Local Textile Veteran Jack Miller Finds New Niche in a Green World
By Lillia Callum-Penso • Staff writer • Greenville Online
Jack Miller doesn’t look like an environmental activist. The 51-year-old Greenville father of two wears worn polo shirts and khakis, he drinks diet soda, and he only recently began recycling on a regular basis.
But still, the veteran of the textile industry thinks he has the key to solving some of Earth’s woes and reviving local textiles at the same time.
After weathering almost 30 years in a difficult and shrinking textile industry, Miller could have found a new career path. Instead, he’s found a new path within his former career. Miller and his business partners – local textile alum Marshall Johnson of Spartanburg, Gilbert Patrick of North Carolina’s Patrick Yarns and Denver-based Jerry Wheeler, a 20-year veteran of manufacturing and sales – are going green. The four are pinning their hopes for the future on clothing made from organic cotton and recycled plastic bottles.
The four launched earthspun this past fall, and Miller and Wheeler also launched SustainTex six months ago, specifically focusing on sustainable medical industry apparel. The new ventures have changed the way Miller and Johnson look at a lot of things, particularly their household trash “Since I’ve been involved in this business I haven’t thrown a single plastic bottle in a trashcan,” Johnson says, chuckling a bit. “It could be our shirt later.”
Sales of organic apparel grew by 16.1 percent last year, making it a $605 million industry, according to the Organ icTrade Association. That’s a huge change from a decade ago, says Sarah Marquardt, organic fiber spokeswoman for OTA.
“Organic has gone from hippie to hip,” Marquardt says. “Look at Stella McCartney or H&M, Benetton. They’re coming out with much more on-trend items and that’s exciting.”
SustainTex produces MantraMeds, a line of scrubs made from organic cotton and recycled polyester. In September, earthspun began producing a line of eco-tees made from recycled cotton and recycled polyester from post-consumer plastic bottles, used xray film and industrial waste.
The scrubs and the shirts are almost entirely sourced and produced in the Carolinas . The recycled polyester is processed in the Carolinas; the recycled cotton is from waste from Carolina mills. Spinning is at Patrick Yarns in Kings Mountain , N.C. ; the fabric is made in Central.
The T-shirts – which retail at $22 – are a ssembled at a Central American factory Johnson had worked with before, but the partners eventually would like to bring that component to the U.S. as well. The very local quality of the garments means not only a smaller eco footprint, but greater transparency of the production process, which is becoming more important as consumers grow more aware.
“If it’s made in the USA , particularly organic cotton, I know it didn’t travel around the world, I know it has organic cotton in it, I know it has recycled polyester in it because I trust the supply chain and I can check the supply chain,” Miller says of labeling. “I know the people got paid fair wages. I know the people that made it and I know environmentally, the discharge of water, air, from that facility would be within state and local compliance. I know I’m putting my dollars back in the community.”
A product that carries the organic label follows stringent guidelines set by the OrganicTrade Association. Fabrics must have at least 70 percent organic fiber content. Guidelines also specify how waste water is treated and that dyes and processing must be chemical free.
The earthspun apparel colors – green, blue, brown and gray— come from the actual recycled materials, eliminating the need for dyes.
But eco clothing doesn’t have the look you might expect. Far from plastic or utilitarian, the eco clothing the two companies produce is high performance, sustainable and even stylish. And that’s the point, Miller says. New technology has made green not just cost effective but functional and appealing to wear.
Eco clothing is not an entirely new concept. Patagonia began using polyester from recycled post- consumer plastic soda bottles in 1993. Since then, the outdoor apparel company has expanded the number of products made from the material, and other companies like Nike, Gap and even Wal-M art have followed suit.
“I’d say it’s a niche that’s growing more rapidly than any other part of the apparel sector,” Marquardt says of the green textile industry’s 40 percent average annual global growth rate.
For Miller and Johnson, the awareness came once they saw the connection between Earth-friendly practices and domestic business.
“I think my passion is more for domestic manufacturing than it is for environmental,” Miller says. “But I think they go hand in hand, in that American manufacturers overall do a fantastic job of manufacturing in an environmental way and a social way and an economic way.
“You can’t waste energy and still be in business; you can’t waste water and still be in business,” he says. “Do I drive a Prius? No.”
Miller admits, though, that being in the Earthfriendly textile business has made him a lot more aware.
The partners are hoping to build off of the growing swell surrounding the l ocal food and green building movements.
“Twenty years ago few people put solar on,” Wheeler says. “I see a future where I think manufacturing in general is done in an environmentally friendly way especially in textiles but it may not be termedas green. Maybe20 years from now it may not be seen as green, but just be good manufacturing.”
“I know I’m putting my dollars back in the community.”
— JACK MILLER of earthspun apparel