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VOL. 37 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 7, 2013

Local designers meet demand for green goods

Buyers willing to pay more for quality, Earth-friendly products

By Linda Bryant

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As a buyer for Whole Food’s Whole Body boutique in Green Hills, Marrion Mooney is having trouble keeping some items – organic cotton T-shirts, scarves made from natural fibers and dyes, and a line of cloth shoes – in stock.

A few miles away in Franklin, Marie Strawn has seen a 20 percent increase during the last year at Green Pixie Baby, a small boutique that specializes in environmentally-friendly cloth diapers, clothes and toys for infants and toddlers.

The popularity of these “eco-friendly” products point to a rising trend in retail: Environmentally-conscious shoppers who are as interested in the fabrics they put on themselves, their families, and even their pets as they are the organic or natural foods and beverages that go into their bodies.

The trend also is giving rise to locally-based, small-scale manufacturers and designers of organic lines of merchandise. One such eco-entrepreneur works from her farm in Whites Creek.

Sarah Bellos is president of Southern Hues, a five-year-old company that produces scarves and accessories dyed with natural plants such as indigo, madder, marigold, goldenrod, sumac and black walnut.

“Our inspiration is to show it is possible to use fashion to create the change we wanted to see in the world,’’ Bellos says. “Replacing the toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and dyeing auxiliaries commonplace in the textile dye industry is possible through natural colorants. These plant and earth-based dyes come from renewable sources, and many can be grown in the Southeast U.S.

“So besides reducing the use of polluting chemical dyes that can also be harmful for the consumer, natural colorants support farm and forest communities in our own country,” Bellos adds.

Fashion and R&D

Southern Hues has grown yearly since its inception in 2008. Bellos grows some of the dyes on her Whites Creek farm, but she also works directly with local and regional farmers. The company’s growth has made it possible for her to hire Sara Dailey and Meg Davis, experienced wardrobe stylists, who are helping the company make inroads into the fashion industry.

Marie Strawn, owner of Green Pixie Baby in Franklin, says an average family can save $1,500-$2,000 a year using cloth diapers instead of disposables.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Bellos has also created Stony Creek Colors, a branch of Southern Hues focused on research and development. By working closely with chemists and biochemists, Bellos is trying to improve the extraction technology used to make natural dyes. She wants to take the process beyond hand dyeing and make it practical for use on commercial equipment.

“The skin is the largest organ on your body, so what you wear is actually absorbed into your body over time until the chemicals are fully leeched out of the fabric,” Bellos says.

“Most dyes are synthetically derived from non-renewable resources like petroleum or oil derivatives and come from China. The global textile industry uses approximately 1.3 million tons of dyes, pigments and dye precursors, valued at around $23 billion each year.”

Green chew toys, hemp for dogs

Consumers aren’t just interested in eco-friendly fabrics for humans. Dave and Kym Colella of Brentwood have tapped into the trend as it applies to our canine companions.

The couple founded Earthdog 15 years ago after getting a strong public reaction to organic hemp dog collars they made on a sewing machine for their rescue dogs.

The company started out selling the hemp collars at The Dog Store in Nashville and now has lines of hemp collars, leashes, harnesses, beds and chew toys in retail locations all over world, including many European counties, Japan and Australia.

Dave Colella says Earthdog makes a conscious effort not to market their products to big box retail stores and is pleased to keep making the merchandise locally. Colella oversees production and makes many of the products himself, but Earthdog also subcontracts with local sewing professionals to produce the products.

Natalie Chanin

“We never really set out to have a business,” he says. “We just ended up carving out a niche because so many people responded positively to Earthdog. We appeal to people who see cats and dogs as an extension of their family, and who really care about finding eco-friendly products for them.”

Although business at Earthdog was impacted by the Great Recession, Colella says, the company had enough business to stay afloat and has since recovered.

Awareness is growing about the virtues and wide uses of hemp and consumers are increasingly able to understand that hemp fabric does not promote the use of hemp plants as a drug. It is illegal to grow hemp, even for non-drug-use purposes, in the United States, so the Colellas have to import their fabrics.

A typical decorative hemp collar from Earthdog typically sells for $22-$27. A hemp dog bed retails from $84 to $140.

15 cloth diaper types

Strawn decided to launch Green Pixie Baby from her home four years ago after meeting dozens of eco-conscious parents at various local parenting meet-up groups and social gatherings.

She initially launched the business as support for families interested in using cloth diapers.

But she quickly recognized the retail potential and added product lines such as baby clothes and towels made with natural fabrics – organic cotton or bamboo – and environmentally safe items such as wooden toys and amber teething necklaces.

“More and more parents are looking for green alternatives,” Strawn says. “There are certainly more families going the cloth diaper route than there were when I started. People are doing their research and finding out how (using cloth diapers) can benefit them.”

Strawn says the average family saves $1,500 to $2,000 a year using cloth diapers. And while saving is an incentive, she says, most families want the choice because cloth diapers are healthier for babies and for the environments.

Green Pixie Baby carries 15 lines of eco-friendly cloth diapers. A “Happy Heinys” starter kit with three diapers, liners, wash cloths and support equipment retails at about $75.

Real Diaper Association figures show one child in disposable diapers for a year uses 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine. The organization states 92 percent of disposables end up in landfills and take 250-500 years to decompose.

Toxins such as dioxin also are used in the production of throw-away diapers.

Can organics go mainstream?

Alabama-based “slow clothing” designer Natalie Chanin, a prominent national voice in the eco-friendly clothing movement, says the recent deaths of more than 1,100 clothing factory workers in Bangladesh is bringing more awareness of products made from safe materials under safe conditions.

“Consumers are interested in knowing where their products come from, what is in them, and what using those products will do to their bodies and their environment,” Chanin says.

“The market is seeing an increase in demand for organic products, across the board. In fashion, the options are currently limited, but growing.

“As incidents like the collapse of the inhumane clothing factory in Bangladesh make news, people are less able to turn their heads and pretend that they don’t know how many mass market clothing companies make their products.

“In their hearts, most people know that a cheap, trendy T-shirt is not worth someone’s life,” Chanin adds. “But, it is easy to forget how things are made because we want things. We want that party dress or that T-shirt.”

Chanin says the more people seek organic, sustainable products, the more that the market will produce.

“The goal is to make sustainable products affordable and available to most Americans,” she says. “The only way that this will happen is to create a demand for them.”

Bellos of Southern Hues agrees.

“We think it will become the status quo,” Bellos says. “As more people understand the impact of toxins on our bodies and on the environment, we will need more sustainable solutions.

“The bioeconomy – getting useful and industrial products from biomaterials and plant sources – will continue to grow for these practical, health, environmental and economic reasons.”

Price has been a problem

Local sustainability consultant Jeff Gowdy expects the trend to continue, in part, because many consumers are now willing to “got to the next level” and shop for more than organic foods in their quest for non-toxic products.

“Caring about the products you put in your body such as food and water is often like a first gateway (for the eco-friendly retail shopper), Gowdy says. “After that’s done for a year or two or longer, some want to take a second step toward other kinds of sustainable products particular to clothing and fabrics.”

Gowdy says the price of products made with sustainable or organic fabrics is an ongoing issue, but is improving over time.

“The bane of eco-products has been price and quality,” Gowdy says. “But the products coming out now often seem like they are equal or better to the alternative.”

Mooney of Whole Foods says she’s noticed the same change.

“The costs of these products are coming down,” she says. “We have an organic cotton V-neck T-shirt for $10 that I can’t keep in stock.

“I really do think many consumers are moving toward sustainable fabrics. They just feel better, and you can put your money towards something that doesn’t feel bad.’’

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