When Evie Mutsch, at age two-and-a-half, started applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy at the Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP), she spoke no words and tended to express herself in tantrums, her mom, Kelly, says. Today, however, at age 10 and a half, words pour from her mouth as she talks about the intricacies of the animal kingdom, her work co-running an eco-friendly clothing business with her mom, and her fascination with United States history, particularly the events surrounding the Revolutionary War and westward expansion.
Recently, our team at LEARN talked through Zoom with Evie and Kelly about what it’s like to run a business, Eco Evie, at such a young age. Eco Evie makes garments for kids and women made entirely from recycled water bottles—each shirt, for instance, comes from 11 to 16 water bottles—and donates a portion of each sale to endangered animal conservation efforts. The brightly colored tank tops, hoodies, tops, and dresses feature such animals as the Amur leopard, black rhinoceros, monarch butterfly, pangolin, and sea turtle. Here’s a recap of our conversation.
Q: Evie, we looked at your website and watched the CBS news story about your business. Wow—we are impressed! What does it feel like to have your own business as a fifth grader?
A (Evie): It’s both strange and wonderful. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I already have a career. I’m a child who has a career already. It’s hard to believe. What will I do with the rest of my life?
Q: How did you get interested in endangered animals?
A (Evie): It maybe started after I finished 4K [kindergarten]. Before that time, I wanted to be an astronaut and was really interested in outer space. I’d always liked animals but started to learn more about endangered animals and how much they need our help.
A (Kelly): We live five minutes from the Milwaukee Zoo and have been going there forever. One day, Evie looked up at the endangered animals sign and asked, “What does this sign mean?” She was in first or second grade, and she turned to me and said, “We need to help the sea animals because they can’t speak, and can’t help themselves.” This was a huge turning point for us, unleashing a side of Evie I hadn’t seen before. We started making and selling bracelets with the little colorful rubber bands, Rainbow Loom bracelets. We sold them everywhere—in the neighborhood, at school, at the park—and then one day Evie turned to me and said: “We can’t just make bracelets all the time! What else can we do to help the animals?” From day one, she was business-minded about helping animals.
Q: That’s a great story. How, then, did you decide to make eco-friendly clothing?
A (Kelly): Well, I knew that whatever Evie picked, she was going to do something significant with it—she was that committed—and we started thinking about what we might do together. I studied fashion design in college and worked for the corporate offices of Kohl’s and Bon-Ton, focusing on children’s clothes. So, I knew something about the industry and how to make clothing. After a number of conversations, we made the decision to focus on clothing—clothing made from recycled materials and manufactured fully in the United States.
Q: It sounds like the recycling part of the business model, then, just made sense. You were helping animals—you also wanted to help the earth, which would, in turn, help animals. Tell me about the recycling part? What is your clothing made of, and how do you source your materials?
A (Evie): Our clothes are made entirely from plastic water bottles. If you can believe it, I’m wearing a bunch of plastic—but it’s soft and not scratchy.
A (Kelly): We put a lot of thought into where we get the materials and manufacture the clothing. If you look at the tags of most of the clothing we wear, nearly all of it is made overseas, which requires a lot of fuel for transportation and shipping. We didn’t want that and found a company in Yadkinville, North Carolina, that can turn recycled plastic into yarn, creating a product called Repreve. From there, a mill nearby turns the yarn into fabric, and then we do all the printing, cutting, and sewing here in the Milwaukee area.
We only make what we sell, so we don’t make extra. We minimize waste.
Q: What a feat of engineering and planning. Tell us, Evie, what endangered animal interests you most, and what additional animals would you like to raise awareness and money for through your clothing?
A (Evie): I like them all. Baby sea turtles are interesting. Not many make it to the sea because, when they’re born, they confuse the artificial lights of the city with moonlight and go in the wrong direction. Artificial light is a big problem.
We’re thinking about choosing elephants and manatees [for our next projects] because they’re starting to become endangered. Manatees are called “sea cows”—they eat so much food! They’re not carnivores, and they eat three whole bathtubs full of food, like plants and leaves, every single day. But boat engines are harming the plants they need to survive.
This week, they listed the second species of African elephants as endangered. These elephants don’t have the long neck adaptation that giraffes have to get leaves, so they use their tusks to scrape leaves off of tall trees.
A (Kelly): Yes, choosing what animal to do next is serious business in our family. You can imagine our discussions over dinner!
Q: Evie, when you’re not learning about endangered animals and working on the clothing business, what do you like to do?
A (Evie): I like to read, especially Tui T. Sutherland’s Wing of Fire series. I also read graphic novels, like anything by Raina Telgemeier. In Ghosts, a girl moves to Northern California, where the sun only shines for 62 days a year. Later on, she discovers her home isn’t like other homes. It’s a mansion on a hill, and then there’s a ghost who likes orange soda. A ghost who likes orange soda—if you can imagine that. It’s unbelievable!
A (Kelly): Recently, you read an entire book on U.S. history.
A (Evie): Science used to be my favorite subject in school, but then Ms. Johnson, my fifth-grade teacher, introduced the Revolutionary War and showed us a series of videos called Liberty about a group of boys who were Loyalists going to New York. I can tell you—I would not be on the Loyalists side because I wouldn’t want to be taxed! It’s hilarious that King George thought he could get away with that. At the end of one of the videos, George Washington declined being king and said: “I was a general. I will leave as a citizen.”
The Homestead Act was later but before the Civil War, and before the U.S. government unlocked the frontier. Part of it belonged to France, but France didn’t have enough money, and the U.S. paid what would be considered a huge amount of money today. Then Lewis and Clark explored the west with the help of Sacagewea. That’s when the Homestead Act started.
Q: You know a lot about U.S. history, Evie. That is wonderful. Kelly, before we leave, I wonder if you can talk some about how the business has helped both you and Evie in your journey with autism.
A (Kelly): After everything we went through with Evie, with more than three years of intensive therapy, I had said, wow, if Evie ever asks for anything within reason, I would do it—no questions asked. And she wanted to start a business to help animals, so I said yes. My hope for her with this business is that she can work on her communication skills. I’d love for her to get some business experience and skills as she gets older that can help her throughout life. She’s part of nearly every decision, coming up with what we share about each animal on the website and choosing the animals and information featured in our coloring activities for kids.
As for our journey, we feel so fortunate. The first few years were really rough, with Evie being non-verbal and prone to screaming and rolling around on the floor when she was frustrated. I also felt hopeless and didn’t know what the future would hold for us. At that time, I wished I had a 10-year-old Evie to watch and see how far she has come, and how well she is doing now. That’s another part of the reason we’re doing this—we want families with autism to know we’ve been in your spot, and it’s going to be OK.
The other day, a woman who saw our news story, and whose grandson was diagnosed recently with autism, told me how much our story helped her. If I can help or inspire even one person, then it’s totally worth it.