Area entrepreneurs find success designing and selling eco-friendly fashions
When last we encountered Kate Harrison, she recounted how difficult it had been to find environmentally conscious vendors to service her wedding back in 2007. That led Harrison to publish her own manual to help like-minded brides-to-be seeking to plan a “green” wedding.
Harrison’s saga (BNH, June 2013) is not unlike those of others who have a personal commitment to a sustainable lifestyle, but at times find the marketplace affords too few choices. Their solution is to establish their own green enterprises. When it comes to fashion and accessories, that commitment can evolve into a business for some.
Take the husband-and-wife owners of Funkoos organic baby clothes, for instance. The pair started the business when they sought organic clothes for their children, but found no stores selling them.
“We started Funkoos in 2009, after we had our twin boys,” says co-owner Chandra Sittiraju. “We were looking for good-quality organic clothing with cute designs that was difficult to find. Many of the big-store brands were organic but not of high quality. This inspired us to create our own brand.”
Once the decision was made to start their own business, the couple sought out high-quality materials and suppliers, says Sittiraju.
“All our products are created from 100-percent certified organic cotton, and all the manufacturing processes adhere to Global Organic Textile Standards,” says Sittiraju, adding, “We only work with suppliers who carry GOTS certification. All suppliers are not equipped to deliver the high quality we mandate. Over a period of time we have identified strong suppliers we work with, who understand our quality needs and are able to deliver what we need.”
For Cara Stimmel, proprietor of Fern Street Designs by Cara Stimmel, committing to quality also entails committing to local artisans who (re)create the eco-friendly jewelry she sells.
“I work with people in my Hartford area — at colleges or mothers who have children, for instance,” Stimmel says. Stimmel specializes in “recycled, repurposed and reused” fashion pieces. When she looks at old watch pieces, for example, she can see a brand new object.
“A gear from a watch, or something that has beautiful angles, I repurpose it into more of a contemporary feel,” Stimmel explains. Stimmel’s pieces are of the “Steampunk” genre, a category of vintage jewelry that evokes the look of jewelry popular during the industrial revolution of the 19th century.
Stimmel turned to creating her own repurposed jewelry after working in the traditional jewelry manufacturing industry. She became dismayed by some of the industry practices, such as the use of toxic materials and off-shore manufacturing. In addition to dealing with local artisans, Stimmel goes to area flea markets and tag sales to find items that she then repurposes.
“It’s fun just trying to repurpose [an item] into something else,” she says. For example, she notes, an old watch can be turned into a charm bracelet. “It has to strike the person looking at the object to say, ‘I appreciate the beauty for what it is as opposed to what it was.’”
Similarly, items that MaryLynne Boisvert carries through her business, Bethany Homecrafts, are repurposed — or, as she prefers to describe them, “upcycled.”
“My concentration is on repurposing,” says Boisvert of her Bristol-based company. “I try to use natural, breathable fibers.
“I repurpose wool sweaters and cotton knits and some silks” as well as other materials. “So, that’s what is already in existence, but they can have a whole new life. What I do is, I rescue things from thrift stores.”
Boisvert’s commitment also extends to the care, as wells as the “afterlife” of her products.
“Everything goes through the wash,” she says. “I use all-natural laundry detergent. I don’t use the dryer. Everything is hung on a clothesline.
“All [material] scraps,” Boisvert adds, “get saved. They get donated [to animal shelters and dog-training facilities] for dog beds.”
Mercedes Zarate takes a global approach to her five-year-old eco-friendly business, Ink Arts. Products include children’s apparel, purses and handbags, and sweaters made of alpaca.
“At the beginning we started introducing Peruvian products, eco-friendly jewelry, natural 100-percent cotton clothing and alpaca sweaters and accessories,” explains Zarate, who is based in Simsbury.
“I buy items that I like, that are different, unique and not easy to find — a conversation piece. So far people like what I am selling and they compliment them. Of course, I have items that only sell in craft shows, not at the store, which are the eco-friendly jewelry. They are made out of seed, fish scales, coconut and bull’s horn.”
