Militant Vegetarians

Chris Lindland is well aware that running a non-sustainable business in San Francisco is, at a minimum, out of the question.

He’s also aware that, in this city, it’s impossible to avoid “geek and science culture,” leaving business owners at an inevitable intersection of the nerdy and eco-friendly. Chris knows this, after all, because he’s one of them; in 2009, he founded Betabrand, an online-only provider of sustainable clothing.

An environmentally friendly vocabulary, however, is not one that Chris uses loosely. In fact, he probably wouldn’t be thrilled to hear his company strictly classified as “sustainable,” but rather views and operates Betabrand as a maker of clothing and accessories to fit a sustainable lifestyle; one that, again, is unavoidable in a city like San Francisco.  

The first Betabrand creation to accomplish this mission was a pair of Bike To Work Pants: A pair of trousers, in a variety of colors and fabrics, with “clever reflective elements that pull out of the rear pockets,” Chris explains, “so that you can have a big ‘V’ on your butt while you bike.” Additionally, the interior contains the same reflective fabric, creating a luminous cuff when rolled up.

But, despite the terminology, the sustainable product line doesn’t end with trousers for bike commuters. After the pants came a line of Black Sheep Sweaters, made from organic wool taken from a flock’s black sheep: “A product that allows the black sheep of the family to wear the figure of speech,” says Chris. Then, Betabrand began to produce items of clothing under the Harvester line, made from organic cotton and naturally dyed in time with the harvest calendar in California; for example, red cherry shirts released in April and tomato pants in the summer. It’s a line of “rustic work wear,” Chris explains, with which every new product creates consumer “anticipation… of which fruit or vegetable it would be.”

Chris credits “man on the street observation” with the idea for these products. “There might be a better way,” he says, whether it’s an alternative to taping a pant leg or carrying heavy plastic bags home from the farmers market, the motivation behind Betabrand’s reusable Cornucopia bags.  Sustainability, Chris says, is more common sense than anything else, pointing out that the company has avoided taking a “holier-than-thou” path for its environmental practices.

“People in that audience feel pandered to if over and over again [companies are] putting whale songs in their advertisements,” he explains, a statement pointing an additional Betabrand pillar: A sense of humor.

“Our copywriting and marketing approach is just to be funny,” Chris says. “A higher than normal percentage of people who are organically-oriented are also well-read. The result is a higher sense of humor.”

In a way, the company is an accidental global citizen, finding itself in “inadvertent” (as Chris identifies them) cases of philanthropy. Last spring, for example, when Betabrand worked with a Japanese designer to release Tokyo-cargo “Japants,” the country suffered a major earthquake and tsunami. As a result, 50% of each Japants sale went to benefit disaster relief efforts, leading to a sell out of every pair.

These involuntary acts of responsibility, Chris believes, are part of an evolution in which corporate accountability “no longer has to be celebrated or preached.”

“We do it because it’s a sensible thing to do,” he continues. “We just [do] the right thing, and customers reward us for it.”

Keep in touch with Amanda on Twitter: @Amanda_ZW

Image of “Militant Vegetarians” courtesy of Chris Lindland