Dirty Laundry

Using red clay to go green makes perfect sense for these entrepreneurs

by Cindy Riley,   Photography by Liesa Cole

Joy Maples & Martin Ledvina

While working at Yellowstone National Park the summer before her senior year at the University of Alabama, Joy Maples had a revelation.

“I truly became aware of my surroundings and the impact nature has on our lives,” explains the 45-year-old co-founder of Bessemer’s earth creations clothing company. “I’d always hiked and camped with my family as a kid and visited out West, but I’d never appreciated it on this level. After my college graduation, I decided to travel the world, and that’s when I realized how ecology and sustainability were all connected.”

More than 15 years ago, Maples established the eco-friendly business with help from her boyfriend (now husband) Martin Ledvina. Having stained her clothing with red Alabama clay while biking, she mentioned it to her beau. He was more than a little curious.

“Martin is a mad scientist,” she laughs. “He’s this crazy chemical engineer who found the whole thing very intriguing. I was a small-business consultant. It was a good combination, I guess.”

“In my native Czech Republic, we don’t have such amazing red clay,” explains Ledvina, 44, who  earned a master’s degree from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague and a PhD in materials engineering from UAB.  “When I moved here and saw the dirt, I was really amazed.  I got curious
and did some funky experiments, but dirt
was coming out of the fabric after wash, so I went to the library and finally came up with process that yielded good results.”

Clothing colored from natural clay and biodegradable materials. Eliminating the need for conventionally produced dyes, which can be toxic to the environment.

According to Maples, earth creations uses sustainable fiber, such as  organically grown cotton and hemp. Most of the garments are made in America in a sweatshop-free environment using eco-friendly dyes. Much of the clothing is colored with natural clay and biodegradable materials. The  process eliminates the need for conventionally produced dyes, which can be toxic to the environment, often involving large quantities of table salt that harms rivers and underground water sources.

Ledvina points out, “Our passion for nature stems from our belief that nature and the environment
we live in is something not to take for granted. It’s to be cherished and
protected for future generations. In addition, earth
creations is committed in its manufacturing practice to
lessening its energy use, recycling waste and reducing its carbon foot

“Our customers see our garments as a more earth-friendly alternative to traditionally dyed clothing and understand the benefits of using sustainable fibers,” Ledvina says. “We have a large group of customers that have been loyal followers. We often get phone calls from customers who bought one of our styles years ago and are looking for more.”

Environmentally friendly

According to Maples, “We have people from all ages who wear our products, and we sell to such a breadth of different stores, from Whole Foods to White Flowers.”

Linda Taylor, owner of Tampa, Fla., store It’s Our Nature, has featured earth creations’ organic fiber, clay-dyed, fair labor clothing for close to a decade.

“I believe earth creation’s commitment to education and customer service helps my company to provide the same,” Taylor says. “Our customers love the clothes and are so proud when they wear a vintage piece for us to see. The t-shirts have been classic best-sellers, but  the fashion pieces are following close behind.”

For Maples, it’s about expanding her horizons. “When you travel the world you see a lot of different cultures and learn about different views and opinions,” she says. “The one common thread is our actions always affect others.

It’s good at the end of the day to know  the fabric you chose to buy was grown organically,or the shirt you sold to someone is going to feel great when they wear

it, or that the people that sew for earth creations at our factory in Moulton, Ala., are doing what they have known how to do for years.”

Maples has a message for those who might see her and Ledvina as environmental extremists. “I don’t consider myself, and neither does my husband, in any way a hippie tree-hugger,” she says. ”As a matter of fact, I really don’t like many labels that are put on people. I am who I am and nothing else.”

What Maples is focused on is growing the retail side of their business, while educating  people about  “Made in the U.S.A.

“If buyers for these stores and the end consumer could designate 25 percent of their purchases to eco-products made in the U.S.A., what a difference it would make,” she says.

Martin adds, “We bike, hike, camp, and teach the love for nature to our  boys, Alek, Marek and Erik. We believe the balance in nature is very complex, and while it has quite a bit of resilience, all of us living on the earth need to do what we can to maintain this balance for as long as possible, ideally forever. There are just so many things pushing this balance in the wrong direction. And we view what we do as one little positive step in the right direction.”

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