Pure & Simple

Living 'organic' has moved beyond food shelves and pesticides to become a lifestyle choice that's seen as chic and natural.

September 09, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

A decade ago, if you admitted to having an organic lifestyle, you might have been labeled a granola-eating kook.

These days the phrase "organic lifestyle" has taken on a certain cachet. It suggests you have the money to buy produce at one of the upscale natural foods supermarkets like Fresh Fields, use expensive cosmetics such as the plant-based Aveda line, and wear supermodel Christy Turlington's yoga-inspired sportswear from Saks Fifth Avenue.

No matter that organic produce can be found at most regular supermarkets, that Aveda cosmetics are natural but not organic, and that many of Turlington's clothes are made with spandex and lycra, not organic cotton. "Organic" has become a high-end lifestyle concept as much as it is a certification by the USDA.

A glossy new magazine was launched last month called Organic Style. The first issue, on newsstands now, offers information on mad cow disease but also an interview with celebrity chef Charlie Trotter. It features a cutting-edge fashion spread, beauty advice by a makeup artist and a look at a California architect's high-style and almost incidentally environmentally correct house.

The word that once referred to food grown without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides has been broadened to include something more philosophical. At its best, "organic" means living a "greener" life, more in tune with nature and making less of an impact on our environment. Often, though, it's less about the world around us and more personal: How is this good for me? Organic Style's mantra is "The art of living in balance."

"The tagline is as much what the magazine is about as the name," says Maria Rodale, whose company, Rodale Press, publishes Organic Style as well as many books on the subject. "We're redefining it to mean authentic and true to yourself. It's more about you, and you feeling good about your life."

Some don't appreciate what they see as a dilution of an ideal. In the Letters section of the September / October Organic Style, one reader commented on the preview issue:

"I was really disappointed. I was looking for a commitment to environmental issues, simplicity and spirituality. What I found was Martha Stewart Does Organic."

Becoming natural part of life

The redefining of organic would probably never have happened if the American public hadn't come to take organic products for granted. It hasn't hurt that some of our most celebrated chefs like Alice Waters have embraced organic ingredients because they believe naturally produced food tastes better. And there are negative reasons people have turned to what they consider "safer" foods.

Remember the alar health scare of a decade ago? Worry about genetic engineering of foods also has increased the public's interest in natural produce.

Twenty years ago, an organic apple was likely to be undersized and a bit misshapen, even if it tasted great. But over the years farmers have learned how to produce a fruit that's just as good-looking as any in a regular supermarket. (In fact, 69 percent of mainstream grocery stores and supermarkets now carry organic produce, according to the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute. )

"As organic fruits and vegetables have become more similar [to traditional produce], more people are finding reasons to buy them," says Julie Huntemann of the Hartman Group, a research firm focusing on the healthy lifestyle and wellness market.

That juicy red apple you're about to eat is what Huntemann calls a "gateway to organic behavior." Market analysts talk about shoppers going from experimentation to heavy usage as if they were discussing an illegal drug. Take a bite of the pesticide-free fruit, which has been allowed to ripen on the tree, and who knows where it may lead? If you decide the produce is worth the extra cost, you could move on to organic milk to avoid feeding your child growth hormones, to natural beauty lotions, even to eco-friendly cleaning products. But the fruit comes first.

Over the past decade, according to the Massachusetts-based Organic Trade Association, sales of organic products have increased more than 20 percent each year.

"The greatest change is the acceptance by mainstream America," says Margaret Wittenberg, a vice president at Whole Foods, the largest retailer of natural and organic foods. "Now organic is more of a household word."

Booming interest

Why has this led to an interest in organic style now? Analysts, as so often happens, look to the baby boomers for at least a partial answer because they are such a large group. As boomers have gotten older, they have moved into their peak earning years.

"A good place to be if you're buying all-natural anything since the prices are often higher," points out Michelle Lamb, publisher of the Trend Curve. "As they age, there is also the issue of allergies and sensitivities that cause a move in the direction of things like formaldehyde-free fabrics."

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