Four years ago Marti Markus and Ellen Gavin were fed up with buying clothes made in sweatshops and decided to open a fair trade boutique. But when the friends began to research the garment industry, they discovered it was one of the dirtiest polluters on the planet. So when the women opened Birch Clothing in Minneapolis in 2005, the store’s mission was twofold; to provide the community with clothing made in fair conditions and produced in a way that was gentle on the earth.
After four years in business, staying true to the Birch mission has never been easier or more attractive.
Markus, who does the bulk of the buying for Birch, says the number of premium clothing brands featuring sustainable fabrics and fair production practices has exploded in recent years. Birch now carries clothes and accessories from over 60 different vendors, including brands from as far away as South America and Great Britain. But, she says the bulk of their inventory is made the US, including products from the Twin Cities.
Birch carries hats and scarves made from organic cotton designed by Minneapolis-based Sassy Knitwear. Eagan-based Relan makes lunch bags, totes and purses out of repurposed billboards. Markus sees repurposing as a necessary step in achieving sustainability and stocks many products and accessories enjoying a “second life.”
Purses made from silver pop tabs layered together like delicate chainmail are the product of a Brazilian cooperative. There are messenger bags made out of bike inner tubes, earrings made from truck tires and wallets by a Twin Cities artist who sews them from thrift store ties.
All the clothes at Birch are made with sustainable fabrics, including organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, silk and tencel. Organic cotton and hemp are grown without pesticides; conventionally grown cotton uses up to a quarter pound of pesticides to produce enough cotton for one t-shirt, according to Markus. Bamboo grows quickly and without pesticides, while tencel is a material made of wood pulp that is similar to rayon, but far cleaner to produce.
But even in this house of fashion idealism, beauty reigns supreme. “That’s always been kind of our bottom line,” says Markus. “It has to be beautiful and a lot of it is and a lot more so in the past four years.”
Conscientious shoppers can now find Birch clothes in two new locations. In September the store opened two “mini-stores” inside Kowalski’s Markets in Woodbury and Oak Heights Park.