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Sexy, healthy, clean and green
Emily Gertz, 21 Feb 05

loomstate.jpgThe revolution will take place with rare varieties of deli meats, sausages and burgers.

Which you'll eat while wearing organic jeans, sitting in a beautifully-designed chair made from sustainable woods and fabrics.

On the final day of Verdopolis, February 11, three capitalist innovators described their market approaches to creating a bright green future. Each is working at a relatively small scale, in the vanguard of making sexy, beautiful and delicious equate with clean, green and sustainable.

First: what to wear?

Scott Halm co-founded the Loomstate line of 100% organic cotton denim jeans. Loomstate's approach combines street cred--derived from the even more limited line of Rogan organic couture jeans which Loomstate is based on--and sex appeal, while keeping the green angle almost incidental at first glance.

Where some "green brands" would lead with the eco angle, Loomstate starts with the jeans. They have lots of details for the buyer to discover later on, like the little tag at left hidden in the fly. With Loomstate, you're not just wearing pants, you're in an evolving relationship.

If the consumer gets around to the why of organic cotton, Loomstate's got it down nice and short on its website: "Chemicals used to grow conventional cotton end up in our food and in our water. Their use, year after year, depletes the soil, kills wildlife, and puts farmers in debt. That's the kind of s**t we can't put up with."

Clearly Loomstate's on to something, with $4 million in sales in the line's first year, and knockoffs already a problem. "If they're going to knock us off, knock off the organic concept as well," says Halm, who calls his approach "conscious commerce." His biggest challenge? Managing the supply chain for organic cotton. Loomstate is trying to build direct relationships with farms and cooperatives.

Loomstate's canny about making the connections all along the agricultural chain, too--it found the most photogenic dairy farmer in America to describe (via Quicktime video) what happens to all the cottenseed generated by cotton production-- for every 500-pound bale of cotton, there are about 750 pounds of cottonseed produced, and one way or another, it ends up as feed for cows. Organic cotton=organic feed=organic milk.

Next, where to sit?

"You can have great quality, design and comfort--or you can have all of those, sustainably sourced," says Jesse Johnson. He's co-founder of NYC-based Q Collection of high-end furniture. Johnson, with a background in environmental management, and interior designer Anthony Cochran founded the line in late 2002. "Residential furniture construction typically uses several known or suspected carcinogenic materials including formaldehyde and polyurethane," notes Q's website. The two founders spent much of ther first year researching materials to replace them.

qcollection_joeottoman.jpgQ's resulting line is decidedly reserved and elegant. From a classic leather ottoman to a dining chair with Louis XVI roots, Johnson makes clear that they're aiming beyond Crate & Barrel's base--or perhaps at the C&B customer ready to spend more. The line also includes a big selection of textiles made "from 100% natural materials and custom colored with zero-impact dyes. Our leather is of exceptional quality, tanned with non-toxic materials and finished with vegetable Q collection's green impact."

Q Collection's big challenges have come in sourcing sufficient quantities of the furniture-making goods they need, both sustainably and ethically produced, at the scale that will support a viable business. They also try to keep production local, where they can monitor the working conditions, and save energy on transportation costs.

And finally, what to eat?

If it's up to Patrick Martins, co-founder of Heritage Foods USA, it will be Berkshire Pork, Barred Plymouth Rock Chicken and American Bronze Turkey.

Heritage Foods works with small farmers and other producers to promote wholesomely raised, genetically diverse domesticated livestock. Martins got into working with rare breeds four years ago, when he organized the raising and distribution of 1500 Bourbon Red Turkeys for the Slow Food USA's Heritage Turkey Project. The breed's status improved from "endangered" to "watch" as a result, and Martins realized that even a small boost in the market could help save a species.

heritage_ambronzeturkey.jpgHis realization has grown into a multi-faceted operation that seeks to counter the damage of corporate agriculture at all levels. Heritage Foods offers a growing selection of meats from rare domestic breeds, including 6 types of pork, 2 of lamb, 3 cuts of bison, and wild salmon and oysters. It is creating an ethical market for Native American producers of "Authentic American" fruits and grains--species native to North America, including wild rices, many kinds of beans, corns and other seeds, which have been at long risk of disappearing in the face of massive monoculture farming.

