"I’m inspired by the purity and beauty of natural organic cotton," says Yeumei Shon, discussing the name of her green business, Cottonfield. "To me, 'Cottonfield' symbolizes my dream of a future when organic agriculture becomes the norm."
Organic since its inception eight years ago, Cottonfield has been a leader in eradicating dangerous pesticides. As green businesses have led the way to a changing marketplace, Yeumei explains: "My vision for Cottonfield has changed with the times. Back in the beginning, it was simply to make organic cotton apparel available to the public. Now it is to compete with organic products being sold at Wal-Mart, and to make our products even better by increasing our standards of production." Read our interview to find out what Yeumei has has planned next for Cottonfield.
Green America: What does your business do?
Yeumei in one of the Texas cotton fields that produces the raw material for her clothing.
Yeumei Shon: Cottonfield produces organic cotton apparel and home goods, 92 percent of which is made in the United States. We wholesale to stores nationwide as well as overseas, and we retail to consumers through our Web site. Our most popular products tend to be our casual, organic cotton basics and undergarments, and we have been proud members of Green America for seven years (since 2001).
What makes Cottonfield green?
Yeumei: Our company is green by virtue of many factors. The vast majority of our products are made from organic cotton, which we choose because we are great believers in the importance of converting to organic, bio-dynamic, and sustainable agriculture. And we dye our fabrics with low-environmental-impact dyes. We also use local suppliers and factories as often as possible, and we get most of our organic cotton from farms in the United States.
When we do business with farms or factories overseas, we either thoroughly research or personally visit the farms and facilities to make sure that they maintain fair labor practices and safe working conditions. One of our overseas suppliers, for example, is a woman’s cooperative in Peru, which produces hand-knit alpaca wool and organic cotton sweaters.
In our office, we work to reduce the use of plastic bags, hangers, and packaging. We use green materials for office improvements and encourage simple, waste-free living in the workplace.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Yeumei: Before I opened this business I worked for over thirty-four years in the textile and apparel industries in Taiwan and the United States. But the wastefulness of the clothing industry, and the environmental impact of conventional cotton farming, has troubled me for a long time. One of my greatest wishes is to contribute my knowledge and experience for the benefit of my local and global community.
In 1999 I attended a conference called “From Field to Fashion” on organic agriculture, which motivated me to learn how to run a clothing business, and to gear up with the supply chains to produce a clothing line in eco-friendly fabric. So I quit my job and opened up a “cottage industry”, designing and selling a few simple organic cotton items from my living room – mostly to boutique stores, martial arts groups and meditation centers. My business has been growing ever since. I have a great interest in apparel development and production, I design all of Cottonfield’s clothing myself and I believe that we Americans can make quality clothing locally. I am continually motivated to keep up with the organic movement to learn about how we can do better for ourselves and the environment.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Cottonfield's Boston showroom.
Yeumei: The biggest challenges are always economic. It costs more to produce clothing through organic and sustainable means, and that means we have to charge more to our customers. Luckily, people are growing to realize this, and are becoming more willing to pay more for products that are produced organically.
And, as a small business – with few people doing multiple tasks – we do sometimes struggle to answer the inquiries of our retail, wholesale and export customers. Another challenge is the workmanship of the garment industry. Because fewer people are willing to work in this environment, fewer skillful workers are available.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Yeumei: I can’t think of a single “proudest moment”. Rather, I have frequent “proud moments”, when customers call to thank me for producing organic cotton clothing. At those times I realize that what I am doing is truly appreciated. I’m also proud of the fact that we are still committed to “Made in the USA”, regardless of the higher costs.
What is the most hopeful sign you've seen recently in the green economy?
Yeumei: The most hopeful sign that I have seen is the recent surge of interest in global warming, and the global initiatives to make positive changes to benefit the environment. Also, I’m encouraged that organic products are now in demand worldwide.
What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?
A Cottonfield dress shirt: organic and made in the USA.
Yeumei: I would say to just go for it! Start small. Surround yourself with inventive, positive, compassionate people with good senses of humor. You’ll need that! And walk your talk. Make your lifestyle as green as your business. This will benefit your life as well as your business environment.
What are you excited about going forward?
Yeumei: Now we are trying to use the internet more for delivering product information and communicating with our customers.
What green product could you not live without?
Yeumei: The National Green Pages™: an invaluable desk reference that we consult daily for ourselves and our customers.
Questions from readers:
Q: I practice Chinese medicine, and I have a garment design that I would like to bring to market as part of my business and would like to do it the green way. My biggest challenge at this point is finding someone who can render my ideas into a format that can be used to manufacture the product. Do you have any suggestions? — Frederick
Yeumei: You can either manufacture your garment design by yourself (which means you’d need to source fabric and cut and sew your own samples) or you can hand it over to a manufacturer like Cottonfield. While we design our own exclusive line, we will also do work for private labels occasionally. And one last thing, if you do decide to make your own samples, I believe 100 pieces is the ideal quantity, as it’s most cost effective. I hope this helps.
Q: I'm looking for organic cotton to purchase and also to be made into our product line. Do you manufacture for other companies? Can you help me source raw materials in this country and in Peru that are organic? Other possible suppliers in Peru or in Asia using organic cotton and wool? — Mark
Yeumei: Cottonfield will in fact manufacture garments for other companies, but this is something we are not able to do often. As far as locating fabric suppliers in Peru and Asia, I suggest you visit www.organicexchange.org, and for US-based suppliers, try www.ota.org. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me.
Q:I have a interest in designing organic cotton jeans and active wear. But getting started has been an obstacle for me, because I don't know where to start. Where do I get the materials? Do you have any suggestions? — Ferdie
Yeumei: If you have an interest in designing organic fashion the best place to start is by doing some market research. Find a niche, and you’ll generate a lot of interest! Right now the jeans market is very saturated, so I would recommend you avoid that. Thanks for your question!