Sustainable Fiber Arts (our Nov. 2011 green-biz interview)
“One company isn’t going to save the world,” says Stephanie Schiff, owner of Ecobutterfly Organics. “It has to take place in the consciousness of the people as individuals, over and over, one at a time until the ideas eventually just become part of the way we think as a society.”
Along with her online portal for purchasing super-sustainable fiber-arts supplies, Schiff provides information on the whys and hows of her business: WHY she won’t use GMO corn-based packaging, or HOW she finds suppliers that meet her green standards. She says that as people become educated to how a green and fair supply chain works, she sees them shift to support a greener economy.
Through our interview, Ecobutterfly educated us on everything from color-grown cotton to the life-cycle of the Monarch butterfly.
Green America: What does your business do and what is your most popular product?
Rich, color-grown cotton yarn from Ecobutterfly’s Pakucho Organic line.
Stephanie Schiff: Ecobutterfly Organics is a Los-Angeles-based business that offers organic, recycled, Fair Trade, handmade, and mainly vegan fiber arts and crafts supplies.
We emphasize the use of organic cotton yarn and original fiber design, especially for babies. We feel that babies should have the softest and least -processed fibers sitting against their skin. That is why we use wild-crafted vegetable-dyed colors, as compared to the synthetic variety. We will always suggest the natural, vanilla-cream pima and color-grown colors first, when asked, since they are the simplest options. We design many items with this in mind. The customer always has the choice.
Because we have so many different options in the fiber-arts and crafts area it would be difficult to choose the most popular item, but if put on the spot we would say the deepest color-grown colors in the Pakucho Organic Cotton Yarn like, including the Deep Green and the Rich Cinnamon Chocolate. We design so many things around these colors including our Mission Arts and Crafts Qoperfina Nature Series. It still amazes us that such colors grow naturally on a tree. A tree that needs very little water!
What makes your business green?
100-percent recycled, fairly traded glass buttons.
Stephanie: The most important aspect of our little company is the green aspect. Without it we would not be here. This includes using 100-percent post-consumer-waste paper and packaging. We never use petroleum-plastic or corn-plastic of any kind. We only use sustainable biodegradable cellulose for clear packaging. We are constantly researching better ways to do things and we never cut corners.
Everything that we offer is Fair Trade, organic, and recycled. If anything that we want to offer does not fit these categories we will not even consider it. We make sure that everything we offer has the best carbon footprint as well. We never offer GMO or rayonized fibers (typically bamboo, corn and soy), products, or packaging of any sort. It is unfortunate how many things are labeled “vegetable-based” and “natural”, even though they are made with GMO material and/or in a caustic manner.
We chose to offer only organic cotton and hemp because they are the least-processed fibers available. We do not offer recycled fibers based on the harsh reprocessing and the source of the fibers. “Recycled” can mean many things and if the details about the source and the process are not fully disclosed or distorted then we do not offer it. We require green transparency at all times.
Most of our yarn and fiber comes from Peru, and our recycled glass items come from suppliers in Africa, who certify their items as Fair Trade. This is very important to us that the artisans make more than a fair wage and that children are not exploited in the name of higher profit.
We constantly explore local options made in the US for everything we offer, but to date organic cotton yarn and the processing facilities in this country do not exist to the high standards found currently in Peru. Even if there were certified processing in the US, which there is not, the carbon footprint from Peru to LA is better than what it would take for a finished yarn here. We are always hoping this will change sometime in the future.
We are also a vegan-based company, with a few exceptions. We know how important this can be for the planet and pride ourselves on making as many vegan options available as possible. My partner and I also hand-make recycled wood buttons, shawl pins, and purse handles with recycled wood mainly found locally and in the US. We support The Organic Consumer’s Association, Carbonfund and many other green action organizations that help fight for and protect the environment.
What did you do before you started your own green business?
Stephanie: We owned a local Los Angeles based knit shop that my grandmother started in the 1950s.
I became an organic vegan about six years ago for health, animal rights, and environmental issues. I felt that our business needed to follow suit. That is when Ecobutterfly became a reality.
How did you pick your name?
Stephanie: I wanted our business name to reflect a blend of green practices and nature, just as we mix nature-themed design in with our original knitted patterns. I have always loved butterflies, specifically the Monarch, so it just fell into place. The truly funny thing is our logo. It used to be a typical orange Monarch, but our printer malfunctioned one day and turned the butterfly partially green, just like you see it now. We loved it so much that we have used it ever since.
