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Green Jeans

Organic denim zips into a new market niche.

By Vanessa Richmond 18 Sep 2006 |

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of The Tyee.

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Gladrags: Two women on a mission

Jeans are the clothes of the people, no? They're ubiquitous, innocuous, hard-wearing and low cost per wear. They're a social leveller (despite the back-pocket prestige granted by some overpriced brands). They're about anti-conformity: sailors used to wear them, then convicts and cowboys, and of course James Dean. They've been a symbol of gender equality since women started wearing them in the '60s. Few of us could navigate the treacherous roads of daily clothing without them. And unlike those plastic poly-blends, they're all natural.

But hold on to your rivets: it seems jeans are a habit we need to kick. Dov Charney, the man behind American Apparel, calls cotton "the nicotine of clothing." And jeans, it seems, are double-strength menthols. No "light" in sight.

So, as part of this round of GladRags, where Dorothy Woodend and I again pledge to wear only sustainable clothes, I'm on a mission to take down the granddaddy of blue evil.

Clothing enemy number one

Jeans are sustainability enemy number one. I'll deliver the bad news quickly. Cotton accounts for only three per cent of the global crop acreage but uses between 15 and 25 per cent of the insecticides and pesticides -- "frankencotton," indeed. Growers use six pounds of pesticides for every acre of the stuff. And cotton is grown on 76 million acres worldwide, which represents approximately 2.4 per cent of global arable land and 40 to 47 per cent of the world's textiles. Cotton is grown in over 100 countries by approximately 50 million farmers. And the chemicals in this whole process are the worst ones for human and animal health.

Cotton is the reason that Clothes for a Change says sweatshops exist both in factories and fields. Workers suffer health problems at every stage of the cotton growing and refining process. Further, Ronnie Cummins, the national director, says that the U.S. subsidizes its cotton barons -- to the tune of four billion dollars a year -- who overproduce the crop, using toxic methods. This keeps the price of global cotton at 40 per cent below production rates, which in turn keeps the millions of impoverished cotton farmers and their families, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, even poorer.

Despite that, we have an insatiable appetite for the indigo stuff. There were 113,652 jean products for sale on eBay alone last week. And the hunger is growing younger. In a recent New York Times story, for example, Maisy Gellert, a third grader living in Westchester County, N.Y. said, "I'm very particular, Sevens are the only jeans I actually wear." Popular brands like Evisu, Blue Blood Denim, Seven for All Mankind, Chip and Pepper, True Religion, Rock and Republic, Citizens of Humanity and others typically cost over $200 US. These brands use extensive chemical processing to create effects like "distressing." And wearers often say they need new pairs every year to keep up with the changing cut and fabric trends.

Until now, the alternatives have been as exciting as tofu brownies. Brands like Patagonia have had organic jeans but a) they're about as stylish as a fleece ball gown, and b) you need a loan to afford them.

Organic cotton coming on

But there's plenty of evidence of increased interest in sustainable fashion. To name just a few examples: FiftyRX3 is a heavy traffic blog where "Jill" documents her own daily efforts to wear reused, recycled and sustainable clothes and highlights sustainable designers. The Sustainable Style Blog tracks designers and new products. TreeHugger often profiles new fashion products. And Paris is featuring a new Ethical Fashion Show this year.

And some style conscious organic jean designers have launched lines. The green truth is starting to be out there.

It's still a tough gig. Unlike organic food, where there's some nutritional benefit to the consumer, there's no "actual" benefit to the buyer from organic clothes. Sure the cotton is often soft -- but regular cotton can be Egyptian Pima cotton soft too.

There aren't yet totally dependent supplies (chemicals make for a more standardized quality). And even though the global organic cotton fibre supply has increased steeply, it's still about 20 per cent more expensive than regular cotton.

Denim karma

The only payoffs are karma and guilt-free style enjoyment. But it seems the halo benefit is enough for plenty of consumers. Maybe because of denim's roots. Denim used to be seen as so disruptive, some movie theatres and restaurants banned them. Jeans didn't used to be about branding, marketing and markup, but were part of a social movement.

I, for one, was wary of organic jeans -- jeans are more loaded with culture, class and style significance than any other clothing item. Loomstate organic jean designers agree that "socially conscious clothing still conjures images of hemp muumuus and dreadlocked hippies in drug rugs." I'd rather wear that muumuu than a pair of poorly designed jeans. And designers know they have to be hurdle clearers: Loomstate's mission is to make "ecochic" less of an oxymoron.

Those rebranding efforts, along with karma payoffs seem to be enough. Del Forte's jeans slogan is "organic is beautiful inside and out," and the jeans sell well. The designer, Tierra Del Forte switched to organic denim since designing with regular denim was "stressful" and she realized she wasn't "contributing to the world" in a way she could feel good about. In addition to designing a line of new organic jeans, she runs a program called Project Rejeaneration where wearers can send their jeans in for "recycling" when they've finished with them. Many people do.

The big news is that it's no longer simply early adopter, small designers willing to forgo profits for peace of mind. Levi's is the first mainstream, corporate jeans label to wade into the organic fray. Some styles of their regular Red Tab line and also their super premium line, Levi's Capital E, will be made with 100 per cent organic cotton starting in November. The eco styles will be sold at a "modest premium" over their "everyday pricing."

And so goes the quest for the clothing equivalent of hemp brownies that won't make your bum look big.

Vanessa Richmond is managing editor of The Tyee.

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