Keene's Tree-Free makes greeting cards and envelopes from recycled materials

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KEENE, N.H. — If you've stopped into most any store in the tri-state region you've probably spotted them and wondered, "How can a greeting card be tree free?"

"The idea behind calling the company Tree-Free was they wanted something that was greener than recycled paper," said Darren Mark, Tree-Free's creative director, who lives in Brattleboro, Vt., and has been with the company for nearly a decade.

Tree-Free started as a collaboration with The Mountain, a company in Keene that makes T-shirts with only environmentally friendly water-based inks and dyes, printed on cotton that is 80 percent produced in the United States.

Michael Krinsky and Michael Gallen founded The Mountain after establishing Mountain Magic, which operated kiosks in malls, selling imported goods and "hippy-related" inventory. In 1991 they moved the company from New Jersey to Marlborough where they collaborated with Michael McGloin, owner of ArtWear, a T-Shirt design company licensing the artwork of artists. Eventually, the company's reputation grew to the point that it reached licensing agreements with the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. They later sold their retail stores and expanded their wholesale business.

"The Mountain wanted to take their T-shirt designs and make them into greeting cards," said Silverstein. "All of us had values based in sustainability. That was an important part of what we were going to do, but what we ended up establishing as well was a niche with really vibrant art."

In 2000, Tree-Free split off from The Mountain and set up shop in the Homestead Woolen Mill in West Swanzey before moving to a larger facility off of Route 10 in Swanzey. On Nov. 19, Tree-Free celebrated its grand opening at an all-new facility on Kref Court, in an old tile warehouse near the Keene State College athletic fields.

Silverstein pointed out that the market is saturated with greeting cards, with more than 2,500 makers, so Tree-Free set itself apart by selling tasteful greeting cars with "ARTvelopes," or matching envelopes.

"We were competing on art at a good value and our product was sustainably made."

There were some hitches along the way, said Silverstein, especially in finding the right product for Tree-Free's envelopes and cards. They went through products such as kenaf, sugar cane waste and bamboo before settling on wheat straw, an agricultural waste product, for the envelopes, and office waste for the greeting cards themselves.

Before moving to the new facility on Kref Court, Tree-Free used offset printing, a technique where an inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket and then to paper. The whole process required a lot of space for production and inventory. With new digital printing equipment from Xerox, said Silverstein, Tree-Free was able to change its business model.

"This new facility is about demand production with an enormous array of art, rather than a select group of products limited by having to carry a minimum amount of inventory."

Now, customers can glance at Tree-Free's catalogue, place an order, and it can be shipped out within 24 hours, he said.

Approximately 25 people work at Tree-Free, some of them as temps, depending on the time of the year and whether the company is fulfilling special orders. In addition to greeting cards, Tree-Free also produces playing cards, coaster, home decor, stationery and mugs, cups and tumblers.

Tree-Free's clientele includes food co-ops and independent stores, as well as Whole Foods.

"It was an eye-opener for us to learn how well our cards sell in natural food stores," said Mark.

To learn more about Tree-Free's process, or to view its catalog of products, visit www.tree-free.com.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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