It also turned out that shortly after we took the name, Ecobutterfly, we discovered that the Monarch Butterfly was on its way to extinction, because their food source (milkweed) was being dusted by pollen from crops of GMO corn and soy that the milkweed bordered on. When the butterflies migrate, they eat the pollen-dusted milkweed, which interferes with the Monarch’s reproduction cycle. If their breeding cycle ends, then the Monarch has very little hope of survival. Losing that kind of natural beauty to GMO destruction is what motivates us every day.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Stephanie: One of the biggest challenges for us has been trying to find the goods and services that we need to produce a truly eco product. Products and services from other companies that measure up to the standards we insist on are sometimes difficult to find. We spend countless hours on the phone verifying processes and certifications, with emails and faxes flying around, and then often, in the end, we have to get companies to custom-make items for us anyway. We try to consider the full spectrum of what makes a product green, and that’s a big job. How is the yarn processed? Will the dye house consider using a better ingredient to get the same color or a vegan color? What percent post-consumer-waste are the tags and shipping boxes? Can we get that up to 100 percent? Even the tape we use on our shipping boxes is made of wood pulp cellulose and fully biodegradable. Ideally, we’d like everything we use to be organic, sustainable, Fair Trade, and completely eco-friendly but often-times we have to choose the “better way” because the “best way” simply doesn’t exist yet. There’s still a lot of room for expansion in the eco-world.
What are your proudests moments as a green business owner?
Stephanie: That’s easy. When we get a letter of support and appreciation from a person who has seen our Web site and FAQ and uses all the information we provide to do their own research in areas that they never knew about before. They take their own journey from the spark of our focus. A company can’t be successful selling products that people don’t want. The more information the people get, the more we find them embracing the eco-ethic and, as it becomes more real and important to them, they start asking better questions and really digging deeper. One company isn’t going to save the world. It has to take place in the consciousness of the people as individuals, over and over, one at a time until the ideas eventually just become part of the way we think as a society. That’s what makes our investment worth it. It’s that simple. It really makes us proud of what we have accomplished in such a short time.
What’s the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Stephanie: We began with a green vision that has improved over time. When you first start out you have so many ideas that you don’t know how to implement them all. Time and experience helped us to realize the path we are on now.
The hopeful sign that we see in the green economy are the questions people are asking. They are getting much more detailed and I think when you have chance to help answer those questions you can really open up new possibilities to that person. We just love being able give people the gift of information.
What advice do you have for green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Stephanie: When you start out with no wholesale experience, especially when dealing with international companies, it can be an eye opening experience in both good and bad ways. Language can be a barrier, but improves over time. Since we expect a certain quality in a product, you have to make sure that every detail is covered or you will be inevitably disappointed. And even with everything covered you truly never know what issues will pop up once the product arrives. There can be no control over everything, and unless a vendor is willing and agrees to make things right if something goes wrong you will have little control and suffer losses over time. The longer you have a relationship with a company the better it gets. It just takes time. We just wish that we had been properly prepared for the hard work and the stress that can accompany the process from the beginning, but we have to believe that it is all worth it. Just be prepared for anything and everything is our best advice.
Another issue is that finding products and services that are both Fair Trade and green in terms of their carbon footprint can be very challenging. We support Fair Trade and feel very strongly about the wages and well being of the artisans we employ. Unfortunately, we’ve found that some in the Fair Trade community would prefer that we source only from certain Fair Trade businesses — even if that business is non-organic and located halfway around the world, and even if we already have a local supplier of the same item. You should not have to make that kind of sacrifice. Never be convinced of anything that does not ring true. Working by the light of your own principles is what we found works the best.
What are you most excited about for the future?
Hand-made “eco row counter ” bracelet with organic cotton cording and fairly traded beads.
Stephanie: I am a designer by nature. So many ideas go through my head that the creativity always continues to overflow. I am in the middle of adding a nature series jewelry line that includes all organic, recycled, vintage, and antique elements. The idea was an extension of our popular handmade eco row counter bracelet and kits. It took about two years to put all the elements in place, but the journey was worth the effort.
We are also planning to make our work place completely solar in the near future. With solar becoming more within affordable reach for the small business we can consider that leap. And we also plan on certifying some of our fibers/yarns to GOTS as well. All three projects are very exciting for us.
What green product or service could you not live without?
Stephanie: Bragg’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar. Not an easy question since our list is so long.