The foods are raised better, taste better and are healthier for you--and their provenance is fully traceable. And to break that urban-rural divide, a little, customers can load up a web cam to watch their turkeys being raised.

This seems about as far as you can get from boutique jeans, despite the sustainability connection, but the synchronicity comes in how both firms conceptualize their relationships with their customers. "When someone buys a $199 turkey from us, they're not buying a turkey," says Martins. "They're buying a story." As with all those little details and tags on the Loomstate Jeans, there's always something new to discover about the meat you get from Heritage Foods, if and when you're ready to look more closely.

Martins sees the deli counter as the next front for rare domestic meats, even though Heritage Foods isn't aiming for mass production.

These three entrepreneurs are not aiming solely at what our own Alex calls the "highly educated affluent ecogeek" demographic. Sustainable is intrinsic to each brand because the founders believe in it. Affluent is required to enjoy them, yes--these ventures assume that people with money are going to spend it. Products like these help filter those consumer dollars into the hands of green entrepreneurs, organic farmers and safe factories, and make consumers ecogeeks in the process--even if they don't know it.

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Affluent is required to enjoy them, yes

This is a common tactic with green goods. I wonder if people ever ponder that something can't ultimately be sustainable if only people with lots of money can buy it. It also reinforces the notion that for things to be sustainable it has to be more expensive, which feeds reactionary beliefs about things like Kyoto, like "it will ruin the economy".

It's good that people put out these products and hopefully drive costs down over time, but we all need to start thinking about rewarding people for living sustainably, instead of assuming there must be a price premium (ie, a sacrifice) to do it.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 21 Feb 05

I find this attention given to elite shoppers very frustrating. What does a pair of Loomstate jeans cost at a boutique where they're sold?

It's great people are getting high-end and couture shoppers to think a bit about sustainable goods, but how much of a change in the overall system is it?

How many people didn't buy a pair of Levis and instead bought a pair of Loomstate jeans? What's the Loomstate plan for getting into Macy's or even Wal-Mart?

Instead of putting all this effort into rare birds and couture clothing, why not put it into larger scale organic farming and local domestic production? That way a lot more people could money into the pockets of a lot more farmers raising organic and sustainable crops and animals.

Posted by: jet on 21 Feb 05

I must agree with the above commenters. $199 turkeys? Upscale furniture? The jeans might be ok, but can you get them for $30 at JCPenney or even Target?

This really doesn't seem world changing. The majority of consumers aren't going to pay for this stuff. I suppose it a step in the right direction, but barely so.

Posted by: Bolo on 21 Feb 05

Just out of curiosity: do any of you automatically object when a new consumer electronics product is introduced at the high end of the market? I don't think anyone worries a whole lot about the lack of justice involved in targeting elite consumers with some kind of audiophilic sound system, or even middlebrow consumers with a $399 iPod, while a few of us can only afford crappy Sanyo boom boxes.

When the object at hand involves sustainability, a whole new raft of value judgements seem to come in to play. Personally, I am not in the market for $179 jeans, but some people are and always will be. Why not put some of that consumer excess where it can do a lot of good for farmers, and the soil?

It doesn't rule out someone else working at a larger scale on less costly products, in fact it probably will help enable such production.

I think if you look at a business like Loomstate as a pilot project, it's all more encouraging.

A sufficient supply of organic cotton--enough to clothe the bottoms of the developed world--and the means to pay the producers a fair price for it, as well as the seamstresses, are not going to spring up overnight. The problems Hahn described about sourcing green products and developing supply chains are not trivial--they're utterly key to the success of their businesses.

In my mind, Loomstate's essentially doing proof of concept, establishing the supply and market for the product.

As naive as it will sound, it's the kind of small-seeming step that can lead to a lot of worldchanging down the road.

