Green Hummingbird finds purpose in selling sustainable clothing

Story by Grace James

Photos by Samantha Linczyc

A little green hummingbird sits by the corner of Harrisonburg’s South Main Street and Franklin Street. It doesn’t tweet or fly, as most birds do. That’s because this Green Hummingbird is a clothing store.

Eleanor Held, owner of the Green Hummingbird, uses an African folktale as inspiration for her store.

In the Story of the Hummingbird, all the homes of animals were destroyed by fire. They all stand helpless, except for a little hummingbird. The hummingbird, only able to release a few drops of water out of its beak at a time, endures the taunts from the other animals, who proceed to tell it its efforts aren’t enough.

“What do you think you’re doing?” they ask. The hummingbird replied, “I’m doing what I can.”

This story now hangs on a wall inside the Green Hummingbird, serving as a reminder to follow the little hummingbird’s lead.

“It’s not a big, earth-changing thing, but you do what you can,” Held said.

The store’s mission is to supply clothing and accessories made solely from men and women who are paid a living wage for what they produce — both nationally and internationally.

As soon as shoppers walk into Eleanor’s shop, they’re greeted with tables and clothes racks of brightly-colored merchandise.

Iris Haseloff, a JMU professor, recalls when she first saw the blue and purple tapestry in Green Hummingbird, which now hangs in her office on campus, “I was immediately attracted to the colors … I thought, ‘That’s for me.’”

From hats and blouses to scarves and rings, there’s something special about every item in the Green Hummingbird — it’s all fair trade.

Green Hummingbird is one of just nine apparel stores that belong to the Harrisonburg Rockingham Green Network, a network of sustainability related organizations in the community. The store only sells apparel that comes from employees that have been paid a sustainable wage.

“Fair Trade for me means making sure the artisans who created the products weren’t taken advantage of, that they were paid fairly according to their socio-economic situation, and the conditions they work in are good,” Eleanor said.

Her passion for fair trade came after volunteering in a conference center which was part of an interfaith community she was living in.

“They eventually put me in their fair trade store,” Eleanor said.

Her interest was immediately sparked. After doing some research on fair trade clothing, she saw a need. She then took it upon herself to see how she could contribute.

“I got to thinking: I like clothing, and so I started looking up fair trade clothing places, but a lot of them were just wholesale people,” she said. “I just thought it was something that was lacking.”

Having grown up in Harrisonburg, Eleanor decided to move back home and start a fair trade clothing store of her own.

“She calls me up one Saturday morning, she’s working at this place outside of New York City, and she goes, ‘I wanna go back to Harrisonburg and start and fair trade clothing store,’” Ann Held, Eleanor’s mother, said.

Now, almost five years later, the store has come into its own.

“I think it’s a nice addition to Downtown,” Haseloff said.

The store oozes with uniqueness, down to its bones. Shoppers probably wouldn’t notice the clothes rack at first — after all, it’s just a clothes rack. They’re probably just there for clothes or accessories. At second glance, it’s not the typical metal rack at the average clothing store. This one is different. It’s made out of PVC pipes fastened with zip ties.

Eleanor’s originality, and creativity is woven throughout the store. Virtually every table, counter and clothes rack has been designed or assembled from the bits and pieces she’s gathered over the four-and-a-half years she’s been in business.

A vintage suitcase sits open on its side. It’s used to prop up a basket of gloves, all rustic and one-of-a-kind and every fragment has a place and purpose. And, the clothes carry with them a similar fashion.

For Eleanor, it’s all about economic justice. She always ensures the people she buys from are “paid fairly and treated well.” This means buying clothes for The Green Hummingbird has a few extra steps.

Some of the clothes she buys come from companies that are part of the Fair Trade Federation.

But, for other companies who cannot afford or have the resources to meet those standards, she makes sure to contact them before she makes the purchase.

“I make sure to interview the owners or someone who works with them and ask them about how they get their products … They work directly with the people to negotiate a fair price and make sure the working conditions are safe,” Eleanor said.

When making these decisions, there is still “a bit of trust involved” that the companies are staying true to their word. And even after purchasing the clothes, they don’t always sell the way she expected them to.

“Sometimes I buy things because I like them, but then, it’s like ‘oh’ not as many other people like them.”

Because of this, Eleanor doesn’t just order what’s fashionable at the time.

“It’s not as much about the latest fashion, because that can be detrimental to the people making a product, ‘cause they have a shorter period of time, like this is in style now. I need it by tomorrow and you’re not allowed to leave here until you finish everything,” Eleanor said. “A lot of the things in here are … not just the latest style but they’re trying to reach a broad timespan and people. I try to get stuff for young people, college students obviously, and then obviously older people. And just kind of reach people from all kinds of backgrounds and demographics.”

Having fair trade clothing comes with a price — a little higher than normal.

“People walk in here and go, ‘Oh I can get that so much cheaper at Walmart … I would never spend $30 on a blouse’. Well I hear ya, but just know that the person who made that, sometimes it’s a sweatshop, sometimes it’s child labor,” Ann said. “What can we do to build people up in their own countries?”

Contact Grace at jamesgn@dukes.jmu.edu.