Organic growth

While a number of catalogs such as SelfCare and Patagonia have sold organic-fiber products for years, many smaller mailers selling organic clothing are cropping up.

Hard data regarding the number of organic fabrics sellers in the U.S. are unavailable, but a study from Greenfield, MA-based Organic Trade Association (OTA) estimates that U.S. organic cotton acreage swelled from just 900 acres in 1990 to 16,473 acres in 1999. “Our membership [which includes manufacturers and marketers] more than doubled in just two and a half years, from 70 to 170 companies,” says Sandra Marquardt, coordinator of the OTA’s Fiber Council.

What accounts for the market’s growth? “It could be that consumers are making a move back to simplicity,” says Joan Litle, president of The Catalog Connection, a Lowell, MA-based merchandising consultancy. Litle says that with the advancement of technology, “many people want to take a breath and return to more simple lifestyles,” which includes purchasing chemical-free clothing.

Others view the shift toward organic clothing more as a response to a serious health issue rather than a trend: “Consumers are going to have to realize sooner or later how toxic nonorganic clothing is,” says Karen Knierim, owner of Breezy Point, ME-based Wildrose Farm, an organic clothing and gifts catalog that launched in 1995. “People often feel better in organic fabrics compared to synthetic or nonorganic fabrics. They don’t realize that their headaches, allergies, and skin irritations are often caused by the chemically treated fibers that they wear.”

Indeed, “the organic sector is big in Europe, and we thought we should bring it here,” says Hanno Fries, president of the Santa Cruz, CA-based Kids Nature, a catalog of organic clothing for children that launched in 1998. “Organic awareness is growing across markets. Many of our customers are now using more organic products than in the past.”

Growth impediments While the market is growing, some think that fickle manufacturing is preventing it from growing even faster. “Many textile mills simply don’t produce organics,” Knierim says. And some of those that did have since closed. Wildrose Farm has used six mills in five years. “It would be wonderful to have a working relationship with the same mill,” Knierim says.

Wildrose Farm isn’t alone in its experiences. “We used to get our organic cotton from one mill, and it went out of business,” says Nikky May, office manager at Decent Exposures, a Seattle-based catalog of organic undergarments and apparel. May says the cataloger prefers to use a mill that deals only with organic fibers, since some mills that make organic and nonorganic textiles use the same machinery to process both.

That most organic-products marketers mail only to requesters, largely because of environmental concerns about wasting paper, may also be hampering the category’s growth. Wildrose, for one, mails only 2,000 catalogs a year and has annual sales of just $200,000. But Wildrose reaches out to mainstream buyers by wholesaling some items to other catalogers, such as Coldwater Creek, Norm Thompson, and Charles Keath.

Kids Nature also has a modest circulation; it mails less than 10,000 catalogs annually and has annual sales of less than $10 million. That’s just fine with the company’s president, though. “We’re not targeting the mass market,” Fries says. “If people want our product, they’ll find us.”