Like the farm-to-table movement that preceded it, sustainable fashion -- or eco-chic -- is gaining momentum and mainstream acceptance. Every Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM) offers organic and sustainable food, typically with a side of eco-chic apparel including T-shirts, yoga wear, and accessories like hats and scarves. The Lifestyle Store at Whole Foods Market, adjacent to Whole Foods Market in West Hollywood, is dedicated to eco-friendly designer clothing for men, women, and children, and items for the home. WFM's customers, who willingly pay higher prices for organic and sustainable comestibles, are primed to spend more on wearables with similar provenance.
Local and sustainable have been important concepts at Whole Foods Market since it was founded in the early 1980s. This week Whole Foods co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb sat down with CNBC's Jim Cramer to discuss the long-awaited opening of their first Brooklyn location. "...The market continues to grow, and I think we're thinking internally that we could do maybe 1,200 stores in the United States at this point. Just because the world is continuing to change."
Mackey's announcement offhandedly upped management's previous oft-stated goal by 20%. Intense competition from other organic grocers and traditional retailers notwithstanding, his confidence in WFM's share of the market is well grounded. While the overall U.S. food industry wilted in 2011, the organic foods market increased by 9.5%, reaching $29.2 billion. WFM's sales compound annual growth rate (CAGR) was 26% during 1991-2011.
But can you wear it?
It remains to be seen whether organic or sustainably produced garments will enjoy similar growth. Increased consciousness about sustainable food production has certainly led to a higher awareness of the impact of other crops, such as cotton. The U.S. is the number one exporter of cotton in the world, about 60% of which is used to make yarn (the industry calls thread yarn), which is spun into fabric for clothing such as T-shirts.
Alex Blumberg, executive producer of the Planet Money T-shirt project, explained the 20,000-mile production journey of a single T-shirt on The Colbert Report last week. This isn't a fancy-pants, organic, ethically produced T-shirt. It's made of conventionally grown cotton, costs about $12 to make, and NPR is currently selling it for $30.
Colbert told Blumberg, "Not a fan of this project. The global marketplace is someplace where we export work to have happen in whatever conditions we want, and then the products come back to me cheap enough to throw away without thinking about it.... Why do you want to make the hand of the market visible?"
Current apparel technology and cheap labor support supersonic change, high profits, and low prices. This makes the average modern wardrobe about as disposable as a box of Kleenex. Blumberg described a customer in a Paramus Wal-Mart who was buying a four pack of T-shirts because the man didn't want to do laundry.
Despite Colbert's quip, international apparel retailers Benetton, H&M, C&A, Tesco, and Zara recently decided to source their garments ethically. H&M, the fast fashion titan, announced that it plans to raise wages in Bangladesh, one of many countries where garment workers don't earn a living wage.
Higher retail prices to cover increased wages would be a likely outcome at some point. It's newsworthy because this is the first time H&M has been willing to discuss raising prices because consumers are ready — the Paramus Wal-Mart shopper mentioned above excepted.
The business of eco-fashion
There is a growing consumer awareness of the apparel industry's less glamorous SOPs. Fast fashion is cheap — cheap materials, cheap labor, and cheap overhead that includes dangerous and sometimes deadly working conditions for textile factory workers.
There are eco-conscious choices and discovering them is easier than ever for businesses and consumers. The newly released Higg Index 2.0 is a social and environmental impact assessment tool for the apparel and footwear industry developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Consumers can visit Ecouterre, "your online guide to the best ideas, innovations, and emerging trends in eco-fashion, sustainable style, organic beauty, and ethical apparel," and Zady "to combat the fast-fashion craze by providing a platform for only those companies that care about timeless style and solid construction."
It's difficult to get a handle on something that's as perishable as fashion, but it's not impossible. The Whole Foods Market recipe — sustainability, social responsibility, and transparency — translates well to the current apparel market.
John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Fool contributor Jacqueline Murphy has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.