NEW YORK - There's a segment of the organic goods market that buys things out of environmental consciousness, while others buy for the social values the organic industry promotes. Increasingly, though, organic goods are being bought by the average Joe, happy to get something green as long as it looks, feels and costs the same as the things he's used to.
In fashion, organic cotton led the way into the mainstream. This winter, it's being closely followed by organic wool, which is available in Patagonia sweaters and Delano Collection coats, among others.
"We see demand growing exponentially. It started with the outdoor industry and now it's Patagonia for sweaters, Fox River for socks, and there'll be a lot more," says Matthew Mole, founder and president of Vermont Organic Fiber Co., based in Middlebury, Vt.
"In the last four to six months there's been a spike in fashion-forward brands," he adds. "As long as the quality is there, there's no argument not to do it. There is a price premium built in because we think farmers who are taking the extra steps to be the stewards of the land deserve to be compensated, but people seem willing to pay it."
Vermont Organic Fiber currently is developing fine worsted wool for suits, heavier fabrics for coats and a jersey for diaper covers. Children's clothes could be a hot market because parents are always looking to put the purest products next to their babies' skin, but Mole is still working out the kinks when it comes to the washability of the wool.
Mole, who was raised on a small farm, became familiar with the organic and natural fiber market while he was a research assistant at the University of Vermont studying hemp. He saw that cotton had a monopoly on the organic marketplace. "There needed to be something else," he says. "As a consumer, I knew I wanted to wear more than just cotton."
Knowing that sheep were already being raised organically for the food market, he figured organic wool would be the next logical step.
"Growers often produce product but there's a disconnect with brands that want to use it. I said, 'There's fiber and there's customers - let's link them.'"
After talking to farmers, Mole identified mills in the U.S. that could immediately begin processing according to organic handling rules, plants that were already using plant-based soaps and plant-based oils in the spinning instead of petroleum.
Then he went to the fashion companies.
Last year, Patagonia sold out of its limited collection of organic wool sweaters and it looks like the same will happen this year even though the company ordered more garments, says Jill Dumain, director of environmental analysis at Patagonia.
"We do have some environmental customers, but more people just want durability, quality, fit, color, styling. And if it has an environmental benefit, all the better. Having something that's good for the environment is gravy," she says. "A lot of people don't know they're buying organic fibers, they just liked the garment. That's a compliment to us."
Patagonia, which already incorporates environmentalism into its corporate culture, was particularly interested in wool because it has a lot of properties that are conducive to active use, something its customers seek. "It stays warm when wet and it has a natural odor-fighting capacity - the holy grail for the outdoor industry for people going on long expeditions. It's also quicker drying," Dumain says.
For organic clothes to be a serious category in the apparel business, there has to be an understanding of both what the farmers need and consumers want, she says, and that's where textile suppliers like Vermont Wool come in. "It says something that there is a middleman. It means it's a real business."
"Our goal is to expand to the finer fibers (of organic wool) to allow for a broader application. We started with sweaters because that historically is where the wool usage is," Dumain says, noting that the company's "Axuwool" products - wool on the inside, a wicking, stretch polyester on the outside would be a perfect fit - if only organic wool could be spun fine enough.
They're working on it, she adds.
Charles Heckman, president and co-designer of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Delano, worked with Mole on the woven felted wool that's the shell of the princess-cut coats in stores now. He describes the texture as "like any fine wool coat on the market today.... It's soft and has a great hand."
By designing high-end clothing made from organic and sustainable materials, Delano puts the emphasis on the fashion in "eco-fashion," says Heckman. The marketing strategy is to appeal to women first since they usually care more about things are made.