Clothes with a Conscience

Clothes with a Conscience

For many people, health goes beyond the foods they eat and the exercises they do. In a trend that mirrors the growth of organic foods and concern over food miles, many people are demanding that their clothes be natural, healthful and good for the planet, as well.

It's a trend that Paige Morse knows well. Trendy polar fleece formed the fabric of Morse's business when she started making hats 15 years ago.

A bolt of hand-woven hemp purchased on a trip to Thailand relieved Morse of her reliance on synthetic, petroleum-based fibers and changed the course of her career.

"It was in line with my values," Morse says of hemp's origins. "I started making kind of these hippy dresses."

An artists' co-op in Boulder, Colo., gave Morse her first retail outlet. Unlike the drab, brown outfits likened to "burlap sacks," Morse's color palette won over customers. She designed an entire line for wholesale in 1999. Almost 10 years and a move to Ashland later, Sweetgrass Natural Fibers sells about 75 pieces in four eco-friendly fabrics, growth Morse likens to the booming trend in organic food.

"It's really for people who care about the environment," Morse says.

At least four other "green" clothing companies make their homes in Oregon, Morse says, supplying stores such as Thread Hysteria and Nectar Eco Boutique in Ashland.

"Oil-derivative clothing — polyester and stuff — people want to get away from it," says Kathy Curtis, owner of Thread Hysteria.

Yet an environmental ethic hasn't always been the primary reason for wearing natural fibers such as hemp, linen, bamboo and organic cotton, Curtis says. Basing her business on natural fibers 17 years ago, Curtis was catering to the locals of Ashland, then just a "hippy town."

"I think it was for health," Curtis says. "They felt the fabric was easier to wear; it breathed better."

While not the primary concern for Sweetgrass customers, health still plays a part in the image of natural-fiber clothing, Morse says. People with chemical sensitivity or allergies often are particularly eager to wear it, she says. Although bamboo is transformed into cloth using a chemical process, the fiber itself has anti-microbial properties and a texture that suggests a combination of linen and silk.

"I think natural fibers just feel better," Morse says.

Playing up those assets is the next step for Nectar Eco Boutique, says Nicoya Hecht, co-owner of the Ashland store.

"Every day, I think that's a stronger argument," Hecht says of the perceived health benefits of natural-fiber clothing and customers' distaste for harsh dyes and the potential for pesticide residue next to their skin.

"You can smell it on clothes," Hecht says. "You take that into the largest organ on your body," which is your skin.

Cotton, Hecht and Morse say, has long been decried as the United States' most heavily sprayed crop. The essential characteristics of cotton are the same whether it's organic or grown using pesticides. However, the cotton used to make one T-shirt was sprayed with approximately one-third of a pound of pesticides, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project Web site.

It's reason enough for Hecht to make organic cotton the subject of Nectar's first public-education campaign, which will take the form of large posters in the store's windows.

"Low-impact is what we're looking at; we try to take in the whole picture," she says.

In addition to organic cotton, Nectar stocks clothes made from bamboo, hemp, certain types of wool, recycled polyester, reclaimed fabrics, recycled cashmere and silk produced without killing silkworms, Hecht says. Since she and sister-in-law Marya Hecht opened the store last August, they've seen the number of natural-fiber and eco-friendly clothing lines double.

"I think it's become trendy," she says.

Hecht attributes the boom to the same environmental sensitivity that founded Nectar.

"We really wanted to shop in that same way," she says. "We wanted to see if we could have a really fashionable, fun store that's also green."

The store has proven itself mainstream enough that most customers are drawn in primarily by the fashions, Hecht says. But as Nectar holds suppliers accountable for their environmental track records, Hecht predicts that clothes with a conscience will always be in style.

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