At fashionable boutiques throughout Los Angeles, shoppers can find the latest "green fashions" fabrics marketed as organic or eco-conscious in some way and often at prices well above that of regular apparel.
But what exactly makes a garment environmentally friendly? Is it because it's made of soy or corn or tree bark? And what if the apparel has been shipped in a way that consumes a lot of energy?
When Brian Weitman, owner of L.A.-based Security Textile Corp. saw other local manufacturers jumping on the organic bandwagon, he was skeptical.
"It is very difficult to be completely green," Weitman said. "It isn't just the fabric that has to be 100 percent organic. Is the thread organic? Is the label organic? Is the truck it's sent in low emissions, or is it sent overnight air from China? Are they putting it in polyurethane bags or are they putting it in recyclable products for shipping?"
Weitman asked himself these questions as he was deciding whether his company, which makes apparel components such as embroidery backings and pocket linings, could honestly venture into this green new world.
In two years of research, he discovered that some companies weren't as eco-friendly as they claimed, especially those producing green clothing on a large scale.
"The correct way for a company to go about marketing themselves as organic is to say they try to be organic or they use eco-friendly materials when available," he said. "Some of these companies saying they are truly organic are going to be sued by consumer rights groups."
Weitman and others familiar with the apparel industry said some clothes with organic labels have only minimal amounts of eco-fibers and are made mostly of nonorganic material. They often even blend synthetics into the mix.
Because the textile industry isn't regulated the way foods are, manufacturers can call anything organic, even if it's not.
Good as it seems?
Green fashions can have adverse environmental impacts, said Georgia Kalivas, an independently contracted textile coordinator for the Institute for Marketecology, which inspects and certifies eco-products, and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Design.
Corn fiber, for example, goes through an extensive manufacturing process that creates harmful byproducts.
"They are made from resources that are renewable. That's better than making them from fibers that aren't renewable," she said. "But is it greener? Maybe it's a baby step."
Fibers from hemp and bamboo can be turned into clothing and are often sold as green, but they have to be treated chemically in order to get them soft enough.
The most popular fiber to make it into green clothing is organic cotton. It's only real organic cotton, however, if it's grown without fertilizers or synthetic pesticides through sustainable methods. In fact, far less than 1 percent of the cotton produced in the United States is organic, Kalivas said. Worldwide it is 0.02 percent.
As a result, cotton marketed as organic frequently has been mixed with bio-engineered cotton. Or it's been dyed with chemicals.
Jan Rosen is a green consultant who works with an organic cotton farm in Thailand called Nan Yang Textiles. Because of supply shortages, Rosen questions the truth behind all the organic labels on apparel.
"There isn't enough production to supply what everyone is talking about," Rosen said. "Oftentimes, organic cotton crops don't grow as large as engineered cotton and it is more susceptible to insect attacks. It is therefore 30 to 50 percent more expensive, driving up the cost to buyers who make it into clothing."
Jason Scorse, an economist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, purchased a wool jacket during the holiday season from a Lululemon Athletica store in Berkeley. When he tried to verify whether the wool was harvested in a humane manner, salespeople assured him it came from "happy sheep." After numerous phone calls to Lululemon headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, e-mails and follow-up store visits, a company executive told Scorse the wool was purchased on the open market so no one could be sure if the sheep were really happy.
"There are no standards for environmentally friendly materials, but there is a standard that you don't lie," Scorse said. "They figured that I wouldn't bother to actually make them substantiate their claims."
Because Lululemon's Web site touts environmental responsibility, Scorse filed a complaint for false advertising with the Federal Trade Commission. He doesn't expect any response or action until the summer.
Lululemon executives at the company's Vancouver headquarters said the company strives to be socially conscious, but did not elaborate.
Greenopia, a guide that rates L.A.-area retailers and restaurants for environmental friendliness, gives Lululemon one leaf out of a possible four, meaning that more than 25 percent but less than 50 percent of its products are recycled, organic or natural fibers. The company has five stores in Los Angeles.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects organic cotton crops. But after they leave the farm, there is no official tracking of what happens to that cotton on its way to store shelves.
Several organizations from various countries have created their own international certification processes that companies can use on a voluntary basis.
The Organic Trade Association of the U.S., the Japanese Organic Cotton Association, the International Association Natural Textile Industry of Germany and the Soil Association of England created a system of organic certification called the Global Organic Textile Standard or Gots in 2002 to determine whether an apparel company meets a certain level of green friendliness. The group is gaining prominence and was chosen by Wal-Mart and Sam's Club to certify that their organic cotton products are genuine.
Kalivas is a Gots inspector and helped develop the standards. She follows the garments from the mill to the shelf, ensuring that a certain percent of the garment is organic and that the companies follow fair environmental and labor practices.
"I would say that there are a lot of people out there that aren't educated on what organic means, even designers," she said. "I don't think they do it on purpose. Using organic fiber doesn't mean you have an organic shirt."
She said companies have even added decidedly nonorganic formaldehyde finishes to garments.
Even after a company receives certification, Kalivas said the tag modestly states, "Organic according to Gots."
Kalivas comes to Los Angeles often to inspect companies for certification.
One of her stops in the future might be with Weitman of Security Textiles.
After his research into the industry, Weitman decided to make a limited selection of organic pocket and fabric linings. However, his other Los Angeles-based company, Security Sourcing, which makes complete garments, is going to have to wait because he doesn't have enough resources to ensure that the whole process can be done organically.
"I think making organic clothing is a responsible thing to do," he said. "I will supply to some of my customers. The people who are really going to rise to the top are the ones intelligent enough to educate their customers that it isn't always possible to be organic."
Staff reporter Joel Russell contributed to this article.
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