Sadie wears a Kate Quinn Organics Fiesta dress in turquoise and glacier,… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
When my son was born three years ago, we received an olive green romper embroidered with a tiny red elephant, an outfit that came from a children's boutique specializing in a line of handmade, local and eco-friendly clothing and toys. No matter how many times we washed it, the cotton remained soft and vibrant — and the romper stayed that way through wearings by two friends' babies.
The word "organic" was not mentioned on the Entertaining Elephants label, but after a little digging I discovered that not only was the cotton in the romper organic, the outfit was part of one of the few children's lines designed and produced in Los Angeles.
"There was a time when 'organic' meant low style," says Ellen Massee, designer and owner of the Entertaining Elephants store in Studio City.
Indeed, as recently as a decade ago, much of what passed as environmentally friendly clothing involved hemp fabrics and muddy colors — not exactly the most cheerful options for kids. But today even national companies — including American Apparel and Wal-Mart — are touting their eco-friendly street cred.
In theory, that's great for parents. But as they struggle to make choices that benefit their children as well as their pocketbooks, can we afford to be green — and what does "green" mean?
When we talk about organic, sustainable and eco-friendly, an assessment of the fabric is just the beginning. Where were the goods manufactured? And under what conditions? How far did they have to travel? Technically, all the word "organic" guarantees is that no pesticides were used, but the term says nothing about the use of labor or water. Chances are if it's "organic" and cheap, you don't want to know its history.
Entertaining Elephants clothing comes at a price. A kids T-shirt will run $28, while a girls sailor dress costs $46 and a boys thermal heavyweight cotton sweat shirt fetches $52. What you're paying for is high-quality and durable cotton from a North Carolina-based organic cotton producer and domestic manufacturing, as well as design that focuses on reuse with organic, vintage and recycled materials. "A pair of baby's [loose-fitting] pants [might] fit a toddler as shorts, so that a child can wear them for three years," Massee says. "And then you can pass them down, pass them on. It might not be a great business model, but it's what I believe in."
Entertaining Elephants is a small boutique. Los Angeles-based American Apparel, on the other hand, is the behemoth in local, sustainable manufacturing, which means that in addition to using organic products, the company looks to reduce its carbon footprint by recycling more than a million pounds of fabric scraps annually and using "pre-consumer" scraps to produce additional garments. Its clothes are manufactured downtown, and its kids' clothing is good-looking and durable.
But the company is struggling, and a group of investors is looking to sell its shares just a few months after investing $15 million to help rescue it.
This is potentially bad news for other businesses, such as Dadoo Kids in Palo Alto, that are committed to manufacturing in the U.S. and use American Apparel organic "blank" T-shirts to overlay with their own designs. Thanks to American Apparel's sheer production volume, the "blanks" help designers keep their costs within reach. (Depending on the number of items purchased, an organic kids' blank T-shirt might cost about $8 a shirt, which a company like Dadoo would use as a canvas for its own printed design and in turn sell for $18.)
"As a parent with three kids, I'm sympathetic to making an affordable organic product," says Christine Miller Kelly, who founded Dadoo Kids in 2009. When she's not using T-shirt blanks, Kelly makes small-production runs of original designs. "We have a small market of customers who are willing to pay significantly more for made-in-the-U.S. organics. I hope that with awareness we can sell more of these clothes and drive the prices down."
Her retro-inspired designs — ranging from $28 to $70 — center on butterflies, helicopters and motorcycles. But, she adds, manufacturing in this country simply costs more. "Production costs can be prohibitive because of government regulations, especially in California. We all want organic, but when it comes down to paying for it, are we willing to pay for a locally produced product?"
Kate Quinn, founder of Seattle-based Kate Quinn Organics, says, "I'd love to manufacture domestically, but I just can't sell a $40 onesie." Her kimono-inspired designs for babies feature fade-resistant color combinations that sound good enough to eat — apple with vanilla trim, violet with blackberry. Quinn uses certified organic cotton that is manufactured in India under fair-trade-certified conditions and she researched extensively before finding a factory that met these requirements.