I think a good many of us have no idea what a pair of jeans, or any mass-produced product, really would cost if the people who grew and harvested the fibers, worked the factories that weave the fabric, and sewed my clothes were uniformly working in safe conditions, free of abuse, and being paid a living wage. The morass of tariffs, treaties, incentives, tax-free zones, development bank programs, hunan rights abuses, and graft that result in my being able to pay $20 or $30 for a pair of cotton pants is pretty staggering to contemplate.

As for Heritage, it's all about the "local domestic production," so I'm unclear on what the objection is, there. Loss of genetic diversity in agriculture is as much of a disaster in the making as loss of wild biodiversity. These breeds need to be saved before they can ever be put into "large scale organic farming." That takes resources, and apparently Heritage has stepped into the breech to create a market that will in turn nurture the preservation of these livestocks.

Again, it's an amplification of the impact of the consumer dollar that ultimately benefits a lot more than just the person roasting that one turkey.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 21 Feb 05

There's also Stonyfield Farms yogurt which is in the supermarkets and at comparable prices with competing prices and Gary Hirshberg, the CEO, is rolling out a "fast food" chain of restaurants called O'Naturals which is in the same price range as McDonalds.

I'm playing with the idea of a LED flashlight powered by a rechargeable battery and a solar cell if anybody's interested (and so far nobody has been).

Posted by: gmoke on 21 Feb 05

Emily, to clarify my earlier comment - I don't object to the fact that the production of high-end consumer goods that are "green". On the margin, it's better to have those available than not having them available.

However, the point I was trying to make is that there is a commonly-held belief, both from without and within the sustainability movement, that creating a sustainable world somehow involves more cost, more effort, and/or more sacrifice. As I said, you hear this in the "Kyoto will ruin the economy" kind of sentiments from people who are hostile to sustainability and environmental advocates.

People within the movement also tend to hold the same belief, though because of their dedication to sustainability, tend to accept a certain amount of higher prices, lower quality, lower service levels, etc, for the sake of "building markets" for products and services, as well as the usual guilt assuagement. For example, I pay a premium of 2 cents per kilowatt on my electric bill because I'm buying "green power". That's fine for me, because I don't mind paying it, but it means that I am economically penalized for having some standards about my environmental impact.

Overall, this set of incentives naturally leads to limits being put on the diffusion of sustainable practices throughout the economy. For example, plenty of my friends would consider themselves "good environmentalists", but I don't know a single one who has chosen the Windsource option on their Excel bill. And it's not that they can't afford it - it's just that they somehow don't see the value in the extra $6 or so per month it will probably cost them. [It doesn't help that in Minnesota, in particular, $10 million was recently granted to a coal gasification plant from the Excel "renewable energy" fund mandated by the PUC.]

The point is that for these practices to be truly sustainable, we need to start engaging our imaginations about how to actually reward people for practicing sustainability - by saving time or money, by increasing service levels, etc - optimally all of these. Otherwise, it simply won't gain wide appeal and we'll all be left with "let costs get driven down" approach, driven by ethically-committed people spending premiums to support these fledgling industries.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 21 Feb 05

If they were looking to expand into Macy's and Target, I'd be be thrilled to think it is a pilot project. Until then, it's just another trendy boutique item that might be gone tomorrow.

But I'd love to see the price breakdown for their material and labor costs and see how it results in a 500% markup on a pair of jeans. Handmade hemp clothing I've seen doesn't come with that sort of markup, nor does any of the organic groceries I've bought.

Is it labor? My made-in-America boots only cost about %20 more than the cheap imports and are made from sturdier materials. My made-in-San Francisco-by-hand leather motorcycle jacket only cost about 1/3 more than a made-in-nowheristan leather jacket, and it too is made of sturdier materials.

Posted by: jet on 22 Feb 05

It is encouraging that a site like exists. As one of the founders the article mentions (Q Collection - furniture), I thought I would offer a few thougths on our perspective.

I think we can all agree that a goal is for everyone to have a sustainable option for the goods and services they use. The question is how to get there. We are a long way from having readily available sustainable options, especially in the home. Change happens gradually. One of our goals is to grow demand for and educate suppliers on alternative materials. It is a long process.

