When Gary Barker’s design team embarked on redesigning the clothes hanger as an environmentally sustainable product, Barker secretly thought it was the “stupidest idea” ever. That was in 2006; now the resulting Ditto hangers are being embraced by major retailers such as Levi Strauss, REI and the Gap, and Barker’s green product design company, GreenHeart Global, and its sister spinoff, Ditto Sustainable Brand Solutions, are flourishing. Their products have garnered a slew of design awards, and this year Acterra gave Ditto its award for environmental innovation.
The GreenHeart Global team started out searching for a product that could show off the then-new company’s design and environmental cred. The road from there to here was not particularly easy, but tenacity and adaptability ultimately paid off.
“We were just looking at the economy—large consumption equals a good economy. We’re not going to be able to affect consumption—as designers, our responsibility ends at the cash register,” says Barker, GreenHeart Global’s founder and CEO. “The idea was to design products that flow through recycling systems at the end of their useful life.”
That inspiration got the design team thinking about the ubiquitous wire hanger that dry cleaners use. Research revealed that the real problem is the short-lived retail plastic hanger, which goes from a garment manufacturer or retail store direct to the landfill. It is rarely reused and can’t be recycled. (Roughly 8 billion hangers are tossed each year, taking up the space of 4.6 Empire State Buildings in landfills. For more appalling statistics, go to the Ditto website.)
Selling beautiful, recyclable hangers—what’s hard about that?
GreenHeart Global created hangers using very strong cardboard made from recycled paper and glued together with environmentally friendly adhesives; the metal clips are recyclable.
“We made our hanger beautiful. And we’re designers, so we pushed that” when marketing them, Barker recalls. “We said, ‘It’s beautiful. It shows off your organic materials and fabrics. Why would you put your clothes on a crappy hanger?’ But that didn’t go over well. So then we started banging them over the head with environmentalism—save the planet. And that didn’t go over well.”
The team brainstormed, looking at what their prospective clients want: to sell clothes and build their brand. The Ditto hanger delivers: it can feature a logo or other design, and it shows off the retailer’s sense of style and design (as well as environmentalism). Plus, customers take them home, so the retailers’ logos are displayed in their customers’ closets. And via QR codes, retailers can use them for promotions and to give customers a way to learn more about where the clothes come from, the materials and other details.
Finding the sweet spot
“At first, we were trying to have everybody be our customer, and we were just spinning our wheels,” says Barker. “When we started focusing on the branding potential, the communication, the experience, people got it, and it really started taking off.
“Our hangers cost more, so we have to sell other attributes,” he adds. “We’re looking at more and more add-ons that are separating us from the commodity hanger.”
Among other advantages, Ditto hangers allow more clothes to fit on a rack, and manufacturers can ship up to 30 percent more clothes on hangers. (The savings aren’t chump change: Barker says that a percentage point reduction in volume of clothes in a shipping carton saves the Gap $1 million.)
“We don’t even talk about the environment anymore,” says Barker, whose company now makes other products as well, including other types of product hangers and in-store displays. “It’s really the cherry on top—it’s all the other things that our products do that is the power of Ditto. It took us a looong time to get to that.”
Becoming a B Corp
They may not flaunt it, but the companies are sustainable to the core, and Barker knew he should get independent verification to prove it. But he couldn’t find a certification he was comfortable with.
“Do I get a green label? I started looking into it, and there was nothing that was really universal,” he says. “And some [eco-labels] wanted a percentage of sales. Forget that. Besides, our product is pretty blatantly green. Do I really need a green leaf on it?”
When Barker learned about the B Corporation certification back in 2008, he realized that if he certified the company, he wouldn’t have to worry about individual products.
“I [have] said that a label is like wearing a hat, but frankly, I’m more concerned about my pants—and that’s the B Corp certification,” Barker says. “I’m seeing that this is the way; this is the road. B Lab is never satisfied. It’s always pushing you to make your company a better company—it’s a touchstone to see what I have to improve on.”
This story is the first of an ongoing series profiling B Corporations and their marketing challenges and successes.