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Increase Your Eco Sales
By Sara Lavenduski

Not Easy Being GreenIf distributors aren’t bullish about selling eco apparel, it may be that they are simply not taking the initiative to offer it. “If a distributor is not educated on what to sell, they just sell anything,” says Kris Robinson, chief sustainability officer and vice president of PromoShop (asi/300446). “We say, ‘Be the ones to offer it. Suggest organic cotton, PET or bamboo.’ The more we talk about it, the more it’s sold.”

John Simonetta, president of Proforma Green Marketing (asi/491309), echoes the sentiment that distributors might not sell much eco apparel because they don’t position it correctly in the sales process. While he calls eco “another tool in the kit,” he says brand protection must be the main focus. “Eco has to be something that suppliers and distributors want to tout,” he says. “It’s hard to sell and it has to fit the brand. But when it makes sense, it really makes sense.”

When cotton prices reached an all-time high in 2011, it helped to ease the typically large price gap between regular and organic cotton. Still, overall apparel sticker shock caused buyers to gravitate toward the lowest-priced items. That still hasn’t deterred suppliers’ optimism about the future of the category. “People decided to step down a bit from eco because their budgets are tight,” says Anthony Corsano, president and CEO of Anvil Knitwear (asi/36350). “But it’s not going away; it’s absolutely still a direction people want to go in.” Adds Kriya Stevens, marketing manager at Econscious (asi/51656), “We’re expecting growth because of our loyal customer base. Their questions are changing, which I think marks an evolution in our consciousness.” Stevens believes it’s all about investing in eco and making a commitment to selling it, while a more educated customer makes the process easier. “They’re realizing that they can’t use a normal 50/50 tee for an Earth Day festival anymore,” Corsano adds. “It won’t take them long to connect the dots.”

What’s the sales pitch for eco clothing? Jason Neve, creative director at Boardroom Eco Apparel (asi/40705), points out that traditional cotton in general is simply not sustainable. It competes with food crops, it’s extremely water-intensive, and one T-shirt requires a pound of chemicals to make. Meanwhile, organic cotton production uses methods that replenish soil productiveness and is grown without toxic pesticides and fertilizer. But it is a premium product that requires hard work to sell. “You really have to make the case for it,” says Stevens.

The helpful trend for distributors is that there continues to be an explosion of eco product offerings. “Eight years ago, there were only a couple products in this category,” says Robinson, whose company started Ecopromos six years ago. “Now there are thousands! We want to continue this movement by educating suppliers and distributors on why it’s important. Our industry has gotten better – it’s now more sustainable and less throwaway.”

Neve points out that large companies, like Visa and Coca-Cola, have certain standards about buying eco products. Their global presence is so big – and their corporate social responsibility initiatives so expansive – that they have to buy eco apparel to maintain their image. “We have to fulfill supply chain documents to assure them that the clothes were made responsibly,” Neve adds. “They have to buy eco, whether it’s at a higher price or not. So in that instance, cheaper goods, like traditional cotton, aren’t really affecting eco sales.”

So how can distributors keep their eco sales on the increase? “Let your customers know what’s available and why it’s important,” Robinson says. Distributors should be comfortable talking about the benefits of the different fabrics, adds Stevens: “Speak with confidence and energy and partner with suppliers because they’re usually the ones educating the customer.”

Be sure to vet each client first to see if eco apparel lines up with its goals and brand image.“Incorporate it into the pitch if it makes sense, but don’t lead with it,” says Simonetta. “Ask about audience, budget and timetable first, and find out if it should be included.”

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