- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - For veterans, children with disabilities and other special guests of Pirates Charities, a game at PNC Park includes seats in a premium suite, a special spread of munchies and their own rally towel to keep as a souvenir.

For the Pirates, the white cotton rally towels with a Raise the Jolly Roger logo serve not only as a take-home gift from their philanthropic arm, but as a symbol of the organization’s efforts to promote sustainability and a green-conscious ballpark.

The towels given away are made of 100 percent certified organic cotton at a factory in India that is part of a fair trade co-op, said Linda Lannon, co-founder of PeopleTowels, the Monterey, California company that supplies them to the Pirates.

PeopleTowels markets the towels as a washable, reusable substitute to paper towels and promotes them as a portable product that can be tucked in a purse or pocket.

“They last as long as you want them to last until you’re maybe tired of the design or want to buy a new one,” said Mary Wallace, the other founder of PeopleTowels.

The Pirates first gave the towels away in 2013 to mark Earth Day. About 11,000 fans ages 14 and under received the eco-rally towels at a Sunday afternoon game in April that year. Trash disposal firm Waste Management was a partner on the promotion.

Last year and this season, the Pirates ordered 1,000 towels to give to guests of Pirates Charities. Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki declined to disclose the cost.

Besides being organic cotton, the towels feature graphics printed with environmentally friendly dyes. They also include a paper tag that can be customized with a message, coupon or QR code.

The tag on the Pirates’ rally towel carries the slogan for the team’s environmental initiative, “Let’s Go Bucs. Let’s Go Green,” which includes recycling and energy conservation efforts throughout the North Shore ballpark.

PeopleTowels is actively seeking similar deals with nonprofits and other sports organizations, and has partnered with the West Coast Conference of college athletic teams, which put its logo on the eco-rally towel as a team championship promotion.

In the retail sector, PeopleTowels are available at Whole Foods Markets in Florida, Northern California and some locations in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, but not in Pittsburgh.

A growing market for the company is the approximately 200 small, specialty stores in the U.S. and Canada that sell eco-friendly products, including natural food grocers, bookstores, museum stores and yoga studios, said Ms. Lannon.

Some retail customers request a custom message to promote their business. If not, the towels carry the company’s signature designs, such as “Dream Green” or “For the Love of the Earth” and the corporate logo, “Change is at hand.”

The specialty vendors “are the sort of stores and shops where we are really getting a toehold, and that’s what we always wanted to do: establish (PeopleTowels) as an authentic, green lifestyle brand.”

They are also sold on the company’s website, www.peopletowels.com, for $5.99 or a three-pack of $15.99. The privately held company declined to disclose revenues.

For the entrepreneurs behind PeopleTowels, the venture is an encore or second career.

Ms. Lannon, 66, of Monterey, Calif., and Ms. Wallace, 65, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla., connected a decade ago when both were working for publishing giant McGraw-Hill in sales and marketing jobs. Though on different coasts, the two collaborated frequently on conference calls and at occasional meetings.

Through their conversations, they discovered they shared concerns about global climate change, and hoped to eventually leave their corporate careers and find jobs with more personal fulfillment.

After Ms. Wallace visited her daughter in Japan and noticed many people carrying small, reusable towels instead of using paper towels, the idea for PeopleTowels was born. In 2009, they launched the business using primarily retirement savings and a $15,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“It was scary,” said Ms. Wallace. “Neither one of us had ever sold to retail, nor were we in anything related to textiles. So it was a huge learning curve.”

Their original idea was to produce the towel entirely in the U.S., but they couldn’t find a domestic manufacturer that met their requirements. “So we had to learn to source overseas and be sure it was organic (material) and produced by people making a living wage,” said Ms. Lannon.

Based on a pilot study the company conducted two years ago at the University of California Santa Cruz, colleges and universities could be a strong market for PeopleTowels. The university purchased towels with the UC Santa Cruz logo, distributed them to students and reduced the volume of paper towels used in dormitories, said Ms. Lannon.

In recent research conducted at Arizona State University, the company supplied towels to 354 students at nine different universities who recorded how often they used the towels over four weeks. Though the final data will be crunched after the study concludes in the fall semester, about half the participants in the first sample said the towels became a habit they would continue to use in the future instead of paper towels, said Ms. Lannon.

For Steelers fans wondering about the sustainability of their iconic Terrible Towels, those terrycloth hand towels may not be organic but they can claim strong local and philanthropic links.

After they are imported from various producers outside the U.S., the designs and tags are printed at Little Earth Productions on the South Side.

And proceeds from all official Terrible Towels benefit the Allegheny Valley School’s programs and facilities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1FXtbda

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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