You never know where your interests will lead you--just ask Kyle Smitley, founder of Barley and Birch, makers of "unabashedly organic, planet-saving clothes."
After college, Kyle, 26, ended up interning in Washington, D.C. and consulting on the side for a boutique. In the process she learned a few unsavory things about the clothing industry.
"A lot of people in the apparel industry were lying about chemicals they were using," she said. "For example, they would say this is an organic one piece, but what they didn't say is that it was dyed using heavy metals and produced in a sweatshop in India."
A former environmental science major, Kyle saw an opportunity to simply make clothes that didn't hurt people--not the people wearing them and not the people making them.
"I saw a really big niche in the market for a brand that had really, really high standards," she said. "We could be a good brand that shows you can do things the right way and make a high quality product and use the profits for good."
So she started Barley and Birch in 2009, named for the barley field behind her childhood home and the birch tree in front of it. After being turned down from multiple banks based on her age and inexperience, she got a loan from microlender ACCION San Diego, Kyle got her venture for socially conscious, planet-friendly kids clothing off the ground.
Not only does the company donate 15 percent of their profits to charitable organizations, but every part of the line is carbon neutral -- Barley and Birch offsets emissions created in production and shipping, as well as working with manufacturers and suppliers who depend mainly on solar energy.
"We do a basket approach," Kyle said of their environmental concerns. "Everything from donating to companies that are planting trees, to solar and wind power, to investing in renewable energy."
And the onesies (adorned with quirky images of chameleons, acorns, cacti and more) are made with organic cotton and water-based inks, so that children don't wear potentially harmful chemicals on their skin. The company further commits to its mission by producing every piece of clothing domestically.
"All of the pieces are from cotton in North Carolina, milled in North Carolina, sewed in North Carolina, dyed and printed in North Carolina," she said "A lot of that is based in our environmental concerns with shipping, but for the most part it's based on human rights standards."
Much of Kyle's global human rights focus grew out of her experiences spending time in Haiti in high school and El Salvador in college.
"I slept on a hammock and woke with scorpions crawling on me--you served the community for whatever community projects they needed you to do," she said of her time in El Salvador. "We were living with them, we got to see from their perspective what their life was like."
And her time in Haiti had just as much of an impact on her philosophy. "I think it kind of put a permanent goal in me to work towards a really solid level of global equality," she said. "By that I just mean it really really hit home that based on where youre born your life is going to be so different."
Kyle never planned to get involved in the clothing industry when she started Barley and Birch--she had an eye towards law school, which she currently attends in hopes of becoming a pro-bono attorney. Her lack of experience hasn't stopped her drive for the company to excel.
"My all time hero is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia [an environmentally minded clothing company]," she said. "He got into business the same way I did--he saw the ability to make a good quality product and then subsequently had to learn how to follow his intuition running a business. I did an okay job just following my gut."
Barley and Birch recently announced their own foundation, eponymously named, allowing them to accept contributions to donate to the causes they support. Their first project is a children's home in Haiti.
"My future goal for the brand is to keep expanding," Kyle said, and she hopes to launch a bedding and adult line soon. though she also wants to become a pro-bono immigration attorney. Her reason for this philosophy of giving is simple. "If you're making money you should be helping other people with it," she said.
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