NEW YORK (JTA) – It’s easy being green when there’s plenty of cash floating around. Environmental causes tend to be minimally controversial, and all kinds of businesses feel good about supporting tree-planting, community gardens, children’s environmental education and the like.
But what happens when the economy tanks? Usually funding for green programs dries up until the next bull market. But 2009 is different. The scope of our environmental problems is huge, and some of the solutions can come only from the business world. Being planet friendly is no longer just about doing good for the birds and the bunnies, it’s about saving humanity’s future — and making some cash, too, as these four Jewish ecopreneurs can attest.
ADAM BARUCHOWITZ, WEARABLE COLLECTIONS
Adam Baruchowitz, founder and CEO of Wearable Collections, takes something that most of us give away — our old clothes — and not only keeps them useful by finding a new home for them, but simultaneously helps needy organizations raise funds.
"Our main focus is the New York City area, where we place bins inside of residential buildings to make it as easy to recycle clothing and textiles as it is to recycle cans, paper and bottles," Adam says.
On top of keeping more than 800,000 pounds of clothes from landfills, when those who participate in the program know where their old clothes are going — for resale in South America, to be recycled into other textiles and to create rags — they become more invested and knowledgeable about reuse.
Wearable Collections is not a nonprofit but works with nonprofits as a partner.
“The idea of tzedakah and charity has always held a special place in my heart," Adam says, "and I am very proud that we have come up with a business model that enables us to raise funds for many charitable organizations.”
Adam is also the business director for Heeb Magazine, so Wearable Collections is a labor of love as well his business. Why is he so driven?
“One of the main reasons I got involved in this is that one of my partners was hit by a car in 2000 and left paralyzed from his chest down. From that moment I have been involved in raising money for spinal cord research," says Adam, who adds that the company is doing well so far, despite the economy.
Old clothes are not the first place many would think to look for profit.
Adam explains: “My grandfather spent most his life in New York City’s garment industry, and I grew up selling some of his products with my mom at various flea markets. Sometimes I am surprised myself to find that I am knee deep in the shmatta industry; what could be more Jewish than that!"
RON GONEN, RECYCLEBANK
One of the major arguments against recycling has been that it’s too costly, despite the environmental benefits. Some even say it is fiscally irresponsible to recycle, notably New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who suspended recycling in the city in a decision that was later reversed.
Ron Gonen, co-founder and CEO of Recyclebank, is proving that concept is not only wrong in terms of planetary health, but economically, too. Ron’s company subcontracts with existing haulers and collects recycling in special bins that record what’s inside. There’s no sorting of recyclables into different bags or bins — it’s single stream — and each household gets its own online account to keep track of how much and what’s been recycled. And here’s the great part: credits are earned for recycling that can be redeemed at national and local retailers.
So how can municipalities afford this program, especially in tough economic times when the price for many recyclables are at an all-time low?
"These days, it’s expensive for a city to send garbage to a landfill, so haulers see our program as a value-add," Ron says. "The value here is not in the revenue you generate, but not having to pay to dispose of it. That’s what’s been missed by most people when they think about recycling."
From just five cities, Recyclebank will have expanded into18 states by the end of the first quarter of 2009.
"We’ve had a great response," Ron says. "We service cities, wealthy suburbs and some of the poorest communities in America, and there’s positive responses from all of them. All people appreciate value."
Recyclebank members can also see how many trees and how much global warming-spewing energy they’re saving through recycling, so the direct impact of household waste can be easily seen (http://recyclebank.com/recycling).
Ron has created a company that combines his interests in social policy, environmental responsibility and business, but he got his chops in the business world first. He cites his Israeli side as giving him an "entrepreneurial, ‘anything is possible’ spirit. But it was his mother — and his Judaism — that pushed him toward making money while doing good.
"I was raised by a single mom in Philly; she really stressed the importance of giving back in life," Ron says. "And my Judaism has given me an appreciation for giving and the importance of community."
