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The ‘green’ man: does eco-fashion really matter to shoppers?

Once upon a time, ecologically correct clothing was hopelessly linked to hippies and vegans and no retailer saw any need to carry such clothes. Eco-clothing meant strange looking, homemade garb that looked like organic bread. In the 1990’s, there was a passing fad for messenger bags made of used tires or automobile seat covers. “Green” fashion was a novelty rather than a necessity, in the mind of most consumers.

But with the increase in concerns over the state of the environment, many are embracing the idea of responsible consumption. Meanwhile, designers and manufacturers are innovating new ways of working with organic and sustainable materials. Even luxury brands like Stella McCartney are finding ways to make a political statement look chic. 

Elsewhere, brands like Bamford and Sons, Rogan Gregory, who launched Loomstate with Scott Hahn, and John Patrick Organic are all bringing eco-chic to major retailers like Barneys New York. But do organic or sustainably produced clothing really resonate with a male customer? There is no simple answer. However, men do buy such items but their reason isn’t always because of how it was produced.

In a 2001 survey, 6 percent of respondents said they were interested in buying apparel, footwear, and accessories that is “ecologically friendly.” But by 2006, that number rose to 18 percent. Global sales of organic cotton goods, for instance, rose from $245 million in 2001 to $1.07 billion in 2006, according to Organic Exchange, an environmental advocacy group. That number has only increased — even with a slowed economy.

Now, more and more major brands are getting on the green bandwagon. Levi Strauss and Co. has developed Eco jeans, as has Mavi jeans. The prices are considerably higher than each brand’s basic lines; Levi’s Eco jeans retail for about $70 — that’s roughly $25 more than a regular pair of 501’s. 

Nike is one of the world’s major users of organic cotton, and plans to use at least 5 percent organic cotton in all of its cotton products by 2010. But there is actually not enough supply to meet the demand: less than one percent of the world’s cotton is actually organic. And unlike home appliances, which are regulated and required to show compliance with certain standards of energy conservation, there are no actual rules for clothing manufacturers. 

For shoppers, there continues to be a lot of confusion over what “sustainable,” “organic,” or even “recycled” actually mean. “Just because something is made from an organic fiber doesn’t mean it’s great for the environment,” says Jeff Shafer, founder of Agave Denimsmith. “You have to think about the entire process, from dyes, to washing, to packaging, to printing. It’s not that easy to do.”

Meanwhile consumer demand for eco fashion remains fairly small and isn’t estimated to grow, according to Andrew Winston, founder of Winston Eco-Strategies and co-author of Green to Gold. What generally makes more of an impact is where a garment was manufactured, and the ethnical standards that impacted its manufacture, such as whether child labor was involved. U.K. retailer Marks and Spencer, for instance, has made considerable inroads in supporting farmers in developing countries and using only certified Fair Trade Cotton (a Fair Trade product is one that is produced under fair wages and within regulations of social and environmental standards.).

In the end though, men still shop for comfort, price, and quality and getting them to pay more for what appears to be the same product as the cheaper one is still a challenge. Less impact on the environment is certainly a plus, but it won’t be a determining factor for making a purchase — at least not yet. 

“It’s taken food companies fifteen years to get to the point where people are willing to pay for organic,” says Ty Bowers, co-founder of Vessel, a premium men’s label. “So it will take some time for people to understand the organic fashion thing.”

* This article was excerpted from Bertrand Pellegrin’s book Branding the Man: Why Men are the Next Frontier in Fashion