Tell us a little bit about your background as a designer and your experiences in the textile industry that brought you up to the point of starting Harmony Art.
Thank you for having me on. It’s nice to be here. I went back to school to be a textile designer in 1998. I graduated in 1999 and immediately started working for Karen Newberger designing prints for pajamas. So I worked in house for her for a year and then I got a job offer to work freelance for a design firm doing a lot of home and bedding products. Bedding, bath, kitchen, that kind of thing. I worked for them for 4 years. We did a lot of designing for mass markets like Wal-Mart, Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, Linens & Things, Nordstrom, Mervyn’s. You name it, I’ve probably designed for it at some point in my life. Even when I had the job interview I had this feeling in the back of my mind, like, ‘how are things made?’ and ‘under what circumstances?’ The longer I worked there the more it sort of ate away at me. I had control over the design part, but I had no control over the production. In 2004, the company I was designing for, they were asking, ‘what is the next big thing?’ and ‘What market haven’t we tapped into?’ So I took that question to heart and I thought that thing was going to be the sustainability, or ‘green’ movement. And this was back in 2004. It’s hard to sort of rewind life and remember what it was like back then, but it really wasn’t on many peoples’ radar then.
Eventually I ended up leaving that company and started Harmony Art so that I could have full control over how things were made and under what circumstances. That was January 2005.
Harmony art has made it point to be certified organic and, when possible, made in the USA. First off give us an idea what it takes to be certified organic?
It depends on what product you’re asking about. I know obviously about textiles. An organic fruit or vegetable is certified by the USDA. And those same standards apply to cotton when it’s growing. It’s a farming standard. But, with fabrics, that’s half of the story. The other half is what you do with it after it’s grown and the processing of it. There are a lot of nasty chemicals that go into both sides. When I started Harmony Art in 2005, there were approximately 40 different ‘organic’ standards or Eco-fiber standards to choose from. And that was one of the first challenges… which one do you go with? There are no enforceable standards nationwide. Besides the growing of the cotton, the processing part was put on to the manufacturer. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 7 years. We now have the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) that have been adopted globally as a unifying standard defining what it means to be organic for processing. It addresses the ginning, the spinning, the weaving, the dyeing, the printing and the finishing. I knew that I didn’t want to take a nice, organic cotton and finish it with a formaldehyde. That wasn’t the point, the point was to make a healthy product. What I love about the GOTS, which put it ahead in my opinion of the other ones, is that it has a fair trade element to it. So it’s not only the product, it’s about the people. How are the people who are doing this, because as we all know textiles are notorious for exploiting people.mWe’ve all heard of sweatshops and the image it conjures up is people at sewing machines.
Now for the second challenge. What has the experience been like when trying to manufacture Harmony Art in the USA?
How do you define American Made?
Let’s hear Harmony Art’s perspective on that topic from the cotton being grown, woven to the cut & sew process in the USA. How has that same process changed over the last decade?
It’s an interesting thing. My understanding is that for a fabric to be considered ‘Made in the USA’ it boils down to where it is woven: where it is turned into fabric. Conceivably I can source organic fabric fiber from India, Pakistan, or wherever, but as long as I weave it or knit it here in the USA, I can technically call it a USA made fabric. Now, in my head, that’s not really true. It’s not American made, it’s partially American made. That’s what is so complex about the textile industry; it’s so global. So when we first picked our base fabric, because that was really the challenge, finding someone that could supply organic fabric and could print it in a thoughtful manner, that was a big hurdle. The amount of long-staple organic cotton grown in the United States is so small, we couldn’t source the cotton in the United States even if we wanted to. We wanted to, but we couldn’t. We had to go overseas to get the organic cotton. In fact, we went on a farm tour, and the only farmer growing the long-staple organic cotton ended up sending all of his cotton to what I believe was Switzerland. So even what little was available here, wasn’t staying here. It’s really this Nebula affect when it comes to textiles. It’s sort of hard to define. We have one fabric in our collections that’s 100% made in the USA. We have several that were printed in the USA with imported base fabric.
How has it changed? Well, one of our very, very first print runs we did in South Carolina. That printer has since closed. We were not happy with the quality. Frankly, it was kind of a nightmare. And we actually went to printing in India, not for price, we went there in search of quality. As a small textile designer we have a very thoughtful market. If I don’t have a high quality fabric, I don’t have a business. So we ended up doing most of our printing in India. There, we were actually able to source the long-Staple fiber, and they were able to print it. It became a vertical system that would get brought back into our warehouse in South Carolina.
I’ve recently started to try to work in two directions simultaneously. One is the GOTS Certified India because that’s where I can get GOTS Certified fabrics. To the best of my knowledge, I can’t even get GOTS certified fabric from the US, maybe because the factories don’t want to spend the money to get the certification. But I work with another US printer, doing text printing. But truthfully, I’m on a quest for the best US production partners. They elude me so far.
You have a very niche business which makes producing your entire collection in the USA difficult.
Yes. It has to have the whole package, or it’s not worth it. I did a survey of my customer base and asked them, “What’s most important to you, Made in the USA, cost, or quality?” I was shocked. I thought that I would have more Made in the USA, but it was actually lowest on the list. I think there is value on Made in the USA products on many levels, not the least of which is the carbon footprint. If my company is about being thoughtful, the more vertical I can be, the less the stuff is moving across the planet, the better. I keep trying to move in that direction. The textile mills that are still alive deal with big companies, typically. They get the big accounts and they just run those machines non-stop. Then when someone like me comes along, who’s small and I’m guessing they would consider me high-maintenance because I’m picky about what you’re going to print with and how you’re going to print it, and the inks you’re sourcing. “I don’t want that red, I want this red,” and “I want this certain ink to be used”, it’s almost like I’m being a nuisance, rather than someone they really want to make happy. If I could be fully vertical USA, I’d do it tomorrow. There are SO many pieces of the puzzle and so many of them don’t exist here. And if you’re missing a piece of the puzzle, what do you do?
What’s the most important factor for Harmony Art to be able to bring its manufacturing back to the USA?
I think that the stumbling block is open mindedness from manufacturing partners. Not to just be status quo and “I don’t fit that and I’m not going to bother with you,” but being more open-minded to different ways of business. Business is changing. Small businesses are having so much more opportunity because of internet access to so many other markets, it’s this stuck in your ways thing that is really hindering people from being able to get creative solutions locally. The other part that I think we need is consumer demand. If consumers demand it, I’m more likely to push for it, and I’m always looking. But the more I have a customer asking for ‘made in the USA’ the more energy I am willing to do the hard research, tracking down these people, hoping that they can get excited and behind doing something different. That’s really it. I think we have to do things differently not just doing it the way we have been.
There is a quote from Margaret Mead you have as the signature in your email. Do you mind sharing it?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Consumers have the ultimate power to change things with their wallet and where they put their money. You’ve given the example of Aerosol cans in the past, and when the government wouldn’t pass regulations the people took it in their own hands and just stopped buying aerosol cans. That led to companies to change their packaging. Another example is Styrofoam cups. There’s no reason we cannot do the same with buying ‘American-made’ products as well.
I’ll give you another one that I recently heard about along the same lines of the Aerosol. Dolphin-safe Tuna. Same scenario. As soon as consumers realized that Flipper was being killed for their tuna, they demanded it. They made a stink and things that had been talked about or regulated and debated were out the window and within record time, they found ways to have dolphin-safe tuna. Consumers are way more powerful than we ever realized.
Thanks so much, Harmony for taking the time to talk abour Harmony Art and the experiences it’s had with American manufacturing.
Thank you, Brian.