Marta Swain launched Clothing Matters in its first location in Eastown in 1998 before moving to its current East Hills location in 2007. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Two-plus decades ago, when the sustainability movement was cutting its teeth in Grand Rapids, a traveling educator read a book about the cotton industry that stopped her in her tracks.
Marta Swain said the book, “The Ecology of Commerce” by Paul Hawken, exposed cotton as a “heavily treated” fiber pumped with “hormone-disrupting” toxins that pollute waterways and cause diseases.
“One-third-pound of insecticide pollutes 700 gallons of water just in the growing process of producing one cotton T-shirt,” she said.
Swain — a founding member of Local First and longtime donor and advocate for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council — decided she would never wear traditional cotton again and made it her mission to offer alternatives to others.
In the mid-1990s, Swain moved back to West Michigan from Minneapolis, invested $400 into clothing made with hemp fibers and reached out to three friends to help her put on a floor show to build interest in alternative fabrics.
She spent many months doing shows under the name Hemp Goods before launching Clothing Matters in its first location in Eastown in 1998.
Located at 141 Diamond Ave. SE in Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood since 2007, the shop sells organic apparel, headwear, scarves and locally dyed goods made from organic cotton, hemp, cashmere, alpaca, bamboo, lyocell and eucalyptus fibers, to name a few.
Clothing Matters also carries fair-trade accessories made by women in Nepal and produces sustainable logowear for area businesses.
Swain — who has two employees — said becoming a business owner was never her plan, but Hawken’s book changed everything.
“I’d never worked retail. I’d never been especially interested in shopping or clothing,” she said. “I wasn’t a business person; I was into education and social change. But I couldn’t find anyone doing anything. It was just nonexistent.”
She said 23 years after she read the book, the clothing industry’s negative effect on the environment has gotten “far worse.”
“Our own sustainability organizations don’t even talk about clothing, and it’s a very serious issue,” she said. “It’s contributing to all kinds of various diseases and illnesses that are rampant. We have far too much cancer, neurobehavioral disorders, reproductive disorders, neurological disorders, allergies and asthma. Thousands of unregulated chemicals are used for growing what we are cloaked in every day.”
During Swain’s first year doing shows, she was sourcing all of her products from a hemp goods manufacturer in Berkeley, California.
Since then, she has amassed more than 125 local, regional, domestic and international design and manufacturing partners “all committed to practices that prevent pollution, conserve resources and promote social justice,” she said.
Clothing Matters sells goods at prices comparable to many department stores — $40-$50 for a top, $26 for leggings — but Swain’s profit margins are much narrower given her commitment to ensuring the work is done sustainably.
“We have everything custom cut, sewn and dyed for us six months ahead,” she said. “We’re committed to it six to eight months in advance. It’s totally different from mainstream apparel or fast fashion in every way, including being clean and nontoxic.”
Swain said the consumption of clothing “has grown cataclysmically” since 1996, including the proliferation of polyester, which she said is a top contributor of microplastic pollution in rivers, lakes and oceans.
Clothing Matters has a simple mission in everything it does, Swain said.
“Every decision made in the growing, processing and manufacturing of all of these accessories and clothing is made to retain the life properties of the plant fiber and to respect life — the lives of those who make it and the lives of those who will put it on their precious body.”