When Liz Vittori Koch had her first baby, she began thinking more about organic fiber clothing for children—and where and how these clothes are made. At the time, there were no stores specializing in these kinds of textiles. Tapping into her experience running an art gallery and in retail, Vittori Koch decided to change that. In 2005 she opened , a Green Street shop featuring toys and clothes made of eco-friendly and organic materials, and the first store in New England to sell cloth diapers. And as her family has grown—her son is now 8 and daughter 5 ½—so has the store’s target clientele; once a baby store, it now features products for newborn to 8 years. Vittori Koch, a JP resident, took the time to talk about why organic is better, how she vets her suppliers, and the store’s commitment to zero waste.
Were you already interested in this sort of thing before you had children?
I was always interested but I think when you have children you look into things in more depth. It wasn’t only the environmental and health reasons but also the political issues involved when you have a child and you’re suddenly faced with buying lots of items and really thinking about how these are made and where they’re made. My husband and I thought it would be great if we could open something that really represented these values and felt like JP was a good home for that. We wanted the shop to be sort of a nexus point for likeminded families.
This may seem like an obvious question but for folks who may not be so familiar with organic and sustainable, why is that so important as a parent?
For me, I would say there are a few reasons. It depends on how you want to look at it. I view buying organic and sustainable harvested wood toys and things like that as making a political decision or an aesthetic choice or primarily because for health reasons you want to avoid toxins. What you’re doing when you purchase these products is supporting organic agriculture, which is going to make our world stronger and make our land a stronger place. When people are doing intensive industrial farming, particularly with cotton, it’s a heavily chemically laden process and that goes into groundwater or workers inhale these things. There are many, many factors that are affected.
I think awareness has really been raised in terms of buying organic and local with food. And I think people are slowly beginning to realize that textiles are so ever-present in our lives and when you start considering these other things, to me that is a major piece of the puzzle of living sustainably.
How do you transfer this philosophy to your store?
People talk about shopping local and supporting local stores but is that local store actually supporting other independent vendors? For everything I buy in here, I know most of the people who make these things by name. It’s not just that I’m a local independent store and I’m buying whatever the heck. I’m actually seeking out like businesses to support. It’s a continuum of that idea.
How do you vet your suppliers? I know with food the word organic can sometimes be misleading.
Absolutely. Those words are bandied about: organic, natural, sustainable, green. People just slap them on things. With textiles and with toys, and sometimes fabrics, there are third party certification organizations. You just get to know what these are. So I look for that. I also try to check in with my vendors twice a year to see where they’re sourcing all of their materials: from the thread, where they get that, and where the fabric is woven, where it’s cut, where it’s sewn, where it’s dyed, because some people are doing this all over the globe.
What’s the tier of importance to you? Local, organic?
It’s all important. I try to steer clear of things from China. I just feel really strongly about it. One factor for children’s toys is obviously a safety issue. I don’t want to say there aren’t some really high quality and wonderful products coming out of China. But I just made the decision that it’s easier to cut it off. Also, I feel that a lot of manufacturers shift their production from the U.S. and from Europe to China to increase their bottom line but they then don’t pass those savings on to the consumer and I just don’t have much respect for that.
Tell me about the cloth diapers.
We sell those and I used them with my kids. I do have a big clientele for that. We were actually the first brick and mortar store in all of New England to sell them. We sell the diapers and the covers. It’s a really nice thing to be educating people about it and to be working with them at that exciting time, as they’re welcoming a new baby. Now, it’s pretty commonplace. Target sells cloth diapers now; that’s how much it’s changed in six years. It’s competition and I recently actually considered stopping. I thought, "Maybe it’s just saturated the market and I don’t need to do it anymore." But due to customer demand, I’ve got them back in stock.
What are some of your most popular items?
We’re really well known for wool. Not many stores sell organic wool stuff, particularly for babies. These sweaters in particular, are a perennial favorite. They’re kimono-style wrap sweaters, made in Lithuania. Several of the lines that I sell aren’t carried anywhere else in the Boston area and for some, only a handful of shops in the country carry them. Lately, a hot item is these amber necklaces. Babies wear them for teething. The wooden toys also sell really well. I
The toys are made to last. They’re of such high quality that people can pass them down for generations. And the clothes, too. They’re cut well and last longer. Organic cotton doesn’t go through as many treatments.
Beyond your products, I understand your whole store, bricks and mortar, is eco-friendly.
Yes, all the paint is low and no VOC [Volatile Organic Compounds]. Everything is made from natural materials such as bamboo. I use environmentally friendly cleaners. And I try to be zero waste. The staff is always laughing at me saving little pieces of cardboard to make a tag or something.