Textile dyes: When we started, only one textile mill in the world met our criteria for zero impact. We have introduced this concept to many others since and worked with dyes houses and mills to switch their production to non toxic dyes. Options are starting to hit the market. The transition for them is expensive for the mill and the minimum order sizes are much larger.

Textile raw materials: It is a big challenge to convince even the most advanced European mills to switch to something like organic cotton. The few that are willing to look into it have claimed that we are the first to ask. There is a cost addition to them to find new vendors and weavers and recallibrate the looms.

Glue: The firms that do our production were previously using glues that contained several materials known to cause cancer in humans (not just formaldehyde). We helped introduce them to alternatives that they now use for all of their production, not just ours.

Wood stains: We don't use any polyurethane. Using water-based substititues and natural pigments is currently more expensive however.

100% FSC wood: we use only 100% FSC certfied wood. This ranges from slightly to moderately more expensive, depending on the species, than using typical woods.

Labor: The easiest way to bring our costs down is to decrease labor costs. The simpliest way to do this is to produce oversees. We aren't prepared to do that at this time. We value the transparency and lower transportation impacts from producing nearby.

As you can see, for many of our substituted materials, there is a cost addition. My hope is that as more companies ask for such materials, the cost will decrease and the options will increase.

Yet, while we may be priced at the high-end of the market, we are priced competitively with our peers making hand-made, top quality furnishings. There is no premium for sustainable materials in other words.

Again, great to see a forum where these issues are being discussed.

Posted by: Jesse Johnson on 22 Feb 05

But I'd love to see the price breakdown for their material and labor costs and see how it results in a 500% markup on a pair of jeans.

That's how much couture brands cost. If they don't charge that much, they won't be taken seriously by consumers of couture brands.

The intrinsic exclusivity, in other words, is part of the value-add.

Insane, but that's the game.

Posted by: pierre on 22 Feb 05

The poor and middle class try to copy the lifestyles of the rich, so greening the latter is a brilliant move.

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 22 Feb 05

The poor and middle class try to copy the lifestyles of the rich, so greening the latter is a brilliant move.

Must be a lot of rich people living in trailer parks then. :)

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 22 Feb 05

I work at a wire and cable company, and am actively involved with greening our supply chain for European products, as mandated by the EU. There is NO WAY to make these changes cost-effective, at least not yet. It will cost us more, it costs the manufacturer more, and it costs the consumer more. To say that sustainability can only be made to work by making it affordable is to obviate the attempt before it even gets started. The EU has decided it is willing to bear higher costs for products(not the first time or area they have made this decision, BTW), in exchange for reduced toxicity and increased responsibility. Anyone who wants to do business in the EU (at least legally) must also agree to bear higher costs. The reasoning is that people make these choices because it's worth it to them. Everyone does their cost/benefit analysis on their own, but the hope is that, although laws are required at first, there will eventually be a value and a paradigm shift, such that the cost is understood to be offset by the gain. Understood that your concerns about the penetration of sustainable products depends on their ability to be widespread, rather than niche-ified, but to say that the cost is the main factor is to mis-prioritize. It may be pie-in-the-sky, but that rationale, at least in part, is what generated the mess in the first place.

Posted by: chris on 23 Feb 05

presumably, these guys are entering the market at the place where it will be most profitable for them. and if their proceeds are fed back into doing good work, then they're contributing as much as they possibly can

one key to keeping prices low is to be able to produce in mass quantity. and obviously you can't do that overnight without extraordinary startup cash

Posted by: andy on 23 Feb 05

Chris, I appreciate your anecdotal experience, but you're merely reinforcing the belief I'm challenging. You're still working with the "value shift with drive change" hypothesis, and I've frankly never witnessed such a thing. If anything, I see people getting more lazy and more selfish as time goes on, not less. And when there are periods of "awakening", like their was with environmental issues in the early 90s, there was also a waning of that concern at a society-wide level. Consequently, I think it's not very realistic to bet the future of the planet on the hope that values will change.

The beauty of providing a superior service or product is that it doesn't require any ethical decisions. Perhaps a price obsession has been a driver of destructive behavior, but I just wonder when exactly all people will stop caring about price. So you work with it instead of decrying it.

