Swain Ties Ecology Business

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Marta Swain, owner of Hemp Goods Etc., an Eastown apparel shop, believes Nature ought to be a line item in every corporate budget.

A native of Grand Rapids, Swain spent 20 years in environmental education as director of Interplay, an educational counseling and workshop service she created in 1980 while living on Nantucket Island.

As a freelance educator/consultant, she designed educational programs that used inquiry, observation and interpretation to focus on nature and man’s interplay with and interdependency upon it.

“I was interested in how people saw themselves and nature and relationships and community. I wanted to effectively provide education that would improve the quality of life and involve people in improving the quality of life,” she recalls.

She taught all over, from Okinawa, Japan, to the British Virgin Islands, to every corner of the United States.

Her clients comprised a wide range of institutions, from public and private schools to businesses and non-profits, from the Art Institute of Chicago to Progressive Engineering. Her client list, she said, was “single spaced, eight pages long.”

Her workshops covered topics such as land use, water quality, air quality and bio-diversity. A workshop she designed for the White Fish Point Bird Observatory, for example, looked at land use from the perspective of neotropical migratory birds.

Her work brought her into contact with people of all ages and from all walks of life. And from that eclectic group of people, she said, “I learned as much as I taught.”

Swain said she never had the least bit of interest in the business of fashion or retail. Her inspiration for the apparel store actually sprang from a book about sustainable businesses by Paul Hawken, titled The Ecology of Commerce (HarperCollins 1993).

Hawken, who became an environmental consultant to big business, is known as one of the leading architects and proponents of corporate reform with respect to ecological practices.

“I got so excited,” she recalled. “Everything I had already learned and was practicing I saw was absolutely applicable to business.”

She did some research on sustainable businesses and on the fiber crop known as hemp, which produces one of the world’s oldest, strongest, most durable natural fibers that can be used in the production of paper, textiles, medicine, oil, food, building materials, rope, twine and other products.

“The oldest relic of human history is a piece of hemp,” Swain observed. “Hemp is a fiber that’s highly insulative, seasonally versatile and temperature versatile. It’s cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool.”

Unfortunately, she added, hemp the fiber crop has been seriously maligned through the years by the negative publicity given its cousin, hemp the drug crop.

Hemp fabric has “body, life and breathability,” she pointed out, and its production requires neither pesticides nor herbicides.

Swain visited a hemp manufacturer in Berkley, Calif., that carried a line of clothing called Two Star Dog, created by an award-winning fashion designer. She started a hemp apparel business from the basement of her home in rural northern Minnesota.

Her original investment was $400.

“I didn’t trade off any objectives, I just changed the means by which to meet those objectives,” she said. “What I’m doing here is the same as what I was doing before — helping people look at and see how personal, social and ecological well-being are aligned and how they can contribute to it.

“I wanted to affect change in this world and I had learned enough to know that business was how you do that — maybe more than anything. Business has a huge influence.”

In the early days of the business, she came from Minnesota to Grand Rapids four times to do private showings of the Two Star Dog line. Each time sales doubled, she recalled, and interest in hemp apparel spread simply by word of mouth. She reinvested every dollar into more product.

But it wasn’t just dollars that kept the business afloat, she said.

“We faced three challenges that could have wiped us out,” she recalled. “The part of this that isn’t about dollars is what pulled us through. It was the passion, commitment and belief in the product and customers’ belief in the product. Americans are learning about value from this little business venture.”

Her four Grand Rapids showings proved that people here appreciated the clothing as much as people in Minnesota, she recalled. Since she had more ties to Grand Rapids, she decided to set up shop here.

Swain opened the doors to Hemp Goods Etc. in Eastown three years ago this month.

She refers to the shop as a “beneficial boutique” because the clothing provides “health and well being” and the store only offers products manufactured by companies committed to socially and ecologically responsible practices.

Swain’s “other job” is serving as a sales rep in 12 Midwestern states for 16 lines of organic cotton and hemp. She also displays her wares annually at the Chicago Merchandise Mart.

“That’s another level of introducing it and reaching a critical mass with exposure to a product that they might want to choose,” she explained.

Today, her store houses among the largest, if not the largest, collection of high quality hemp and organic cotton apparel for men, women and children in the domestic United States, she said. Her collection includes woolen and tencel apparel, accessories and skin, hair and nail care products produced from hemp seed oil.

Two Star Dog is still the clothing line on which she bases her business today. Her collection has since evolved to include such lines as Blue Canoe organic cotton and hemp bodywear, Indigenous Designs sweaters and knitwear, Far Village hand-woven robes and shawls, Daughters and Sons infant, toddler and children’s wear, as well as specialty lines of hats, travel bags, boots, shoes and sandals.

She enjoys an eclectic mix of clientele.

“Eastown attracts people from all over who are looking for unique things, and now this shop attracts people who visit here from Atlanta, Seattle, Detroit, Cincinnati and Boston and as far away as France and China,” she added.

In three years, she’s moved three times to accommodate growth, from her original 350-square-foot shop to her present shop that has 1,000 square feet of display space alone.

She says her customers’ positive response to the products keeps her going and gives her energy.

For Swain, it’s all about “the thoughtful management of natural resources.” She likens the dollars generated by hemp and organic cotton apparel to “votes” for an environmentally sound and socially responsible lifestyle that supports Nature’s ecosystem.

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