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October 18, 2007

Coral Rose: What She Started at Wal Mart, She’s taking to the Retail Streets

Coral_rose_bamboo As an end cap to this week’s Wal Mart stories, I was able to E-nterview Coral Rose while she was on her way to participate in the Sustainable Cotton Project farm tour in Central California. She is the founder of Eco-Innovations, a Sustainable Textiles Service Organization based in Fayetteville, AR. Coral was at the Organic Exchange table last week, passionately explaining to everyone she could about the life cycle of cotton from seed to shelf. Cotton is considered a food product by the USDA until it leaves the cotton gin and cottonseed oil is found in many foods we eat. Who knew?

Coral is a promoter of all things organic and sustainable – for decades. In 2004, six months before Wal Mart decided to go Sustainable; she had ordered the 100% cotton yoga outfits that became the flash point for Wal Mart’s Sustainable product direction. (190,000 outfits sold out in 10 weeks) At the time, Coral was a Senior Buyer for Sam’s Club. She has since left Wal Mart to support the industry; Top Brands and Retailers with educational workshops and strategic sustainable fiber planning, execution and implementation. It’s another example of how what happens at Wal Mart during this transformation, doesn’t stay at Wal Mart – it spreads to other companies. It’s also an example of one woman’s greater mission to be “Climate Change Agent.” Thank you Coral!

Q: What’s the #1 thing business needs to know about this emerging organic cotton market?

Well, it’s not just about organic cotton, that was and is a great place to start. It is about all fibers and textile products becoming more sustainable as well as sustainable agriculture in totality. That includes considering all inputs and outputs to the farming systems. The great thing about the organic cotton supply chain model is that it takes you to the source, the seed, the farmer—that value chain model is applicable to all products. This value chain model is the supply chain model of the 21st Century.

Part of this process is that we have to transition from an economic based model to one that is inclusive of environmental and social issues, they are all part of the same conversation—you cannot have one without the other—to be totally congruent you must speak of them in one conversation. (Paul Hawkens new book; Blessed Unrest covers this point well.)

As far as shopping--people shop by item, organic and sustainable attributes are the value add, and will give companies, if strategically implemented, the competitive edge.

As citizens become more aware of environmental and social issues facing us--lets face it with Al Gore and the IPCC being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week--they will start to 'seek out' companies that are 'doing good', these will be the companies that 'Lead' not 'Compete' in the 21st century.

Eventually as the population increases and natural resources are squeezed even tighter, Sustainability will become a normal part of business, not optional like it is now.

Q: Since you launched the now famous organic yoga outfit that catapulted Sam’s Club and Wal Mart into becoming a Sustainable Business Model, how has the sale of organics cotton increased? What does that mean in Co2 saved or fertilizer not used…?

This is common knowledge in the fiber market and is information that has been publicly addressed. During my tenure in the first eighteen months, we at Sam’s Club, purchased about six million units of organic cotton or six million pounds, that saved, roughly 2 million pounds of chemicals from the environment, [for every 3 pounds of cotton, that’s 1 pound of pesticides folks] Please note that this is based on a global number and that the US cotton industry has made tremendous improvements with the aid of technology based systems and integrated pest management practices.

Wal-Mart went on to purchase ten million pounds in 2005 as their entry to market.

Our plan was always organic cotton as the entry to market because of its ability to be third party certified, then we would move to sustainable/better cotton and other fibers as they became a commodity that we could have a standard and certification to verify the authenticity of the claim. I had started developing other sustainable fibers and trims prior to my departure.

Q: You talk about Product Life Cycle Assessments and their importance to proving that even a T-shirt needs one. Could you explain why having a Life Cycle Assessment is so critical?

Not only will buyers have to know 'where' their fiber comes from, but country of origin for the fiber. This new supply chain model starts at the seed level.

The designer of the 21st Century will have to design from the perspective of the total lifecycle of a garment. This begins at the design stage, thinking not only of the dyes, finishes and trims, transportation, but the care of the garment-how often and how will the customer launder it, to the end of its life preferably to be upcycled into something new, or biodegradable. Recycling will not be an option in the future, we need to take the word 'recycle' out of the dictionary and replace it with upcycling and downcycling

In essence the designer of the 21st Century will need to calculate the carbon footprint of their designs as a first step in their design thinking, not as an after thought.

Educational institutions are already taking action, revising curriculum in all disciplines.  I am a member of the University of Delaware’s board of advisors, they are offering the first graduate program in Socially Responsible and Sustainable Apparel.

Q: What suggestions to you have for companies who want to educate their customers, quickly?

First and foremost this is NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL…..this is a new way of doing business. A complete paradigm shift, a simple definition is that a paradigm shift is a change from one way of thinking to another, and you know how people resist change!!!!

This can be a daunting and complex task, it can be overwhelming to the ‘gatekeeper’ or champion in a company. Much of it is unfamiliar territory.

Andrew Winston co-author of Green to Gold sums this up perfectly; “No single strategy or tool will work in all companies or all circumstances”

Until there is a universally accepted-certified standard for “sustainable fibers/apparel” Your Company will have to define what that means to you and your customer. In other words you must have a sustainable fiber strategy that is an integral part of your overall sustainability or eco-strategy.

I believe in taking these initial steps on the journey;

1.) Awareness
2.) Education
3.) Strategy
4.) Action---

Right now in the market we have organizations, brands and retailers moving from awareness to action, without the education and strategy--they are not building lasting stakeholder value-and could affect the credibility of the brand.

Bottom line; Fiber strategies must be a part of the bigger sustainability initiative in your organization; otherwise your organization will lack the credibility in the marketplace. You must build strategic plans that are sustainable. I would advise you to seek out and partner with resources in the market (NGO’s, non-profits) that is what we did at Sam’s and Wal-Mart. There are organizations such as Organic Trade Association and Organic Exchange as well as my company that can support you in unraveling the complexity of this new business model.

Coral Rose is the founder of Eco-Innovations Sustainable Textile Services. She is a widely recognized agent of change with over twenty years experience, including senior management positions in merchandising and product development and sustainable textile product development for major retail corporations. Contact her at Coral@eco-textiles.com

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