How Carhartt is Embracing Eco-Friendly Initiatives

The Carhartt founder’s great-great-granddaughter is using her apparel industry experience to establish eco-friendly initiatives within the company and her own sustainability-focused boutique
Gretchen R. Valade (right) is Carhartt’s di- rector of sustainability and owns Detroit’s Eug- enie with her husband, Kevin Steen (left). // Photograph by Christian Najjar

The name Gretchen Carhartt Valade is well known to Detroiters. The philanthropist, musician, and Carhartt heiress — who passed away in 2022 at the age of 97 — was nicknamed the “Angel of Jazz” after saving the struggling Detroit Jazz Festival in 2006 and ensuring it remained free so that everyone had access to the music and the culture.

Her granddaughter Gretchen R. Valade is also passionate about preservation. In her case, it’s about the Earth itself. As director of sustainability for Carhartt — the 135-year-old Detroit workwear company that grew to be a worldwide fashion brand — Valade is helping to reduce textile waste and greenhouse gas emissions by giving consumers an opportunity to keep their Carhartt apparel in their closets and out of landfills.

As the daughter of CEO and Chairman Mark Valade, she has had plenty of exposure to the apparel industry, starting as a 15-year-old intern in Carhartt’s product department, fascinated with fashion.

Since then, the DePaul University grad has held several positions within the company, including research and development coordinator and Detroit development manager. Later, when community and environmental impact intertwined with the company’s values, Valade helped open the Carhartt Workshop, which has a free tool library and meeting spaces, in 2020 above the Detroit flagship store and took on a new role as director of sustainability, setting forth goals with her team to reduce Carhartt’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are really focused on circularity — so, looking to keep product in use longer and divert from the landfill,” Valade says. “We launched our Carhartt repair in 2021, and it’s a service for our consumers to be able to send in their product to us and we will repair them for free and send them back to them.”

Currently, the United States produces about 34 billion pounds of postconsumer textile waste annually, with 66% going to landfills and only 15% being recycled. More waste creates more landfills, resulting in the continuous destruction of natural habitats and an increase in chemicals like methane and carbon dioxide permeating the air as clothes decompose, contributing to the ongoing effects of climate change.

In 2023, Valade helped launch a resale program called Carhartt Reworked, which collects, cleans, and repairs previously worn clothing for resale to keep it in use and out of landfills. Valade says Carhartt is also working with the Blue Jeans Go Green program to recycle clothing at the end of its life.

Named for Valade’s great-aunt, Eugenie moved to West Village in 2022. // Photograph by Christian Najjar

Behind the scenes, Valade also spent much of 2020 preparing for the opening of Eugenie — a boutique that offers a variety of products, such as clothing, jewelry, candles, and throw blankets, from sustainable brands she finds from Detroit and all over the world, including Australia, Spain, and France.

Named after her grandmother’s sister Eugenie Davis — a fashionable woman who moved to
an island in Maine and was interested in plants and wildlife — the boutique opened in Midtown in November 2020 before moving to its current location in West Village in 2022.

Valade’s namesake also owned a clothing boutique, called Capricious. It was at that Grosse Pointe Farms shop that her granddaughter learned about the process of buying products
to sell in a store.

“My mom and I would go with her buyer to New York and go through all the appointments, so I learned from observing during my time doing that in college,” Valade says. “I would say [my grandmother and I] were more like friends. … We had a pretty special relationship.”

And like her grandmother, Valade is intent on accessibility. When searching for brands to sell in Eugenie, she makes it a point to gather products at various price points. “People assume that to be sustainable, products have to be expensive. And so, a lot of time is spent making sure that there are accessible options in our store.”

Co-founded with her husband, Kevin Steen, the store is designed with secondhand furniture they took from their home and purchased from stores that had closed, homing in on their sustainability theme with bright white walls and earth-toned décor. And so far, many locals have been pleased with the new addition to the neighborhood.

“I think especially within the West Village, we get a lot of neighbors that come in and are grateful that we’re here,” Valade says. “It feels really good to be wanted and in a place where people can come and find what they’re looking for and have just a really nice experience.”

This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on April 5.