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Thursday, March 24,2011

Sustainable clothes shopping on Pearl Street

Local apparel stores stocking green threads

From its storefront fašade, Topo Ranch on Pearl Street appears to be just another retail outlet catering to the outdoor enthusiast with a slight attention to style.

What sets Topo Ranch apart from many of its boutique counterparts, however, is its in-store brand, which focuses on organic cotton-produced apparel.

“There is certainly a pull for the organic cotton market in Boulder,” says Sean McKelvie, manager of Topo Ranch.

The store, sister to a Venice Beach branch and online retailer, features its own line of assorted tops, all made of organic cotton.

Having served the Boulder community for two years, Topo Ranch is atop an emerging local trend of ethically conscious fashion. Just a few blocks up Pearl Street, Patagonia also does its part to lessen its footprint with its 1 Percent For The Planet program — an initiative it has extended across the globe to businesses invested in counteracting the human impact on earth. Since 1985, the company has pledged 1 percent of its annual profits to the preservation and restoration of the environment.

“Once a year we have a big merchandise push to promote the program, what it is and what we do,” says Justin Hawkins, sales associate at Patagonia on Pearl Street.

Part of the initiative is to offer sustainable and recycled products in their store. Additionally, the company has a feature on its website called The Footprint Chronicles, which tracks the environmental impact of select pieces every season.

What does it mean for apparel to be sustainable? For non-natural fibers to be sustainable they must be composed of post-consumer and recyclable material — most commonly polyester. Countless arrays of items can be melted down to create synthetic sustainable material for apparel. That Coke can you were drinking out of last week could have found a second life as a thread in a Patagonia jacket.

In regard to natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, what goes into the process is more important than the product that is returned.

“When dealing with cotton or wool, you have to think about the land management and animal treatment,” McKelvie says.

The process of producing organic cotton and wool is a rather long and arduous one, but McKelvie believes the results are worth the effort. Cotton must be harvested from plants raised on land that is devoid of pesticides and herbicides — often requiring farmers to alternate use of plots of land to allow for it to replenish itself. This process demands on average a two-year grace period for the soil to rid itself of contaminants. Such factors lead to a hike in the cost of growing organically, thus driving up the costs of organically made products. To offset these costs and provide a product reasonably priced to compete with non-organics on the market, many companies look to other countries to provide the labor and resources to make their products.

“It’s hard for a small business to compete when everyone else is outsourcing. It’s the ugly truth,” McKelvie says.

Topo Ranch receives its organic cotton, in addition to a majority of its cutting and sewing labors, from India, while its sustainable polyester products come from Japan.

Though outsourced, the trend toward organic and sustainable products is a step in the right direction for eco-conscious fashion. Pearl Street seems to be the playground for many companies to explore the budding market — a market that is bound to keep growing.
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