Shearing the Edge of Innovation

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Shearing the Edge of Innovation

By Jordan K. Speer - 05/01/2006

Patagonia is at it again. The company, known for venturing into uncharted territory to pursue enviro-friendly "green" practices, is slowly but surely carving out a niche in the barely budding world of organic wool. With any luck, and some hard work to develop demand -- and more importantly, supply -- the organic wool business will follow a similar trajectory as its more well-known cotton predecessor.

Patagonia takes the plunge
Thinking back to the struggles involved in developing Patagonia's organic cotton apparel, Jill Dumain, director of environmental analysis at the company, says she finds it "remarkable" that Patagonia recently celebrated its 10-year "organic" anniversary. Its organic cotton apparel has been very successful, but back in those early days, "we were so naïve as to what the future held for us," she says.

So what is the impetus driving Patagonia to look for ways to expand into other organic fibers? For one thing, the firm's organic cotton odyssey helped Patagonia prove that it could "put together supply chains" and persevere to understand and overcome challenges, says Dumain. Another key factor is its strong belief in the benefits of organic agriculture.

With that mission in mind, Dumain began research into organic wool about six or seven years ago. Her first attempt to develop an organic wool supply chain in Argentina "got off to a very rough start," she says. "The wool market was really struggling in general in the late '90s, in Argentina particularly."

While its efforts in Argentina and some other wool-producing regions did not bear fruit, the seeds of another relationship were developing with organic enthusiast Matthew Mole, who eventually founded the Vermont Organic Fiber Co.

Today, the company is the primary supplier of certified organic wool yarns and fabrics to the U.S. organic apparel and textile market. In addition to Patagonia, it supplies its O-Wool to companies including Maggie's Organics, Sahalie (Norm Thompson) and Timberland.

Vermont Organic Fiber buys virtually the entire supply of U.S.-grown organic wool, which represents about a quarter of the company's supply. The balance is purchased from Australia and New Zealand. Mole did "a lot of work to put [an organic wool] supply chain together," says Dumain. "Trying to put together a supply chain on my own was the challenge in the late '90s. But now Matt has established himself as a vendor that can bring it to you."

Organic wool apparel hits the shelves
After a few years of R&D and design, with input from Vermont Organic Fiber, Patagonia was ready to develop its first organic wool line.
One of Dumain's key challenges was getting commitment from the design department to dedicate a small portion of the Patagonia line to organic wool -- and to stick with it, no matter what. Among the chief concerns: The limited supply of organic wool makes the fiber very expensive, thus restricting the channels in which it can be sold.

Also, because organic wool as it is currently available is very coarse, it is most suitable for garments such as heavy, bulky sweaters, thus restricting design possibilities. Within those parameters, Dumain worked closely with designers to develop styles that would appeal to consumers.

In fall 2004 and 2005, Patagonia went to market with two certified organic wool styles for women and two for men, sold only through Patagonia's direct channels: its catalog, web site and retail stores. Patagonia produced approximately 1,200-1,500 pieces of each style both years.

Scaling up
Patagonia has made huge strides in its organic wool initiative, but it's still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to overall production. Its organic wool line for fall 2006 will feature a sweater made from a lighter-weight wool than that used in the previous two years (see photo on previous page). But organic wool still is not available for the finer, next-to-skin applications that characterize the mainstream wool market, notes Dumain, who observes: "Being able to do next-to-skin is huge.

"You can only stay within this box for so long. Markets change. Trends change. You need to be able to expand," says Dumain. As such, Patagonia has challenged Vermont Organic Fiber to expand its supply chain and work to bring higher grades of wool into the organic fold. Mole is clearly up to the challenge, and is encouraged by what he sees as "dramatic" growth in organic wool.

"Companies that have traditionally aligned themselves with an environmental message" created the original momentum behind the movement, he says, but now growth is being driven from other quarters, such as high-fashion houses and designers. As this demand achieves more "critical mass," the possibilities for improving the supply are increasing as well, he says.

