Action Sports Apparel Makers Heed Organic Call

By Alexandria Sage

SAN DIEGO, Sept 13 (Reuters) – Companies that outfit surfers are looking to environment-friendly materials as concern about polluted beaches and coastal damage crosses over into surfer fashion.

At the ASR trade show for action sports brands in San Diego this past weekend, clothing makers showcased apparel featuring fabrics such as organic cotton, hemp and bamboo and shoes made with less toxic materials.

“It’s going to be a huge movement coming up with the youth market,” said Don Brown, senior vice president of marketing at Sole Technology, parent company of the Etnies shoe brand. “It’s going to definitely be the next big wave. Right now it’s just the beginning.”

Changes are even reaching surfboard manufacturing — a notoriously toxic business dependent on foam, fiberglass and resins — as a handful of makers offer eco-friendly boards.

Urban skateboarders, too, are being wooed with a number of clothing, footwear and skateboard options that are easier on the environment without sacrificing the cool factor.

“The visibility (of environmentalism) has resurfaced,” said Dick Baker, president of Warnaco-owned (WRNC) surf brand Ocean Pacific and head of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association.

While industry observers agree that surf and skate brands are increasingly embracing more eco-friendly materials, the trend is just scratching the surface of the nearly $3 billion-a-year U.S. action sports clothing and shoe business.

“We’re all guilty,” Quiksilver Inc. (ZQK) Chief Executive Bob McKnight told Reuters at the recent Magic Marketplace apparel trade show held in Las Vegas. “Making apparel is not exactly the most environmentally-friendly industry.”

Quiksilver, the largest U.S. maker of surfwear, recently launched an organic line of T-shirts. Shoppers can make an online contribution of a portion of the purchase price to an environmental cause sponsored by the Quiksilver Foundation.

Action sports brands point to privately-held Patagonia as a long-time leader in championing environmentalism. But most apparel makers are using organics as a marketing tool, Baker said, adding that he was skeptical that more pricey eco-friendly lines would find buyers among teens and parents.

Complicating the push to greener materials is the industry’s reliance on synthetic fabrics for board shorts and other apparel. Petroleum-based or chemically treated performance fabrics that wick moisture from the body, among other properties, have proven increasingly popular.


Still, global companies like Nike Inc. (NKE) and jeans maker Levi Strauss & Co. are increasing their use of organic cotton, while Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the world’s biggest retailer, is selling baby clothes made from organic cotton.

According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic fibers in the United States and Canada jumped 44 percent in 2005, while California-based nonprofit Organic Exchange says global organic cotton sales increased to $583 million in 2005 from $245 million in 2001.

At the San Diego trade show, brands from edgy Volcom Inc. (VLCM) to Etnies showcased green clothing and footwear. In addition to an organic cotton T-shirt line, Sector 9 offered bamboo skateboards, while Planet Earth, a division of K2 Inc. (KTO), exhibited a complete line of clothing, including board shorts, made from recycled plastic bottles.

But industry watchers say there is much further to go, not only in apparel making, but how it gets shipped to market.

“If this industry was serious about environmental concerns, we would look at alternatives to plastic and plastic wraps for clothing being delivered,” said Roy Turner, president of the Board Retailers Association.