Anything can be made that's ecologically "pure" if you spend enough money on it. But that misses the whole point.

Netflix is an instructive example. They've developed a business model which makes renting movies cheaper at the basic price margin (if you usually rent 5 movies per month). They also made selecting videos a far better process than going to a store and walking around, wondering what to get.

One thing that people don't usually consider is that they also denecessitated driving to and from the video store for over 2.6 million people and counting, just with their own customers, as well as all the other people using competing services from Wal-Mart, Blockbuster, etc, who are using the Netflix business model.

And what's interesting is that Netflix doesn't make a big deal out of it. In fact, I wonder if you can find anyone labeling them a "green company". The only thing I've found along these lines from them is buried in a "fun facts" page on their website, where they say:
If Netflix members, instead of receiving movies by mail, drove two miles each way to a rental store, they would consume 250,000 gallons of gasoline per day and release 750,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

What they don't mention is that short trips account for far more emissions of other pollutants per mile than long trips, mostly because of lower engine temperatures. Nor do they mention the amount of time saved by not driving to and from the store or searching while in the store, the congestion impact of all those negatrips. Nor do they mention that they probably save more than a few lives every year by keeping people off the roads. Nor do they mention all the packaging that isn't made for their discs, or how much money and energy is saved by shipping discs in reusable sleeves and a thin paper envelope which doubles as the return envelope. Nor do they mention that their discs are used over and over again, instead of the limited number of uses when DVDs are sold directly to home users. And I'm sure they resell (ie, reuse) all the extra discs they have after a peak rental period passes for new releases.

Just to achieve the fuel savings of 250,000 gallons per day, one would need to replace 365,000 cars that get 30 MPG with 365,000 cars that get 60 MPG, which at an average price of $24,000, would cost $8.8 billion dollars and consume 1.2 billion pounds of finished materials which consume God knows how much material and cause God knows how much environmental damage in the process of being made and transformed. But that still wouldn't change address the positive congestion, safety, time and other effects that their business model has engendered.

In searching for anyone mentioning the environmental benefits of using Netflix, I ran across one blog entry (which I can't find anymore) that echoed a few of the things I mentioned. But in the comment section of that blog, one person was unimpressed because they believe that Netflix isn't using 100% post-consumer recycled paper for their envelopes. This is the typical, limited conditioning of having a perfectionist outlook towards environmentalism.

Some other typical responses are that it takes gasoline to move mail around, but those mail trucks and planes are going their routes regardless of whether there are Netflix DVDs on board or not, so the marginal weight of those DVDs has a very limited fuel use impact on the mail delivery system.

To boot, the founder and chairman of the company was an early endorser of Howard Dean and actively supports progressive causes, so he seems to be putting his money to good use in that sphere as well.

But if that company led with their "values", sold their service based on "ethics", they would from the start piss off half of this country and probably would never have been near the success they've been.

Now if a company can have those kind of positive effects without really making it the centerpoint of their mission, think of what could be accomplished if one did.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 23 Feb 05

...Yes. And now we are beginning to see, feel and realize the practicality of the Ghandian village industry. Stay tuned......

Posted by: Paul L. Johnson on 23 Feb 05

While I'm also distressed by the class issues implicit in many of these market-based approaches to ecological reform, what this reveals are the limits of markets, rather than of the production techniques themselves.

The central logic of market-based reform is that there is often a disjunct between the actual cost of production and the price of a given good. Since the mainstream has adopted techniques which allow them to "externalize" costs (which are ultimately borne by a local community somewhere), producers who act in good faith face relatively higher "internal" production costs.

The goal (for most "green" producers, at least) is not to cater to elites, but to include all costs in their prices. We might justifiably question if a given "profit" margin is acceptable, but we should be just as concerned that so many of the goods that are priced for low- or middle-income households are able to ignore their actual costs.

This is a chief reason why industry-wide regulation is critical. It is also the real threat of globalizing chains of production and consumption, even as we limit the ability of local governments to regulate local production.

Posted by: Ken on 24 Feb 05



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