In early May, Kenny resident Ellen Gavin and her friend Marti Markus opened a new, "values-driven" clothing store in Fulton called Birch Clothing, 2309 W. 50th St., which offers shoppers clothes to match their convictions.
Their store specializes in men and women’s clothing not produced in sweatshops (some cleverly labeled No Sweat), made with eco-friendly materials by manufacturers and workers who receive a fair wage.
Gavin said as a consumer, she found it hard to find "fair trade" clothes – other than T-shirts – made with environmentally friendly fabrics.
"It started with us trying to find clothes we felt good about," she said.
Birch merchandise includes casual and some dressy clothes, jeans, tennis shoes and workout apparel – jewelry, too. The two enterprising women hope to reduce social injustice and protect the environment while offering customers options that ease their consciences.
Living your values
Gavin said the two are old friends; they met in their early 20s and became roommates for a while. Still, both might seem like unlikely retailers given their previous occupations – Gavin as a lawyer and Markus as a massage therapist.
Gavin’s husband Bruce Kelley said he started to notice the change in his wife’s state of mind after she began doing pro bono legal work for refugees. "She started learning about some of those countries where there are tremendous sweatshops," he said. "She was concerned about that."
Gavin said her work was with the group Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, where she worked with recent refugees. She said that helped her to gain a new perspective. She also took a class focused on sweatshops.
She said she and Markus have tried to translate these experiences into a business model. "If you’re promoting economic justice, you’re promoting the world," Gavin said optimistically. " I want to contribute to my community."
Markus, an Orono resident, said she shares Gavin’s altruistic philosophies. When asked why organic clothes are important, she replied, "We eat organic food. [It’s about] what you’re doing to the Earth."
Gavin said this quest for a values-driven clothing store began seriously a year ago, when the duo began learning about fair trade principles and "Earth-friendly" manufacturing to prepare for their new store.
The two women – using their private investments – then visited a few manufacturers, selected their clothing lines and prepared the West 50th Street store.
Socially just and eco-friendly clothes
Selling fair trade, non-sweatshop-produced clothes, with environmentally safe materials sounds nice, but what do these buzz words mean to Gavin, Markus and consumers?
Gavin and Markus said sweatshop-free merchandise means workers are paid a fair wage and are provided a safe place to do that work. Gavin said while they can’t visit every manufacturer, there are certain things that reassure them they’re truly getting sweatshop-free clothes.
She said often such business practices include unions or are co-operatives. On the product side, "eco-friendly clothes" is a more technical term.
At Birch Clothing, Markus said, the organic clothing is made with fibers that are produced with strict farming regulations on things like herbicides and pesticides – much like organic food.
Markus said the dyes and bleaching systems that color the fabric rely on more natural methods. "Conventional cotton is really toxically grown and manufactured," she said.
That’s why Markus and Gavin said they’re trying to fill the store with clothing made from "natural" fibers, such as hemp and tencel, a form of wood pulp. Clothes are also colored with natural materials such as clay.
Despite fears you might have of your clothes being made from things such as trees, the fabric is soft and varies in texture and appearance depending on the material used and the clothing item. The clothes also come in a wide range of colors. "It’s kind of a new frontier," Gavin said of the merchandise. "I think it’s the future."
Fairer wages and production methods that don’t cut corners mean prices are in the middle to high range; some sweaters sell for $70 and camisoles are $50.
How do you know who made those pants?
How can Gavin and Markus really know that the merchandise their is truly in line with their values? How do customers know they’re truly getting clothes to match their convictions?
Markus said because there is no certification for these practices, as with organic food, it helps to have a business network and familiarize themselves with other like-minded businesses.
A main brand carried at their store that bears the label "No Sweat," they said, has a good reputation. Markus added that the brand has become trendy with rock bands and her two sons.
Gavin’s husband said the enterprising women spent a good year researching, which Gavin said continues. "We look for new factories with a direct relationship to those selling the clothes," she said, an indication that what they’re promoting can be validated.
The two also traveled to some manufacturers nearby – only one is from Minnesota.
Kelley said that he believes in the mission of the store, which is why he and Markus’ husband Tony Purvey spent time working on the business.
"The big question is will people want to support their values by purchasing these types of clothes," Kelly said, and judging from the positive reception Birch Clothing received at the Living Green Expo in early May, the answer is "yes."
The store’s hours are Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-4 p.m.