Danish brand Neutral is now available in the UK. Images talks to founder Lars Bech about the need to reduce pollution and pay workers a proper wage
A growing awareness of the pollution generated by the garment industry was what led to Lars Bech and Christina Larsen setting up Neutral. “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years,” explains Lars. “I made millions of T-shirts in Bangladesh every year. The dyehouses in Bangladesh, they sometimes leak out water and it goes through this channel down to the river. You could see if they were doing black [dye] because the water was black. And when you looked up, you could see that all the dyehouses were there and the river was full of amazing colours. Which would have been amazing – if it wasn’t for the chemicals.
“So, the pollution was a very big factor. For us, it was an eye-opener that what we were doing was wrong. It was a process. When you see it first time you say, ‘Oh my God!’, and then you say ‘What is it?’. Then you start to get interested.”
The brand, which started a decade ago, promises to be okay. Which sounds a somewhat modest ambition. “What is the opposite of being okay?,” asks Lars. “Not okay.” “Exactly. Everything should be okay.”
And everything really is okay at Neutral. Its approach is to adhere to the highest social, ethical and environmental criteria for clothing production. One of the first concerns Lars had was about improving the pay and conditions for people working in the factories and dyehouses: “The working hours are long and the salary’s low.” Then he was introduced to “organic guys” in India. “They taught me about cotton. They told me about GMOs [genetically-modified organisms] and how much chemicals, insecticides and pesticides are used to grow the cotton.
“The use of chemicals, insecticides and pesticides in growing the cotton is enormous. And it pollutes the ground water, it pollutes the soil. In the organic cotton fields, you have birds and they are eating the insects so they [the insects] don’t eat the cotton.” The plants growing cotton for Neutral’s garments are sprayed with sugar water to attract ants, which in turn protect the cotton plant. “It’s a smart little trick, right?” enthuses Lars. “Offer the ants some candy and they’ll protect the plants.”
He continues: “All this is gone in the conventional industry. The more you learn about the cotton industry, the more you understand how we all need organic.”
The need for GMO-free cotton is imperative as well, he believes: “It’s very important because the farmer can use the seeds to plant again and again and again. If it’s GMO, you’ve got to buy new seeds every year, and that’s very expensive.”
It is, however, more expensive to produce garments that are made from non-GMO, organic, Fairtrade cotton in wind-powered factories that pay their staff fairly, and use dyehouses that clean their wastewater and use less polluting dyes. The price difference is not extortionate, however, and Lars believes that the processes they use add value to the product. Each Neutral product comes with labels and a hangtag (which is made from leftover cotton, as are the buttons), detailing the certificates the garments have from various international associations: ‘certified responsibility’, Neutral calls it.
“Maybe it’s more expensive, but the marketing value companies receive for choosing a product where people have been treated well and the pollution is as little as possible – the marketing value from giving a gift like that is much, much higher than the actual price they have to pay,” points out Lars. “Everybody asks, ‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s what we found out. And that’s what’s in it for the companies who do it right.”
Substance and style
Having great values means nothing if the products aren’t up to scratch – fortunately, Neutral’s garments demonstrate the team’s long experience in the market and their understanding of what is needed to make attractive styles that people want to wear.
With 20 new products launched last year, Neutral has a wide selection of T-shirts, hoodies, polos and accessories that are fresh and stylish, and have been designed to appeal to the printwear market. There are 24 T-shirts styles, 13 hoods and sweats, a range of kids’ clothing, a number of bags (including those for laptops), a collection of aprons and even a heavyweight towel (O95099) embossed with the Neutral logo.
Details such as roll-up sleeves, striped fabrics and a wide range of necklines mean the line is likely to appeal to the independent brand market, while the wide colour choice and size range – the company introduced 4XL and 5XL to a number of styles this year, as well as new colours – means it’s a good fit for the promo and workwear markets too. Continuity is a key consideration: “We try to make styles that work forever,” says Lars.
A hero product is the Fitted T-shirt (061001, women’s style 081001), which has a round neck and inside neck tape, is made from a 155gsm, 100% organic Fairtrade cotton, single jersey knit fabric and comes in sizes S-5LX (XS-2XL for women). It is available in 21 colours, including sapphire, stripe, bottle green and navy, advises Lars, before adding that other standout styles in the range are Neutral’s hoodies, sweatshirts, polos and bags… In fact, the whole range is a hero, in his eyes.
Currently, Neutral is better-known in continental Europe, which is to be expected given it’s a Scandinavian company, with sales picking up in countries such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland – all prime markets, reports Lars. The launch into the UK this year follows the brand doubling in size over the past two years, and will see it selling direct to decorators. There is no real minimum order, says Lars, although he adds: “We love to sell quantities!”
A decade or so ago, organic and Fairtrade garments were a harder sell. “Ten years ago, I was talking to printers and saying, ‘Hey, have you got Neutral here? This is the perfect product for you. It doesn’t harm the environment, it doesn’t pollute when its dyed and it’s organic cotton.’
“And they said, ‘Hey, Lars – organic cotton. Do I have to eat it?’ ‘No, don’t eat it.’ ‘But what does it matter if we pollute in Bangladesh or India? Can I smell it?’
“I think this is changing now. I think people really understand that they can smell it if they pollute somewhere on this little globe.”