Check out our interview to find out more about the challenges of being both eco-friendly and worker-friendly, and what green product keeps Justice Clothing staff fueled all day.
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
Eric Odier-Fink: Justice Clothing has been selling union-made, sweatshop-free apparel from the US and Canada since 2003. Popular items like jeans, T-shirts and socks are balanced with fine dress shirts, slacks, and ties. When our first employee reached 6 months employment, we re-formed into a coop to guarantee an egalitarian work environment, and that was when we joined Green America, then known as Co-op America.
What makes your business green?
Eric: Our focus on just, sustainable, and (relatively) local business practices reduces the distance between producer and consumer. We try to get our suppliers and customers to think about their relationship with one another, in the hopes that will translate into a consciousness about all their consumption.
Our in-house operation is tiny, but even so we stay conscious of our waste impact. Over the years we:
- have reduced our use of office paper by more than half, by using both sides where possible, using scrap for notes, and printing only what is necessary;
- only use 100% recycled paper, envelopes, and file folders;
- have reduced the waste from our shipping labels by half;
- reuse as much of our shipping materials as possible, and recycle all else;
- have designed and are building a chimney heat recapturing system (to be used in the upcoming heating months) which will provide the primary heat for our office with only the impact being the costs of running a small water circulation pump!
What did you do before you started your green business?
Eric: Mandi and I, as Justice Clothing's co-founders, come out of the labor movement. We started out of the frustration we experienced in finding clothing we knew was not made in sweatshops. We did the research, made some contacts, and began building our site -- using free, open-source technology to encourage community and fight greed. With an eye towards local sustainability, and guaranteed rights for workers (including a protected voice on the job) we narrowed our standards to union-made products from the US and Canada. We considered very few label names, since justice was as the heart of everything we were doing.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Eric: For us, the biggest and most constant struggle has been in ecologically sustainable products. In the time we have been in operation, there has been only one product available to us that met our social justice standards and was also made from either organic or recycled material, and that product is no longer available. We have had numerous false-starts on possible custom-made products for Justice Clothing, each of which has been foiled by either dried-up supplies or prohibitive minimum initial orders.
We don't quit, however, and have several products in development that we hope to see to fruition in 2009. The economic downturn, of course, may prove a challenge, though we see more folks who are beginning to tune in to how local shopping makes a difference in their and their communities' lives.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Eric: Don't be a business person. All our decisions are made thinking of the possible impact on others first. We give priority to products that come from better paying factories, usually meaning the more expensive. We don't look to compete, but to cooperate. Perhaps we could be better-off financially if we were aggressive market animals, but I doubt we would sleep better.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Eric: Justice Clothing has struggled from day one to keep our virtual doors open. What keeps us fueled (besides organic and Fair Trade tea and cocoa) is the amazing moral support we get from folks who take the time to either write or call just to tell us we're doing what needs to be done. Day-to-day, this work can be mundane and even scary ("can we keep it going another month...?"), and three minutes on the phone from a happy customer who is thrilled to find a way to support their neighbors and get the gear they need can do a lot to push us forward.
What green product could you not live without?
Eric: It's the organic, Fair Trade tea and cocoa. It makes life worth living...
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