Natural Foods Merchandiser

40 Under 40: Tierra Forte

Tierra Forte
Del Forte Denim
Berkeley, Calif.
Age: 33

Tierra Forte is transforming the notion of American denim, adding compassion and environmental consciousness to fashion, one pair of jeans at a time. As the founder and CEO of Del Forte Denim, Forte imbues the business with her values, centering on sustainability, environment and fair wages. Del Forte produces stylish, 100 percent organic cotton, premium denim apparel. The garments are sewn and finished in Los Angeles, and the company has partnered with The Sustainable Cotton Project, which has been building bridges between farmers, manufacturers and consumers to pioneer markets for certified-organic and sustainable cotton since 1994.

Forte started her career in denim design in New York in 1999. Visiting domestic and international garment factories opened her eyes to the destructive impact that the fashion industry has on the environment and on the people who make the clothing. In 2005, she founded Del Forte in California with a desire to focus on eco-conscious style. Forte lives in the Bay area with her 11-year-old daughter.

What was your inspiration when you were getting started? I was coming up on my 30th birthday and thought, "Oh my God, I'm an adult, what am I going to do now?"

I loved the craft and the designing part of the fashion industry, but I was ready to get out on my own. I started looking at what goes into a pair of jeans and discovered the enormous difference in impact on land and community between the way commercial and organic cotton is grown.

I wanted to add a little more substance to my work and integrate some of my personal values into it. Also, I wanted to make products under fair working conditions. In the fashion industry, sewers and cutters are often severely overworked and underpaid to get garments into the stores quickly. So I decided to pursue my dream of creating my own premium denim line while supporting the environment, the farmers and the workers.

What are you most proud of? The fact that this tiny little company that was started with almost no money was able to, in only a couple of years, capture consumer and media interest. That means that we are doing something that people really care about.

What would you like to see change in the naturals industry in the next five years? One thing that could have great impact would be standardized labeling information that's easier to understand. Even the conscious consumer still has to decide between buying a pair of jeans made from organic cotton and buying a pair of used jeans. Creating labeling that could help the consumer quantify the different products' benefits and impact on the environment would be really useful.

If Ben & Jerry's named a flavor after you, what would it be? Sweet and Crunchy Denim Delight because I love sweets and crunchy is a good play on the natural part.

If you had one piece of advice for natural products retailers, what would it be? It's really important to sell things that you truly believe in, to be educated about them and to make sure your staff is educated as well.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 20

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