by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Upon walking into Clothing Matters, you will be greeted by the light shining from Marta Swain, a tall, ethereal woman whose enthusiasm leaves you hungry for more. Swain will take you on a ride through her store, weaving through racks and shelves as she nimbly snatches garments and drapes them over you, all the while telling you what each item is made of, where it is produced and why the fabric is worthy of your body.
It won’t take you long to realize you are in a store unlike any other. Swain radiates a level of passion known only to those who are gifted with the purpose of driving society forward toward true, radical change. As the owner of Grand Rapids’ pioneering viable retail store, she has spent 20 years as a sustainability evangelist, vibrant community leader and inspiring educator.
She emphasizes that sustainability is connected to our social, economic and environmental welfare—and our individual well-being.
“If you do one thing that is good for you, it’s probably good socially and ecologically, too,” Swain said.
Swain is a wizard of sorts, and her zeal for sustainability is spellbinding. She will leave you in awe as she packs dozens of earth-shattering facts into the space of a single exchange.
“Let’s talk about what we are wearing,” Swain emphasized. “Thousands of unregulated chemicals are used to produce the clothing we wear—chemicals that make people sick.”
Second only to oil, fashion is the most toxic and wasteful industry in the world. With inspiring tenacity, Swain works to inject apparel into the growing conversation around sustainability.
“It is worth it to identify clothing that is worthy of your precious dollars and your precious body,” Swain explained. “Life is precious!”
Swain has spent two decades building and maintaining relationships with hundreds of designers—local and international alike—to bring the highest quality eco-friendly fashions to Grand Rapids. Every thread of clothing in Clothing Matters is free of carcinogens and manufactured using socially responsible practices.
Sprinkled throughout the open, energizing sales floor are garments in vivid, bright hues—scarves that feel as though they are woven from fresh mountain air, dresses and shirts built from bamboo, organic cotton, hemp, silk and soy, and boots crafted from vegan leather and stained with vegetable dye. The production quality of the clothing far exceeds that of most fashions; a single piece of apparel from Clothing Matters can replace three or four items in your closet.
“Pick one piece of clothing and put it to the test,” Swain encouraged. “You will see that it’s easier than ever to get dressed, look better and be more comfortable than you have ever been.”
As you are trying on garbs made from the very best the earth has to offer, Swain will happily tell you of the world as it could be, of a society we as individuals have the power to bring forth simply by choosing responsibility and sustainability over the alternative. In the fashion of a true revolutionary, she empowers those around her to think critically and create change by attaining a higher sense of self.
“Once you know the facts, you think, ‘What else can I be aware of?’” Swain said. “You ask yourself, ‘Can I think more critically? Can I ask more questions?’”
Swain recalls first learning about the true cost of commercial cotton through The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawkins. The book changed her life and sparked a determination to introduce people to environmentally friendly apparel.
“Cotton is the most treated crop in the world—a third of a pound of insecticide is used to grow the cotton for one shirt,” Swain stated. “When I opened the store and started sharing information like this, I was totally passionate and confident because I could see what happened when people understood it.”
Advocating for environmentally responsibly comes naturally to Swain; her parents co-founded the West Michigan Environmental Action Council in 1968 and were involved in a number of other sustainability groups early on.
“My parents put a lot of time into trying to make the world a better place,” Swain explained. “I figured that is what everybody did.”
Swain’s devotion is exceeded only by her benevolence. She recently donated 40 jackets made from recycled plastic bottles to protestors at Standing Rock and matched that number in a donation to Congress Elementary Family Learning Night, totaling more than $5,000.
As a founding member of Local First, Swain has long been an advocate for community-driven economies, which she believes goes hand-in-hand with sustainability.
“The eco and the social were never separate for me,” she said. “At some point, society managed to separate them to the point it is now.”
The next step in Swain’s mission is to do just that— bring the eco and the social back together by introducing people to sustainability on a deeply personal level through hosting Interplay workshops in her store. Interplay is a methodology Swain developed that helps individuals and organizations explore how environmentally-conscious practices can help them strengthen their existing mission. Before opening her retail location, she spent two decades teaching Interplay around the globe.
“Interplay helps people develop respect for the interdependent nature of life on Earth,” Swain said. “I am very excited to be bringing it back to life. It helps people understand and connect with what is truly important.”
Although we still have a long way to go to integrate eco-friendly clothing into our lifestyles and ditch toxins altogether, one hour with Swain will convince you monumental change can be achieved.
“One thing I have learned is that people do care,” Swain expressed. “Most people want to know more about how good something can be, whether it is life, food, relationships or clothing.”
Swain’s gift to our community is not just the opportunity to purchase toxic-free clothing, but the unmatched selfless and vigorous spirit with which she reaches beyond herself to bring us all toward an exceptional future free from the harmful effects of carcinogens— a future where sustainability is a choice made by all.
As you leave Swain’s store, you will find yourself not only with a stunning garment worthy of your precious body but with an electrified sense of purpose and a newfound conviction that we all can—and will—do better for ourselves, each other and our planet.