These days a growing number of entrepreneurs are realizing that business is about more than just making a buck. Due to the sad environmental state of our planet, the new model for business is to help guard our natural resources and to operate for the planet and its population, as well as for the company itself. Maia Andersen, with her Sustainable Kids clothing, has fully realized the importance of operating in this way and setting an example for others to follow.
“A lot of clothing production, especially in other countries and less developed nations, is done using giant manufacturing plants and dye houses that are not necessarily held to very stringent regulations,” Andersen says. “There is runoff and toxins that eventually reach into the groundwater table of these areas. Then you have young kids playing in this water, using it for bathing, and sometimes ingesting it. So by not having a sustainable, responsible approach to the manufacturing process, you’re affecting the broad global population.”
The Skin Factor
Also, as Andersen aptly points out, children are our future, and the increasingly chemical-laden clothing they wear can be a source of serious health issues. “Our skin is the body’s most absorbent organ,” she says. “We’re seeing a growing number of dermal conditions—everything from eczema to every other type of skin condition and allergy. A lot of these are coming out in kids. My research has shown that not only fabric finishing chemicals but also the colorants used to dye fabrics contribute to dermal problems and epidemics, as well as to respiratory health. Plastics, ink, flame retardants and finishes even have a role in SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome].”
The Sustainable Kids collection certainly does its part to end such problems. For the line of boys’ and girls’ apparel, with sizes ranging from 2 to 14, all dyes are certified low impact, and some custom colors are completely dye free and colored from proprietary blends of plants and teas. Graphic screen-printing inks are lead- and phthalate-free. Over 80 percent of the yarn used is US-grown organic cotton, which has not been genetically modified, and fabric that does need to be imported is also certified organic. And, of course—the fashions are cool and kids love them.
Sustainable Kids was a bit of a journey for Andersen—a veteran clothing designer, originally in performance sportswear. “I grew up in a very environmentally responsible household, so I guess that planted the seeds for what has come since,” she explains. “After a good number of years in the apparel industry, I started coming back around to the way I grew up and really taking a look at apparel’s role in the bigger picture. I found that I needed to align my career with my sense of human, global and health-issue responsibility. About seven years ago I began designing using entirely sustainable materials. I went from developing niche markets with big companies such as Quicksilver, Oakley and The North Face to working more specifically with fashion divisions in the developing eco-friendly fashion market.”
Focus on Kids
“Then almost two years ago, I narrowed my career focus even further. I wanted to work in kids’ fashion because I saw that a lot of my awareness, eco-responsibility and compassion was growing from a love of children. I have a daughter, and I just really wanted to focus on a kids’ line that incorporated all those elements and use that as a vehicle to educate consumers in addition to just providing eco-friendly apparel. Best decision I ever made.”
One primary barrier to such a line is the availability of completely sustainable materials—but it’s a challenge that Andersen welcomes. “At first it was limiting,” she says, “but I thrive on that challenge. Okay, so there are only these two fabrics—there have to be more. It is much harder to procure raw materials and to find them, but in a sense I think it makes the process more creative. The product you end up with on the market is really no less aesthetic than the nonsustainable version.”
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Today the Sustainable Kids collection is expanding, along with its availability. The line can be found in various retailers across the country, listed on the Sustainable Kids website. Distribution to Canada has just opened up as well, and there is also a direct-to-consumer site called Etsy carrying the product.
The Hidden Cost of Cheap
Andersen has managed to remain relatively price competitive. “We’re only priced about 15 to 20 percent higher than comparable nonsustainable items,” she continues. “Of course price can always come up as an issue, especially in dealing with kids’ things. Something I like to remind people of is that there is really no such thing as ‘cheap.’ Everything costs somebody something somewhere; it’s just whether or not a company chooses to confront those costs or ignore them and expect society to pay for them at some point down the road. Things may appear cheap in some of our big chains, but they’ve really hidden that cost that we simply haven’t had to pay yet. We’re paying in other ways that we might not realize.”
Finally, Andersen is now using her company and business model to extend into helping educate others on the vital benefits of sustainability. “We have just started a division called Educate Organics,” she says. “We’re beginning with globally aware private and charter schools that we find, and many of them are now looking at their apparel purchasing in terms of how it does or does not line up with the ‘green’ curriculums they’re teaching. For instance, if the school is using an environmentally responsible type of curriculum, yet their school T-shirts are made in China with child labor, they’re starting to realize that they need to practice what they preach. Our Educate Organics program provides high-quality, US-made, certified US organic cotton T-shirts that we then customize for the schools. That’s really exciting, because a school getting on board is a different animal than the boutique business. It’s very rewarding to hear schools get excited about being able to line up that part of their program with the school vision.”
To find out more about Sustainable Kids and their clothing line, visit the company’s website at www.sustainable-kids.com.