How Cardboard Hangers are Remaking an Industry

The best part of the work that I do is getting to meet awesome business owners and professionals who are doing really great work. In this ongoing series, I’ll be sharing some of these stories to provide real-life examples of sustainability in action.

Ditto Hangers is a green product development and manufacturing company whose award-winning 100% recyclable, non-toxic hangers have attracted clients from Nike and Disney to Stella McCartney and Whole Foods. When owner Gary Barker launched the company in 2008, his mission was to create a product that could easily flow through recycling systems to replace the 15 million plastic and wire hangers that end up in landfills every day. At their corporate headquarters in Oakland, CA, Gary and his small team bring innovation and sustainability to an industry that hasn’t seen changes in decades.

What are some of the ways in which you incorporated environmental considerations into your facility? Why did you choose to implement these features and/or practices?

Our corporate headquarters in Oakland is at an old Mother’s Cookie’s factory. This is where all we do our design work, marketing, and sales. When we moved into the building, we used milk-based paints to reduce toxics and took advantage of natural light to reduce our energy consumption. However, most of our business is overseas where our clients use our hangers to pack and ship clothing. We were very vigilant in choosing overseas partners and vendors that were responsible and closely aligned with our values. Sustainability is the foundation of our business and we require certification on all processes for everyone that we work with.

What has been your biggest challenge in making your business sustainable?

Our biggest challenge was making the business case for using our product over plastic and wire hangers. Ditto Hangers is more expensive on a per unit basis, but our product becomes less expensive when you consider its life cycle and improved efficiency so we looked at all the pressure points for a typical shipping hanger and reverse designed ours. Using Ditto Hangers, our clients can pack 20% more clothing in cartons before shipping which translates to 20% fewer cartons to ship, 20% less labor from loading, 20% less freight costs, and ultimately thousands of dollars in shipping. We created an algorithm to calculate each client’s savings based on the amount of inventory they wanted to ship. We also realized that we couldn’t just invent a replacement product and sell it. We had to show that it was vastly better in other areas. Because our hangers are made of paper, we can print and design them in a way that is unique to each client so it can be used for for marketing and branding purposes in retail stores.

How have you engaged your employees in your sustainability work?

We’re trying to make a change in an industry that hasn’t seen major change in 50 to 60 years. I started as a sculptor and product engineer, but I was tired of seeing products being made without consideration of its end-life. That was the motivation behind Ditto Hangers. We are environmental designers and everyone believes in what they are doing here. We all come together and share in decisions

Are you involved in community activities or giving back to the community? How do you see this as being part of your overall sustainability efforts?

Our small team of three focuses all of our time on being a responsible business, especially with our overseas vendors. We are recognized for working with responsible and certified partners and also became a benefit corporation this past year. This means that sustainability is incorporated in our business model and paperwork so if we decide to sell the company, the future owners would have to continue the goodwill that we’ve started. We also work with local colleges including UC Berkeley, Mills College and the Art Institute to inspire the next generation of product engineers to consider the end-life of the products they’ll make.

Why did you choose to become a Certified Green Business and/or a Certified B Corp? What did you learn from going through the process?

We became a B Corp before becoming a Certified Green Business. We were looking for a green seal, but struggled to find any that were universally accepted. We were the first B Corp whose operations weren’t locally based and we had to prove why we were doing business overseas: it makes more sense and is less energy intensive to make our hangers where our clients use them to pack and ship clothing. Because we work with different overseas partners and vendors, we had to show certification in every level of our production process and prove to the governing bodies that we were keeping sustainability at the forefront of our business. Over the years, our B Impact Assessment score has been increasing because B Corp is understanding the complexities in the questions being asked. We’re proud to rank in the top 10% in the environmental protection category, and we’re always looking to improve as new recommendations become available.

Becoming a Certified Green Business was an alternative and localized way for us to show our commitment to sustainability. We learned new ways to improve our office in areas like recycling, lighting, and using green cleaners and products. These things change as we progress our business. It’s a great way of feeling like you’re doing the right thing for the community and the planet.

What advice would you give to others who are also working to make their businesses more sustainable?

Businesses are all headed in the sustainable direction and it just makes sense to bring sustainability early into your business plan. We began thinking about it in 2006 and now we’re way ahead of the curve. It really should be a requirement, but it is difficult, takes a lot of research and businesses must decide to fully commit to it.

I would advise businesses to step outside that mindset that everyone is your competition and contact other businesses and network with those in your sector to see what they’re doing. We must share resources and ideas so we can build a more green and sustainable business economy.