This article was originally featured on Fast Company, and is written by Adele Peters.
It isn’t that hard to find an organic cotton T-shirt or even a pair of organic cotton jeans. It’s slightly harder to find organic clothing designed for business meetings (if you work in a place where you can’t wear your T-shirt to a meeting).
When two Yale School of Management grads decided to launch a clothing startup, their motivation was their own closets.
“We’d get dressed for work in the morning, and be frustrated that there weren’t great sustainable alternatives we could wear Monday to Friday to the office,” says Amanda Rinderle, one of the co-founders of Tuckerman, a company that now makes sustainable, preppy button-downs. “We had Patagonia on the weekend, and not much in similar options for during the week.”
The pair talked to hundreds of fabric mills, and finally found one in Italy that would weave them a high-quality organic fabric they could turn into dress shirts. They wanted to make something that would last. “The quality of the fabric was a really big selling point,” says co-founder Jonas Clark. “If it’s poor quality and starts to fall apart in a couple years, there’s nothing really sustainable about that.”
They looked at every detail—down to buttons that are made from nuts instead of plastic—and then found a factory to work with nearby in Fall River, Massachusetts, a city that used to be the heart of the American textile industry before manufacturing moved to Asia.
It’s much more expensive than sewing the shirts in China. “[The labor is] so much bigger than the premium for organic,” says Rinderle. Compared to a buttondown shirt from Everlane—a company that lists labor costs on their website ($6.30)—labor costs roughly five times as much at the Massachusetts factory.
“The factory pays above minimum wage, it’s a union shop, they pay health care for their workers,” says Clark. “It’s more expensive for a reason, and a lot of the reasons are really good ones. It’s not like you’re paying a higher premium just because.”
The final price of the clothing—$145—is similar to (or even cheaper than) other men’s dress shirts. The startup worked to design something that could compete on quality, knowing that sustainability alone wouldn’t necessarily be enough to make sales.
“The sustainability is really what drives us, but I think we realized early on that if we weren’t making a super high-quality product that people love, that it wouldn’t go anywhere,” Rinderle says. “So we’ve been really focused on kind of nailing the product, making sure it’s something that can stand on its own regardless of what it’s made from or how it’s made.”
They’re planning to slowly expand the line, and soon hope to add women’s clothing. Eventually, the dream is to grow the startup to compete with the biggest clothing brands.
“We’d like to see a large, mainstream, mission-driven clothing company,” says Clark. “I think it’s going to happen. I think that’s where customers are taking us. But I think it’s more likely to come from a smaller company that commits to the vision and scales that vision as they grow.”