Peruvian native Zarate was inspired to open her business after taking a trip to her native land in 2008.
“My admiration for the Incan culture made me realize that Peru has a lot to offer, with its diverse historical culture and diverse natural resources found with the three regions -- the Coast with the Pacific Ocean, the Highlands with its beautiful landscape and natural fruits and vegetables, and the jungle, with the Amazon River that is considered the jewelry box [of the region] because of the native primitive tribes and the amazing fauna.
“One of our popular products,” adds Zarate, “is the Alpaca sweaters and accessories. Therefore, our best-selling time of the year is winter. The alpaca fiber is soft and it is strong. It lasts longer than cashmere and it is an eco-friendly material. It was recycled and it is environmentally safe.”
Like many green enterprises, Zarate endeavors to give and/or give back to communities and environments through her products.
“I have preferences and guidelines when purchasing new items,” she says. “I like to give a chance to all non-profit organizations, like [fair-trade organization] SERRV and Call to Care Uganda. Their products are handmade from renewable materials and they help groups in need of financial help for food or school supplies. I prefer to work with third-world countries because I know what poverty is.”
So, is eco-friendly fashion an easy sell?
“Through these [past] five years I have built a small group of eco-friendly customers,” says Zarete. “This year we are adding more novelties and local handcrafted items. Customers like to support local artists/crafters. I learned that word of mouth is what is keeping me alive — but it takes a long time for the word to spread out.
“People are getting more conscious in protecting the environment and looking for products that are sustainable and environment-friendly,” Zarate adds. “But we are still far to get everybody involved in this lifestyle. That is why [it] is hard to sell some eco-friendly products. [Many consumers] are accustomed to mass-production items a way of living since the industrial revolution.”
For some, says Chandra Sittiraju, it’s a matter of going with convenience.
“Our personal belief is that these products are better for us consumers, as well as our environment. I think when it comes to apparel, it’s a harder sell than organic food,” she says. “Lots of times, organic is just a ‘nice-to-have’ and not a ‘must-have’ for most customers. [Therefore] we have to make sure our eco-friendly products have appealing designs, superior quality and are in the right price range.
“There is a segment of eco-friendly parents that is growing,” she adds. “These parents are happy to go the organic route for their babies, but it’s always not the case when they buy clothing for themselves.”
Being an online business has essentially helped business, says Sittiraju.
“We have evolved consistently [over the past five years],” she says. “We have invested smartly in technology and are perhaps one of the few apparel brands that have automated most aspects of our business.”
The automation has helped the company fulfill orders, an operational function that was sluggish and a “time killer” in the beginning, she acknowledges.
“In order to turn this weakness into strength, we smartly automated our distribution by partnering with Amazon,” she explains. “This distribution strategy helped us deliver unmatched customer experience by leveraging on Amazon’s core competency. This allowed us to focus on aspects of the business that we needed to focus on. Our co-founder, Sameer Joshi, is a strong believer in technology and was instrumental in getting this implemented.
"This distribution model also helped the us enter the European Union market by sitting here in Southbury, Connecticut,” adds Sittiraju. “For EU markets, our products are warehoused in Amazon’s United Kingdom warehouse, from where we service 26 European Union countries. In U.S., our products are warehoused across Amazon U.S. warehouses.”
With the online model, the company broke even “very quickly,” asserts Sittiraju. “This allowed us to run our business as a real start-up with very little overhead. Through the online model, we were able to sell our products across all major continents.”
But there was a downside to the online model. Large numbers of customers placed small orders — as opposed to the store model, where a small number of stores place large orders, Sittiraju explains. But she says the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. And she foresees even more growth for the company and its eco-friendly products in the near future.
“One solid advantage that online sales model provided was the confidence in our strategy, our product and our thinking,” says Sittiraju. “We know if we enter retail chains, as we are planning to do in next 12 months, we will be able to make Funkoos a household name in this segment.”