KATE GOLDWATER, AUH2O
Kate Goldwater credits the success of her 2 1/2-year-old boutique, where she sells her own creations, to "connections, connections, connections." Fashion design and boutiquery are notoriously cutthroat industries, and Kate says she has survived and flourished by getting a little help from her friends.
"I asked friends who were in business school for assistance with my business plan, law student friends for legal advice, I got journalism student friends to write about my store and handy friends to help me build and drill," she says. "My designer friends knew where to get cheap mannequins, and a friend that worked in retail sold me a second-hand cash register. People are pretty excited to help someone fulfill their dreams."
AuH2O — chemistry-class shorthand for Kate’s last name — is a small space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan packed with upcycled clothing made by Kate on site (so no worries about sweatshop labor). She uses existing material, usually old clothes, to create new designs, including dresses, skirts and tops for girls and shirts and ties (some made from recycled credit cards) for men.
But why not follow the traditional fashion designer route? A combination of creativity and passion for social justice led her to forge her own path.
"By about middle school I decided that i wanted to express my creativity with my appearance," Kate says. "I pierced my thumb nails, drew magic marker tattoos all over my body, and wrapped my hair in yarn and rubber bands. When I got a bit older I was a part of my school’s ‘global action’ and ‘students against social apathy’ clubs. I wrote a piece for our high school paper about how we should avoid buying new clothes altogether and only shop at thrift stores to take a stand against sweatshop labor. Making recycled clothing was my passion at a pretty young age."
While she was actively involved in a number of causes in college, including NARAL pro-choice NY and the Jewish Woman’s Archive in Boston, Kate says she found working at a desk job "capital B Boring" as much as she supported the causes.
"I needed to be doing something creative," Kate says.
Most recently she combined her political zeal with her creative and business sides during the Obama campaign, raising hundreds of dollars with a series of one-off T shirts and dresses emblazoned with Obama designs and three fashion shows.
"I design clothes for others like me: people who are unique, want to express their creativity, have strong political convictions and want to wear clothing that gives that first impression," Kate says.
ADAM NEIMAN, NO SWEAT APPAREL
Adam Nieman, CEO and co-founder of NoSweat Apparel, believes there is an intrinsic, natural connection between businesses who treat their workers well and solving environmental problems, which are rampant in the clothing industry. Water pollution from chemical dyes, energy-sucking production facilities and textile waste are issues that are only starting to be addressed by the industry, but Adam is working to keep his factories green and worker friendly.
“There’s an intimate connection between the exploitation of humans and the exploitation of nature," Adam says. "It’s simple: If humans are being exploited, are starving, they’re not going to worry about the spotted owl or global warming.”
Adam says he’s always been a political person, especially interested in labor issues, and that directly translates into the way he does business. No Sweat Apparel sells children’s, men’s and women’s casual clothing and outerwear that are all union-made, many from organic fabrics.
So why is his clothing company keeping its head above water while other retailers are collapsing in the current economy?
“I realized an entire generation that’s coming up now has been learning about sweatshop labor because teachers realize that they can teach the kids about geography, history, ethics and business in the context of what kids were already thinking about — namely their own clothes," Adam says. "The new generation is going to want to see changes to the traditional ways of doing business.”
The interest in rightly made clothing is growing and will continue to do so, he says.
No Sweat Apparel’s newest product is the “Organic Bethlehem World of Love” T shirt, which is made from organic cotton and is produced at a sweatshop-free Palestinian-owned factory in the West Bank. It has received attention from The New York Times, the Boston Globe, NPR and a host of other media outlets.
Adam’s viewpoint on good stewardship of planet and fair treatment of people is hardly a new idea.
"Loving your neighbor as yourself is one of the cornerstones of the Torah, and that absolutely extends to how you would treat your workers and also how you treat the environment," Adam says. "The first labor laws recorded in history are in the Torah.”
(Starre Vartan is the web editor for Greenopia and author of "The Eco Chick Guide to Life.")