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Making Style Statement, Naturally

Some of Scott Leonard's cotton sweaters come in a red called "watermelon" and greens called "mint" and "herb."

The similarities to things people eat do not end there.

The cotton in the sweaters is organic - grown like organic foods, without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Those who believe such chemicals are bad for health and the environment can stack organic alternatives in their closets as well as their pantries.

"There are no nasty chemicals being put into the cotton," said Leonard, marketing director for Indigenous Designs. The Santa Rosa, Calif., company, which sells clothes to stores as well as directly to consumers, displayed its products at the Organic Trade Association's exposition in Chicago this month.

While the cotton may be 100 percent organic, Leonard acknowledges that his company used chemical dyes. "Plant dyes, the colorfastness is horrible," he said.

Organic clothing, including cotton and wool, had a small part in the All Things Organic show, which was dominated by foods. But the organic label is important to some clothes buyers.

These consumers are "concerned about doing something right for the environment," said Matt Hyde, senior vice president for merchandising at REI, the outdoors retail chain based in Kent, Wash.

Some fans of organic clothes take the position that whatever chemicals remain in conventional cotton could get through the skin and affect health.

"A lot of the buyers go organic for health reasons," said Raya Newbold, president of Round Belly Clothing of Shoreview, Minn., which sells maternity and children's wear. Newbold, pregnant with her fourth child, believes "there is no way to go but organic."

The conventional cotton industry disputes that idea.

"The processes that a fabric goes through prior to and during dyeing and finishing would remove any traces of crop-protection products," said Phillip Wakelyn, a senior scientist with the National Cotton Council in Washington. "From a residue-free standpoint, there is no difference between conventionally grown cotton and organic cotton."

As for the environment, conventional cotton growers are sparing with their pest-control chemicals, to control costs, Wakelyn said. Some modern biotech cotton plants even produce their own insecticides.

For most people, however, the bottom line is how the style looks, so REI treats organic as "a bonus," Hyde said. "It's not the No. 1 selling angle we take."

At REI, organic cotton items are single digits or low double-digits compared with overall cotton sales, Hyatt said.

Some customers care a lot and others are mostly interested in something that looks nice, said Jill Vlahos, director of environmental analysis for Patagonia. At the Ventura, Calif.-based outdoors clothing and gear company, the entire cotton product line is 100 percent organic.

Nike began blending small amounts of organic cotton into some clothing in 1998. It now has two organic lines - one 100 percent and the other a blend of organic and conventional fiber. Organic cotton gets about three percent of Nike's overall cotton use, said Jill Zanger, a Nike spokeswoman.

According to the Organic Trade Association's survey of manufacturers, the overall organic fiber market, including clothing and home textiles, grew almost 23 percent in 2003, accounting for about $85 million in U.S. sales.

The amount of organic cotton available is relatively small.

In the 2000-2001 growing season, the world grew an estimated 14 million pounds, less than 1 percent of all cotton production, the Organic Trade Association said. An Agriculture Department cotton expert, Leslie Meyer, said industry estimates are that organic cotton accounts for less than 1 percent of all U.S. cotton.

Leonard said the higher cost of organic cotton fiber, plus the inability to mass produce on the scale of conventional cotton clothing, keeps prices for 100 percent organic clothes as much as 10 percent to 15 percent above conventional clothing.

By Ira Dreyfuss