others are recycled and turned into new garments and the rest sold as vintage or discarded. Shoppers receive shopping vouchers for their donations.

"I think it's everything that's happened in the world in the last 10 years," Midby says. "Everybody wanted to do their bit and take responsibility. ... Not to throw anything away."

She points to the rising popularity of swapping parties, where clothes are traded rather than thrown away.

"It's just a natural reaction to how the world looks today," Midby says.

Brown says: "We clothe ourselves in textiles from the day we're born to the day we die. ... One of the most powerful tools we have is who we choose to spend our money on. That's voting in its own way."

KEEPING IT STYLISH

Technology has given the movement the economic impetus it needed, but the industry would not have responded so overwhelmingly if designers had not put their aesthetic imprint on eco lines.

"I don't think producing more ugly clothes is sustainable," Brown says. "We have enough of them already."

Retailers know that consumers will buy items first because they look good, and second because they are not harming the environment. "Style is really what grabs them," Pawlus says. "Green is a gift with purchase."

Saving the planet is not the only motivation, of course. But if an eco label can help brands attract new customers and save the planet in the process, it's a win-win.

"This is more than just doing right by the environment," Cohen says. "Everybody's got white blouses. Everybody's got black skirts. ... Now I'm playing the environmental-friendly card, and it allows me to stand apart from the others."

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