New Duds For Mr. And Ms. Green Jeans

You may not regard your closet as an environmental hazard, but all sorts of dangers lurk within. Cotton seems natural enough, yet pesticides and toxins such as arsenic go into growing and processing the fibers. Clothes promoted as "nonshrink" were probably treated with a formaldehyde-based resin. The bright dyes on a dress must be fixed on cloth with "mordants," which can contain heavy metals. Demand for the leather in shoes and handbags creates pressure to cut down rain forests for cattle grazing.

Today, however, you can build a wardrobe from environmentally correct components. In addition to organic cotton togs, you can don sweaters spun from soda-bottle plastic, coats and scarves made from resurrected wool discards, and shoes constructed with tire rubber.

Big names such as Patagonia, Esprit, and VF International, maker of Wrangler and Lee jeans, are marketing earth-friendly duds through department stores and such catalogs as L.L. Bean, The Nature Company, and Recreational Equipment. The latest push in eco-fashion is developing technologies to make clothes of recycled materials.

UN-UNCOLA. As the Patagonia catalog says, its PCR (post consumer recycled) Synchilla Sweater bears little resemblance to a 7-Up bottle. But this just-released $85 sweater has its origins in discarded bottles reduced to green and white flakes, melted, then spun into yarn.

Deja Inc., a Tigard (Ore.) company, produces what it calls "footwear with a past" --namely recycled tire rubber, wetsuit trimmings, old file folders and coffee filters, seat cushions, soda bottles, and other materials. The shoes, which sell for $40 to $65, are colored with organic, earth-toned dyes and are glued together with nontoxic, water-based adhesives.

Since 1990, Esprit has marketed its "Ecollection," using materials such as wool unraveled from old clothes and buttons fashioned from the nuts of rain-forest trees--encouraging farmers to preserve the forest. Used Rubber USA of San Francisco produces wallets and belts made of old inner tubes and scrap rubber. Capezio Handbags in New York sells purses for $35 to $80 made of a recyclable synthetic leather called EEKO. And when customers get tired of a handbag, they can return it to a Capezio store for recycling.

Even upscale designers are getting into the act. In addition to jewelry from used computer components, old gears, and springs, Remi Rubel in San Francisco recycles bottle caps to construct dresses reminiscent of chain mail. The price of such creations? A couture-like $2,000.