Green Is 'In' Color For Babies

A baby wears yarn-dyed organic cotton longjohns with organic cotton vegetable-themed toys from Under the Nile. (AP Photo/Under the Nile
AP Photo/Under the Nile
Pink and blue are passe. The hot thing in the children's market these days is green.

Parents are increasingly turning to organic products - clothing, creams and food made without chemicals.

Organic baby food has developed a strong following over past years. It was a $206 million industry last year, according to the most recent figures available from the Organic Trade Association.

Now, interest in organic clothing and cleansers is growing as quickly as the kids they target.

Sales of organic fibers for infant clothes and cloth diapers rose 40 percent between 2004 and 2005 to $40 million. Organic fiber sales for the child-teen market grew 52 percent to $3 million. Meanwhile, organic personal care products, including baby care, rose 34 percent to $26 million.

Whether or not organic products offer any health benefits is unclear. Most experts say only the most sensitive children could have a problem with conventional clothing or personal care products.

But their parents seem more motivated by a desire to keep their kids untainted from some of the harshness and artificiality of the world for as long as they can.

"This is the first time - and I've been in business 10 years - that we're catching up to organic food," says Janice Masoud, founder of Under the Nile, an organic clothing company based in Milpitas, Calif., that specializes in children's items.

Under the Nile will launch a test program in 150 Target stores this coming holiday season with towel sets, swaddle blanket sets, a sherpa two-piece cardigan set and flannel footies. "It gives me chills that people are realizing organic cotton really is something special," she says.

From her regular collection, the most popular items are bodysuits, buntings and baby gowns that can be worn home from the hospital. Masoud thinks that's because they're all pieces that are worn right next to a baby's skin for long periods of time.

She says she cringes at the thought of the pesticides and insecticides used to grow some cotton rubbing against a newborn's skin. She also notes that formaldehyde is sometimes used in fabric finishing process and as is polyvinyl chloride, known as PVC.

"Cotton is supposed to be a natural fiber, says Masoud, who obtained "fair trade" certification for her brand. That means that the co-op of Egyptian farmers that grows her cotton are paid more for their products than many workers abroad.

As it moves mainstream, the price of organic products is decreasing, Masoud says, noting that even price-conscious Wal-Mart is embracing organic baby clothes.

That said, manufacturers still pay 30-50 percent more for organic than conventionally grown cotton, according to Anne Dorsey, merchandise manager for Hanna Andersson's baby apparel. "It's not as easy to come by, farmers take a greater risk and there is a smaller yield," she explains.

Hanna Andersson, a Portland, Ore.-based kiddie clothier, absorbs most of the additional cost because, when the company decided to shift toward organic cotton in 2003, it did so out of a sense of responsibility to the Earth and its customers, not necessarily to immediately make big bucks, Dorsey says. Organic cotton's share of the collection continues to grow each season.

"It's a sense of pride for us, and it distinguishes us in the marketplace. It's a long-term investment," she says.

Hanna Andersson extended its commitment to being green by adopting a European ecological certification process called Oko-Tex, which tests trims and fasteners for more than 100 substances.

"We have a group of customers who are interested in being stewards of the Earth," Dorsey says.

Jessica Iclisoy, founder of California Baby, an all-natural line of bath and skin products, went into business 15 years ago after talking to the farmers she'd meet at markets when she was buying organic produce. She says she learned from them that there were botanicals that could accomplish the same thing as the chemicals in personal care products - lemon eucalyptus in place of DEET for insect repellent, for one.

It was as she was preparing to give birth to her first child that she decided to make a lifestyle change to be green.

"Women are told to clean up their lifestyle before they have kids," Iclisoy says. "You're told to stop drinking coffee, eat healthy. I read some books then that really scared me. They talked about pesticides and hormones in meat. ... I looked at everything in my life. I looked at the skin care ingredients, a lot were allergy triggers or known carcinogens."

Iclisoy's son is now 15 and still uses the products that she created with his best interests in mind. "He loves them," she says, "but I will tell you he takes the labels off the products. He doesn't want it to say 'baby' on them."

Rachel Hayes, a new mother in New York, says she decided to raise one-year-old Amelia Grace Gayle as green as she can because it complements the innocence of a child. "She's a young, untainted, tiny human being. Anything I can do to keep her additive-free, I will."

Organic food is Hayes' top priority, but, she says, she also likes the idea of incorporating organics into other areas of Amelia's life.

Hayes, Cosmopolitan magazine's beauty editor, is a fan of Earth's Best Baby Care by Jason, a partnership between two well-known companies specializing in natural products.

"The Jason organic baby products - I do like their stuff. It smells good. For organic beauty products in general, they've come a long way. Ten years ago, you'd be wondering, 'Is there a hair in it?' It had a grungy, hippie vibe," Hays says. "Now organic products are high end, well done. You trust how safe and clean they are. I'm definitely more open and more experimental for myself and Amelia."

However, Hayes notes that many baby products - organic or not - often are gentle, fragrance-free and hypoallergenic.

She's also not as strict with clothes. "I do feel good about putting her in organic cotton but I think regular cotton like Carter's or Petit Bateau can be just as good. It's more about how soft it is."

Hayes' maternal intuition is right, says Dr. Susan Bayliss Mallory, pediatric dermatologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital. It's rare for babies to have a genuine allergic reaction to the chemicals used to treat fabrics, even formaldehyde, she says.

They're much more likely to suffer from irritant dermatitis - essentially sensitive skin. The children most susceptible to irritants are those considered atopic, which means they have a predisposition to asthma, hay fever and eczema.

As for absorption of chemicals from clothes and toiletries, Mallory says it can happen but, again, it's uncommon. "To be absorbed, skin has to be moist. Otherwise, the skin has so many good layers of barriers." She also doesn't believe there to be a long-term affect on the skin.

But, to avoid skin reactions altogether, Mallory suggests seeking out the simplest and gentlest cleansers and lotions. In addition, choose fabrics that are soft to the touch and launder new clothes before kids wear them, which softens fibers and washes out chemicals.

The "hand" - how a fabric feels - is exactly why Bella Bliss, an upscale children's clothing company based in Lexington, Ky., sticks with Peruvian pima cotton, which has a silky feel, instead of insisting on organic.

She's not ruling it out for the future, though.

"Organics are getting a lot more attention - they're even going to be at Wal-Mart - but for my customer base, we haven't seen the demand. ... The future of organics rely in supply and demand," McLean says.