To wit: Mole, who estimates that Vermont Organic Fiber sold approximately 80,000 pounds of organic wool in 2005, is working closely with organic wool growers in Australia, New Zealand and the United States to develop more sales channels for their products. He is also working to increase the supply by "finding producers willing to make the shift in how they manage their flocks," he says. For those that shift to organic practices, there is a tremendous value-added benefit, he adds.

To meet the demand for next-to-skin applications -- which are stymied not as much by the availability of finer-count organic wool as by a lack of approved methods for making it washable -- Mole is working with technology partners to develop washable-wool applications that meet organic processing standards. To date, achievements have been made for knit fabric processing, but not yet for processing at the yarn stage.

Getting consumer buy-in
How do you convince consumers to buy organic wool?
The No. 1 way to interest them is by creating appealing product, says Dumain. Ultimately the primary factors affecting a purchase decision will be style, color and design.

For example, although Patagonia produced the same number of organic sweaters in 2004 and 2005, they sold out in 2004 but not in 2005. Dumain attributes this to the more attractive styling of the former rather than to any lack of interest in organic wool.

As for the appeal of the organic label, Dumain says the task of educating consumers about organic wool's environmental benefits has been eased by the widespread success of organic cotton in the marketplace.

"A lot of our customers know what [certified organic wool] means already. Maybe not at the detailed level of how the sheep are treated, or what the grazing ratios are -- nor do they probably care -- but they've come to understand that it's a more environmentally friendly way to produce fabric," she says.

Still, education is certainly not at its saturation point, and Patagonia uses informational blurbs about organic wool in its catalogs and web site, as well as point-of-purchase signage. Even consumers who understand what it means to grow organic cotton will ask: "What do you mean, organic sheep?" says Dumain.

The biggest hurdles Patagonia and other organic wool apparel providers face are limited wool availability and high price points. Overcoming those barriers may come with improved economies of scale, says Dumain, or they may simply "be a reality of" the organic wool industry.
Time will tell. n

Jordan K. Speer is senior editor of apparel. She can be reached at [email protected]

fabric at a glance
-Fabric name: O-Wool
-Supplier: Vermont Organic Fiber Co.
-Fiber content: wool, produced in accordance with federal standards for organic livestock production
-Notable properties: warm, soft and luxurious, but machine-washable next-to-skin grades are not yet available
-Cost per yard: varies according to fabric type, ranging from approximately $9/yard to $30/yard

With its emphasis on environmentally friendly innovation, Patagonia can hardly be called "mainstream." But its groundbreaking efforts in areas such as energy conservation, recycling and organic cotton help to inspire and pave the way for more traditional apparel companies to incorporate pro-environment practices in their businesses without missing a beat.

Consider Wal-Mart. Last year its Sam's Club introduced several organic cotton apparel lines; now Wal-Mart itself is involved in a major organic apparel initiative. Jill Dumain, director of environmental analysis at Patagonia, says that while she doesn't know the specifics, "it is a multi-year plan, which is very encouraging. It's not just'well, let's try it this year, and we'll see how it goes.' "

Dumain knows how important it is to be committed. When she began developing Patagonia's organic cotton initiative back in 1989, she was starting at ground zero. Then, the term "organic" was almost completely alien to consumers.

That's hard to believe given today's surging organic trend. The organic food industry has skyrocketed, and organic cotton apparel has gained significant traction in the marketplace in the past few years. Wal-Mart's latest foray into the market promises to take organic to the next level.
Likening the growth curve of organic wool now to that of organic cotton 15 years ago, she says: "I'm optimistic. --Even though the industry doesn't quite get it right now, and the consumers don't quite get it right now, they're'getting' organic cotton, and that's taken 15, 16 years. --[My experience with] wool feels very much like that same time period [with cotton].

"It took 16 years to get Wal-Mart to start using organic cotton. I'm optimistic that organic wool fibers are following [in a similar path. In fact, its growth curve] might even be shorter," she concludes.

Jordan K. Speer is senior editor of apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].

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