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Is Green the Color of Money?

Going green? Turning away from browned out technology in order to allow our natural resources to be in the pink? If all these colors have you seeing red, it might be time to review.

For the uniform industry to maintain itself, it has to dedicate its focus to a few steadfast principles: economy, durability, longevity, practicality and attractive appearance. As things currently stand, few to none of these aspects that are so necessary in a top-notch uniform are real possibilities in an organic garment. Perhaps they will be accessible one day, but for now, there is a choice to be made between the two.

Let’s take economy. The cost of organic fibers is anywhere from two to four times greater than standard fabrics. For virgin plants, there have to be customized agricultural procedures, such as insect prevention without using pesticides, or isolated fields that don’t utilize chemically protective measures. At this point in time, these limited methods of growth and harvest are minimal in scope compared to standard horticultural techniques; thus, they are enormously expensive. That’s a tough sell in the marketplace.

Plants are being processed that heretofore were not used for fabrics corn and bamboo for example which take enormous amounts of costly dilution in order to become useable as woven fibers. Imagine that folks are now craving to wear garments made out of what has either been eaten as food and used as fuel or sturdy enough to build houses, bridges and flooring. It’s a great idea, but the conversion procedures are neither cheap, nor easy, nor as environmentally friendly as one would think.

Most of the organics come in very neutral tones, and in order to dye them (are we insisting on organic dyes, which themselves are limited and add up monetarily?) we’re again limited in overall palette selection. Every time we want to dye organic goods, it’s an additional process with specialized chemistry. The dollar signs increase, and the customer has to make choices. You can purchase a fine set of organic scrubs in neutral tones of ivory and olive for just $80, or a typical poly/cotton set in the colors of your choice for $24. Who can afford that difference?

Durability and longevity are critical in the uniform industry. It’s vital that garments last as long as possible before replacement. There are several really attractive fabrics in the organics: knits, charmeuses, silks, corduroys, open weaves, to name a few. For garments like T-shirts, blouses, jackets and diapers that need these kinds of materials, organics are terrific. But by and large, the uniform business is not made up of such commodities, whereas the more seasonal, quixotic and short-lived fashion industry is.

Rather, sturdy uniforms that are built to be cool, inexpensive and last over time with as little care as possible are what is required. With the exception of the jutes and burlaps, it’s going to be difficult to find an organic weave that is as strong as it is long lasting. And just between us, who wants to wear apparel made of burlap?

Hemp is a very durable fiber, but the weave can be loose, and it doesn’t hold. It’s more gauze-like. Tencel wrinkles and stains like crazy. Cotton has never been strong, and denim wears out quickly just look at any pair of blue jeans at the knees. While it’s true that organic T-shirts for restaurants or organic smocks for spas would be perfect choices, the overall tenacity of the garments just isn’t there.

The practicality of organics in the uniform industry is probably the most important issue of all. Populations have come upon technology in garment manufacturing only during the last 60 to 100 years, depending upon one’s point of view. Before that, there were no polyesters, no fabric treatments, no blends. There were no special soaps, dyes or chemicals.

While it’s true that there was ignorance about the prevalence of existing metals, such as lead or mercury, it really wasn’t until the 20th century that things stopped being “organic” in the first place. The simple reason for the infusion of chemistry into our lives was that advancing technology was able to make our world easier and more comfortable by treating fabrics in such ways as to give them greater strength. Before that, women stayed home and scrubbed on their washboards, mended if there was a hole and ironed after the clothes had dried on the line outside. People had lower expectations and often were just grateful to have anything clean to wear at all.

Today, when we ask for wicking, we are seeking greater comfort for ourselves. Technology is responsible for such a procedure. It’s not organic. Neither are soil-resistant finishes or wrinkle-free or permanent press treatments. Better forget about water-repellent rain coats, not to mention water proof. All of these stay-warm lightweight fabrics such as Gortex, they’re o-u-t. The nylons, like Supplex? The stretches as in Spandex? Nope. Not those either. In fact, the entire recreational/sports world will have big problems going green, in spite of active wear soy pants or polar fleece sweatshirts made out of recycled bottles.

Finally, the appearance of a uniform is critical because it establishes the visual identity for the group it represents. It’s difficult to find organic fibers that have a crisp, snazzy appearance with vibrant and cheerful colors. Instead, most green garments appear limp, saggy, baggy and used. For many, this look will speak up and say, “Look at me! I’m green!” For others, it will be a costly reminder of all things dull, drab and impractical. It will be very interesting to see where the trend takes us, but rest assured, those who are in the forefront of this new organic hype will make a fortune either way.

Debra Hindlemann Webster is the owner of Custom Uniform Co., a manufacturer of high-quality, American-made custom uniforms. The company has been serving individuals, groups, theme parks, corporations, offices, military, hospitality, entertainment centers and many other businesses with unique custom apparel for more than 70 years. Visit www.customuniformcompany.com or email customuniformco@earthlink.com to learn more.

Above story first appeared in MADE TO MEASURE Magazine, Fall & Winter 2008 issue. All rights reserved. Photos appear by special permission.
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