Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

Faces of the Green Pages

Conversations with Today's Green Business Leaders


Rose Gerstner
September 2012 — Everyday Chic!
Sympatico Clothing; Jacksonville, OR

 

Blending hemp's natural durability and odor-resistance with silky, Earth-friendly Tencel results in a fabric that resembles linen, only more supple and with better drape. It's a marriage of style and sustainability that has become the signature fabric at Sympatico Clothing, an eco-friendly, made-in-the-USA seller of clothing that is as chic as it is green.

"Artisan entrepreneurs are filling some of the gaps in US manufacturing, offering diversity and uniqueness," says Rose Gerstner, owner of Sympatico. "Seeing how sustainably based economics can replace a significant swath of our consumerist economy and culture is inspiring."

We asked Rose to tell us more about the beginnings of Sympatico, and her earth-friendly fabrics, and her next green steps for the future...


Yellow Suit
Princess Top and Curved Skirt

Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?

Rose Gerstner: Sympatico crafts a collection of Earth-friendly apparel that’s focused on fashion’s largely forgotten demographic: 40-plus women. Designed and sustainably produced in the US, the Sympatico collection’s simple, elegant lines and comfortable fit offer my customers an alternative to fast fashion designed for younger figures.

The Tuxedo Top has proven to be a perennial bestseller and typifies my aim to create clothes that comfortably skirt the line between career and casual wear. A member of Green America since 2008, I work from my mountain home in Oregon’s Siskiyou range where nature is a source of constant inspiration.

 

What makes Sympatico Clothing a green business?

Rose: In founding Sympatico I sought out materials and methods that make sense from a sustainability standpoint while also addressing the daunting realities of being a micro-scale apparel maker in the US.

When creating my designs I try to incorporate timeless lines and shapes that aren’t subject to the whims of fad fashion. I aim for versatile styles that my customers can wear in a variety of settings, and thanks to their quality construction and materials, will offer many years of use.

After exploring the textile market for the most Earth-friendly options, I settled on a hemp/Tencel fabric for my entire collection. It offers the look of linen and the drape and soft hand of rayon, but without rayon’s extensive environmental downside. The hemp is produced without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides while the Tencel is made from farmed eucalyptus trees. The ground pulp used for Tencel is treated in a closed-loop process in which non-toxic organic solvents are recycled with a recovery rate of 99.5%. The tiny amount of remaining emissions is decomposed in algae-based biological purification plants. The resulting fabric is easily cared for with machine washing. I preshrink each piece.

I work closely with my suppliers and contractors to ensure to the greatest degree possible that their employment, sourcing and environmental practices are in sync with my own convictions about sustainability. 

Purple Suit
Tuxedo Top and Curved Skirt.

Because I work on a small scale, my cutting and manufacturing waste is minimized, and small dye lots involve more efficient water usage. Some of my cutting scraps, along with kitchen waste, end up providing fodder for two large colonies of red worms that convert them into castings to help my garden thrive.  Many of the buttons I use are produced from tagua nuts—a renewable resource.

 

What did you do before you started your own green business?

Rose:I’ve been absorbed with designing and sewing clothes for nearly as long as I can remember, with my dolls being my first clients. It was only in my late twenties that I began to see apparel as a viable career rather than simply a gratifying hobby.

During the 1980s I became a part-owner of a cotton clothing business and realized that I had found work that could be creative, useful, and fulfilling.  Working alongside women whose jobs had been lost to lower-wage workers overseas, I learned the multitude of skills needed to create good-fitting, well constructed clothing. I took every class I could find on design, fit, patternmaking, draping, and fashion illustration. Operating this cottage industry also offered lots of practical grounding in what it takes to be a self-employed woman.

After selling that business, I worked as a designer for a uniform company then later joined the costume shop of a regional theater. Acknowledging my love of small business and entrepreneurship, I began Sympatico Clothing in 2005.

 

What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility? 

Pink Top
Tank Top and Cropped Pants

Rose: When I first floated the Sympatico idea among friends and family, they were dubious. With most of the US garment industry having vanished and cheap imports being the norm, they wondered how I could hold my own in an increasingly competitive marketplace. They echoed my own doubts. But I persisted, feeling there was a small yet savvy market for the collection I envisioned—women seeking stylish yet comfortable clothes made with respect for people and the planet.  Thankfully, my hunch proved to be correct and by right-sizing my business and expectations, I’ve been able to achieve my aims. 

Because the US textile industry has virtually disappeared in recent decades, one of the increasingly challenging aspects of being in this business is the lack of US suppliers. Dealing directly with Asian textile producers isn’t viable at my scale. Happily though, I have cultivated a small group of US-based vendors who share my environmental and sustainability outlook. Nonetheless, fabric and button supply can be dicey. Concepts such as just-in-time manufacturing simply don’t work for me. 

 

What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?

Brown Top
Princess Top

Rose: I love when customers explain why Sympatico clothing is perfect for them! Aside from the wonderful feedback I receive from customers, I get further reinforcement that I’m on the right track each time I write a check or review a profitable monthly statement. These are concrete confirmations that what I’m doing is viable after all. In the end, no amount of high-minded intention will work over the long haul if the business model doesn’t. That I’ve been able to replace the income I made working for others while exercising my passion for design is a tangible reflection of my ROI. 

 

What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?

Rose: Start small and go slow.  Unless your idea is hugely capital-intensive, develop a business plan that doesn’t involve going deeply in debt—at least not until you more fully understand the dynamics of your business. I’ve seen some entrepreneurs saddle themselves with so much debt that meeting the loan payments began driving some poor decision-making.

When I began Sympatico, I thought my market would largely be wholesale, selling to green boutiques. Over time I saw that dealing direct with retail customers at shows and online was more financially viable and personally satisfying. I minimized my initial investment by buying used equipment for a fraction of its original cost. Two of the upsides of our disappeared garment industry are a large inventory of sewing machines that can be bought inexpensively and suppliers who are interested in dealing with small businesses.


What's the next green step you're working on right now? What's inspiring you?

Rose: I’m currently looking at adding hand-painted silk scarves to accessorize my collection. The fabric is made with natural dyes by a workers’ collective in India who abide by fair labor standards. I’m also considering introducing a line made of woven linen from Italy. Winter is my time for designing in my studio, and I’m looking forward to getting back to that process.

Also, my customers are one of my biggest inspirations. They are a smart bunch—mostly 40-plus women—who travel extensively, do interesting work and grasp the more sophisticated issues of sustainability.


What green product(s) can you not live without?

Rose: The Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative—our local CSA—is an ongoing source of delight at every meal. The delicious, field-fresh box of produce we pick up each week helps ensure we eat well and continue developing our kitchen chops when faced with an unfamiliar veggie.


Siblings
Tuxedo Top.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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