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Your Food is Local. What About Your Clothing?

| Friday June 24th, 2011 | 2 Comments

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In recent years, the concept of buying and sourcing locally has caught on with the broader public, especially in the food sector, where concepts like the 100 mile diet have garnered traction and interest.

But what about clothing?

The T-shirt on your back is likely close to earning a free trip judging by the distance it’s travelled to get to you. Most often, even if it’s grown in the US, the cotton then goes overseas to be processed in China and other cheap labor markets, then it’s shipped back here to be sold. This is extremely inefficient in every way but cost.

Cotton of the Carolinas is a strong effort to counter this inefficiency, spearheading what they memorably call the “Dirt to Shirt” campaign. Their aim, as with the food specific advertising for California avocados, is to create an identity people can understand and value.

In their case, this includes ensuring that all aspects of the shirt making, from growing the cotton to dying the resulting shirt, gets done within 700 miles.

This is not siloed as a “green” or provincial “buy American” effort. It’s about helping create a vital domestic economy, with an interconnected network of businesses. As a farmer in a recent profile on CNN said, these are his neighbors that he sees at church and is proud to help support.

Giving context to this is a page that details where and how each step of the process happens, and beyond that, how it’s superior in quality. For instance, you learn that the dyeing process uses machines that are simpler to operate and repair, while using bi-functional reactive dyes, that result in better washing and light fastness, while having a low environmental impact.

Up until this year, all of the cotton has been grown conventionally. However, due to the encouragement of sustainable custom T-shirt company TS Designs, 80 acres of organic cotton has been planted and will be harvested this Fall for next years products.

The Cotton of the Carolinas effort is paying off, garnering coverage on CNN (below) where they point out that, while the shirts currently cost more than the typical cheaply foreign made shirts, the increasing cost of gas could ultimately be a cost equalizer, and also result in less dependable overseas sourcing.

The trick here, as with any more sustainably made product, is figuring out how to sell it at equal cost or to make it so compelling as to draw people to buy it.

We cannot depend on adverse external circumstances to make our green business models to make sense. TerraCycle, for example, is a company that’s clearly taken this lesson to heart, with great success.

Readers: Where else are there opportunities to effectively localize now foreign dependent industries? Who’s currently succeeding or in process?


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Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martin-Paule/100001557571868 Martin Paule

    An excellent concept for revitalizing the US economy in a sustainable manner. To be sure, there are many challenges to producing locally sourced, sustainable apparel here beginning with the fact that we have exported most of our apparel infrastructure to the third world in the name of cheap apparel. Here at Sympatico Clothing we craft our entire US-made line using a sustainable belnd of hemp and Tencel. Unfortunately, though industrial hemp production is still illegal in the US and Tencel is produced in China. As noted in the story, as the cost of fossil fuels and environmental degradation become unsupportable, the viability for a substantial apparel industry in American will grow. We’ve posted a story about hemp/Tencel here.

  • http://www.yellowbluedesigns.com Jessica Janes

    As prices increase, hopefully more designers will shift their sourcing and manufacturing back to their local economies. Until that time, there will not be as much design diversity, which can keep local sales low. Having that said, it is the way to go.