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Greenlight Apparel: Change from Within

3p Contributor | Saturday March 19th, 2011 | 2 Comments

This post is part of a series on sustainability in the health and wellness industry, curated by Becky Eisen, Dana Ledyard, Izabel Loinaz. Follow along with the series here.

By: Ryan Chamberlain

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em…then beat ‘em. That’s one way of defining the strategy of Greenlight Apparel: Join a traditionally wicked business specifically to effect change from within. The global garment industry has been fraught with ethical production problems for a long time: from the mass pollution of dyes, bleach, and solvents, to sweatshops, to providing the cotton plantation backdrop to our own history of slavery.

For the longest time it seems to have fallen on non-profit issue advocacy groups to fight the good fight. Yet entrepreneurial thinking shows that for every problem, there’s a profitable solution…and more and more of that thinking is being applied not to fabricated problems of consumer needs, but real problems of global ills. The for-profit approach to alleviating poverty doesn’t just work better, it’s also proving to be lucrative.

That’s the spirit behind Greenlight. Housed near Silicon Valley and led by a former Cisco Systems exec, the company was borne from a business plan written for entry into the Global Social Venture Business Competition while its founders were in the MBA program at UC Davis. The idea was to make high-quality technical athletic gear — the stuff of Nike or North Face – yet produce it with 100% organic or recycled fibers and package it with a mission to end child labor and human trafficking.

There are those in the garment industry that tragically still turn a blind eye to the environmental and human rights issues that are rampant throughout the supply chain. There are others that incorporate sustainable production and strive to be “sweatshop free.” Greenlight’s goal would be to reach another level, working hand-in-hand with suppliers and partner charities to produce economic and educational incentives to produce sustainable and fair trade products, and win by using more carrot, less stick.

This mission is proving both refreshingly simple and dauntingly insurmountable. From the environmental aspect, it’s enlightening to see the strides made in sustainable production. Securing organic or recycled material suppliers is nearly a plug-and-play task at this point. Organizations like SKAL and Organic Exchange provide painstaking certifications and labeling of clean agricultural products, while Unifi Manufacturing’s Repreve line of yarns offer a collection of polyester and nylon fibers that are equally lab tested and certified recycled. Greenlight purchases carbon offsets to account for shipping, and with that we meet our environmental goals rather easily and confidently.

The human rights challenges are a whole different monster, however.

In most discussions, efforts like Greenlight Apparel’s are described as choices…as “being responsible”…or “doing the right thing.” Our post-Inconvenient Truth green movement has advocated for better global decision-making. The reality – in many cases – is that those harming the planet aren’t making a “choice” to do so. They aren’t consciously destructive or even recklessly naive. Rather, their actions are simply their way of life.

Greenlight CEO Sonny Aulakh is a native of Amritsar, Punjab, India, an area greatly affected by both the environmental and child labor issues. As he notes, “The people there see right through it. It’s a part of their culture. It’s something they’ve grown up seeing and since no on else takes action, they end up accepting what is wrong as normal.”

This is the challenge Greenlight faces in its mission. It’s not about changing behavior, but taking a million steps backward into the origin of attitudes.

There’s a metaphor on decision-making about the frequency that most of us, several times every day, make the choice to not rob a bank. We all pass several banks daily. At any point we could walk in, approach a teller with a threatening note, and commence a robbery. But none of us do. What’s more, the idea is so far from our minds that it doesn’t even seem like we’re making a decision. It’s a second-nature, subconscious choice.

Which is what makes this a good hypothetical for defining the variances of social norms.
The idea of bathing, defecating, washing your food, clothes and dishes, and dumping your garbage all in the same river is as inconceivable as bank robbery to the average Westerner. Yet that’s everyday life in the Mekong Delta. The idea of a crew of 9-year-old children waiting on you hand-and-foot throughout your weeklong resort vacation would raise red flags with you – Where are their parents? When do they go to school? When do they sleep?!? – yet you may find that to be a typical workforce in Mumbai.

What is unconscionable to us is as normal as breathing in some developing communities. It’s not enough to simply advocate for different choices or policies. There needs to be a complete paradigm shift. What we’re facing is a sort of mega version of Broken Windows Theory or Cialdini’s “injunctive norms,” where doing wrong is so massively widespread and indoctrinated into the culture that it ceases to be perceived as wrong and never faces disapproval.

While Greenlight’s approach certainly incorporates advocacy and awareness of the problem, we see the solution lying in alternatives. It doesn’t help to simply stop the sweatshop. You have to replace the sweatshop. That’s where partnerships with international organizations like Love146, Kiva, and Media Voices for Children integrate to create educational resources designed to lift children from the cycle of poverty, as well as economic opportunities that offer parents alternatives to selling their children into indentured servitude.

Greenlight staff personally make several trips a year to visit partners in Asia, Africa or South America, working with factories to help get their fair trade certification, scouting prospects for a magnet school we aim to open within the next year, perfecting production of our first consumer line of merchandise to be launched later this year, or even dropping off new cricket equipment to rescued boys at a partner ashram.

We put all this work into the back end so we can create a very easy choice on our entrepreneurial front end: If you can buy the same sweat-wicking tech fiber running tee from several brands, why wouldn’t you choose the one that let’s you save the world at the same time?

That’s our plan, and so far it’s working. Since our founding in 2008, Greenlight Apparel has donated more than $50,000 to these partner organizations from sales to large fitness and corporate events. We’ve accounted for saving more than 600 children from child labor, more than 100,000 sweatshop hours.


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  • http://www.bisonbrew.com Daniel Del Grande

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. Best quote: “for every problem, there’s a profitable solution.” Glad to learn about Greenlight. I just requested a quote for my organic cotton shirts I but by beer company logo on. What retail stores is Greenlight in?

  • Ryan Chamberlain

    @Daniel — we’re launching our retail line later this year. We’ll begin exclusively online, and are exploring certain retail outlets now.

    On a personal note…I’m a BIG fan of yours! Enjoyed more than a few tastes at SF Beer Week. Will you be at Booneville this year?