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Its possible to look good – and do good

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by:  JIM CLARK, Among its wide selection of “green” offerings, Olio United stocks Tom’s shoes. The footwear company donates a pair to children around the world for every pair sold.

Five years ago, 'green' mostly meant recycled or recyclable, but as we're getting smarter about the environment, we're finding new questions to ask.

Olio United, one of the city's best green boutiques, only has been open since August, but already is discovering new and deeper ways to promote green culture in the world of commerce.

Olio means a hodgepodge or a miscellaneous collection, and the name feels like the perfect summation for the playful, original boutique.

The airy retail space sits directly across from modern Portland landmark Clarklewis, near the east bank of the Willamette River. Olio United's store window is hard to miss. Currently, it's filled with 1,000 white and blue paper airplanes, suspended in a pattern that suggests giant wings.

Inside, the boutique is a wonderland of green goods - housewares, clothing and accessories for men, women and children.

The centerpiece of the store is not a product, but rather a gathering place, a lounge area. Cleverly perched on AstroTurf, it features a love seat upholstered in scotch plaid and a cow-print chair.

It's a nice deviation from the predictably austere furniture in most boutiques. You can imagine people actually sitting there comfortably chatting.

The store mixes art and commerce easily. One 16-foot wall is dedicated to displaying local artwork. Previous shows have included Meagen Geer's light boxes and a multiartist show of 1-inch-square artworks. The store also has hosted a reading by writer Donald Miller.

While Olio United's store environment exudes friendliness and worthy intentions, the spirit extends far beyond the floor plan and the service.

Olio United's engaging Web site has a lively blog that is full of insider information about Olio's designers and brands and helpful tidbits, like an entry on how to properly care for your jeans.

Denim serves many purposes

Denim care is especially useful because Olio has plenty of it. As a person who wears jeans six days a week, I was thrilled to see such a wide selection, all of it eco-friendly.

The Seattle-based Good Society denim line uses organic cotton and fair trade production. Olio United is one the few stores in the country carrying the line. The best part is the price tag - $85. For small-production designer denim, that's a steal.

The same designers offer a more premium line of buttery soft, form-fitting organic denim. Called Sling and Stones, the line donates a portion of the profits to charities in Japan, India and Peru, countries involved in the production of the jeans.

Olio United also carries Del Forte Denim. Del Forte has a program called Rejeaneration that reuses old pairs of its jeans in another denim garment. The company donates a portion of all profits to the Sustainable Cotton Project, which supports the domestic organic cotton industry.

But there's much more than denim in Olio United to fall in love with. The owners' favorite clothing line is Preloved, a Canadian company that re-engineers used garments. The result is polished and unusual-patchwork dresses, cleverly constructed jackets, eye-catching hoodies, each one-of-a kind.

A collection of unique purses by Ashley Watson is hand-sewn in Canada from pre-worn leather jackets.

Customers meant to connect

Knowing and sharing the provenance of their products was essential to co-owners Cathy McMurray and Korinne James.

McMurray says that since fashion is a major industry, they felt that fashion with a conscience was an opportunity to reach people. 'Many of us are detached or desensitized to products we buy,' she says.

'I call it the chicken breast factor. People want their stuff neatly packaged, and they don't want to know where it came from or how it got there,' she says. 'At Olio United, we want to connect our customers to the story and relevance of our products.'

James says that since opening the store they've learned that eco-friendly doesn't necessarily mean fairly made. When considering designers, she wants to know the whole picture - what materials they use, where and how they manufacture, how they give back to the community.

She seeks clothes with a human story. A story she can share with her customer, so that purchasing goods is an opportunity to connect with the world, to support people who are doing noble work.

Helping people to think more deeply about what they buy benefits the environment far more than using organic fabric. This sentiment is captured in the company's motto: 'Only buy what you love.' Olio United has made that ideal easy by filling the store with things to love, which share that love with the Earth.

1028 S.E. Water Ave., Suite 120, 503-542-5000, www.oliounited.com