The North Face…goes local?

The North Face…goes local?

A locally-sourced hoodie made locally begs the question: Will mega-local manufacturing ever make the big time?

The outdoor industry giant The North Face is not often associated with the concept of local manufacturing—the concept that goods are more environmentally sustainable and create more American jobs if they can be sourced and made close to home.

In December, the company released a limited number of “locally sourced and produced” cotton hoodies, almost entirely sourced and manufactured within 150 miles of their Alameda, California, headquarters. The North Face is calling the limited release project the Backyard Hoodie.

TNF-Backyard-Hoody

While more and more Made-in-America and micro-brands are introducing apparel with a local marketing angle, this is the first time we’ve seen a concerted attempt at on-shoring by a global apparel brand.

The North Face is owned by the corporate conglomerate VF Corporation (VFC), which owns about 20 brands worldwide including SmartWool, Timberland, Lee, Reef, Eagle Creek, Vans, Nautica, Wrangler and others. VFC is heavily invested in cottons, nylons, denims, wool, and hundreds of other materials that are primarily sourced and produced overseas, mostly in Asia, and imported into first world countries, the lion’s share into the U.S.

So when The North Face decided to shine a spotlight on its small, idiosyncratic effort to “go local,” it got us wondering. Is there a place for mega-local manufacturing?

“The Backyard Hoodie began as an experiment in 2013 when we connected with Fibershed—an organization that supports local textile production in California. We asked ourselves what would happen if we challenged our designers to use fibers grown within 150 miles of our headquarters in Alameda, Calif., to design a product that is not only uniquely modern but effectively eliminates waste from the apparel manufacturing process,” said Adam Mott, Director of Sustainability for TNF. “What started as a hoodie inspired by Fibershed’s innovative business model concept has turned into the potential for The North Face to connect back to our roots and strive to make local, high quality, beautiful, and unique products.”

Most of the industry veterans I talked with were skeptical that the Backyard Hoodie represents much more than a marketing experiment.

“I’m very surprised by my initial, skeptical reaction considering 6 years ago I was working for Chaco and watched stuff get made in America every day. And I was on a crusade to get footwear manufacturing moved back to the U.S.,” said David Dolph, who has worked in outdoor footwear development for more than a decade. “I’d want to see a lot of transparency in the sourcing chain. They’re going to have to prove it, because it’s hard to believe unless it’s a very, very simple product.”

Having worked for some of the biggest brands in the industry (Pearl Izumi, Salomon, Chaco) Dolph now works for one of the “little” guys, Bozeman’s Oboz Footwear, who manufactures its shoes in Vietnam. “If it’s real, relevant, attainable, and truly environmentally sustainable then I’d like to order two of each please,” said Dolph. “What’s so bad about offshore manufacturing anyway? People don’t want a textile mill or a leather tannery in Bozeman, Boulder, or Santa Cruz, and people in Southeast Asia need jobs, too.”

Others I polled in the industry had a similar reaction: “What’s the catch?”

“The North Face deserves props for taking a step in the right direction. But I’d want to know, is it just one step for PR, or is it string of steps that truly walk the hard trail toward more sustainable manufacturing?” said Amy Hatch, founder of the website GarageGrownGear.com, an e-commerce site specializing in small, local/regional outdoor lifestyle products.

And what about small apparel companies already manufacturing in the States, or any small producer of goods (socks, packs, racks, water bottles, foods and beverages are just a few examples of American-made outdoor goods) trying to do things local and-or made in the USA?

Currently, there’s almost no better example of a grassroots, made-in-the-USA, hardcore outdoor brand to ask about this than Pagosa Springs, Colorado-based Voormi.

Voormi inched onto the outdoor-industry radar the last couple of seasons, offering a very limited line of technologically advanced Rocky Mountain wool garments to backcountry enthusiasts online and through select dealers who could get their hands on a small run late in the buying season. The company is growing, but slowly, and it took them more than three years to cobble together a completely domestic supply chain and production capability.

“We’re in full support of genuine efforts to bring production back to the United States. That said, to us ‘genuine efforts’ begin with a true commitment to invest for the long term,” said Voormi’s Timm Smith. “After the great migration to Asia in the late 20th century, the U.S. apparel industry was left decimated and highly fragmented. What production capacity still exists today is either set up to serve large military contracts, or set up to serve smaller volume or niche consumer opportunities. This infrastructure does not lend itself to the sustainable ‘resurgence of American manufacturing’ that we’d all like to see.”

“Our challenge to those bigger brands with resources to bear is to move beyond the ‘one garment’ story, and to put together a real plan for the future of cut/sew here in the United States—supported by real investment in new infrastructure and training,” Smith said. “We see a future where ‘making things’ is cool again. Like any social transformation it’s going to take time, money, and commitment that extends far beyond a good marketing story, far beyond a single company, and maybe even far beyond the current consumer wave of ‘made in the USA.’ We’ve made the decision that everything in our line will be made here in the U.S. We spent almost four years developing a supply chain to support that commitment, so we know the transformation can’t happen overnight. We’d just love to see more people join and help lead the way.”

Still, local manufacturing has to start somewhere, and it may take a company with the resources of The North Face to invest in the infrastructure that can open up local manufacturing options for smaller companies to follow.

There’s no doubt The North Face has made an authentically local effort with the Backyard Hoodie. According to Mott, The Backyard Hoodie features a blend of two California-grown cottons: organic heirloom ‘Buffalo Brown’ cotton grown by farmer Sally Fox at Foxfibre in the Capay Valley; and cotton sourced through the Sustainable Cotton Project—Cleaner Cotton—which is not organic, but disallows the 13 most toxic chemicals used on cotton in California and encourages the use of Integrated Pest Management practices.

“From the outset, our goal has been to show people that regionally grown fibers, natural dyes and local talent are still in great enough existence in the U.S. to provide this most basic human necessity—our clothes,” said Rebecca Burgess, founder of Fibershed. “Collaborating with a brand like The North Face is a huge step towards creating a thriving local textile economy.”

The mission of Fibershed is “to change the way we clothe ourselves by supporting the creation of local textile cultures that enhance ecological balance, and utilize regional agriculture while strengthening local economies and communities.” In 2012, Burgess founded Fibershed’s 501(c)3 to address and educate the public on the environmental, economic, and social benefits of de-centralizing the textile supply chain. This creates regional “community organized” textile cultures that support rural and urban cross-collaboration. These trends also show up in other ways today with the current 20-something generation—for example in the micro-brew industry and the farm-to-table restaurant movement.

“To date, the cost of production for California organic cotton has remained very high,” continued TNF’s sustainability guru Mott. “Farmers are unable to take the economic risk of growing organic cotton without a secure market in place. “Consequently, most organic cotton over the past 15 to 20 years has been grown in places like India and China. So, in a mission to help reduce chemical use in cotton cultivation, the Sustainable Cotton Project initiated the Cleaner Cotton campaign to empower conventional farmers to implement sustainable farming systems that serve as a viable alternative to imported organic cotton and is more affordable for growers and purchasers.”

Some may remember Patagonia’s efforts to bring awareness to the environmental impacts of conventionally grown cotton more than 15 years ago. Patagonia switched to organic cotton in 1996, and few, if any, large apparel players followed suit. Patagonia is now investing in dozens of small B-status corporations to help further its mission of sustainable living.

Will we see other large outdoor apparel companies follow TNF’s slow pitch back to U.S.-based sourcing and sewing? Many of the fabrics and materials used by these large companies aren’t even available in the United States right now, and import duties on raw materials actually discourage stateside production.

Questions remain: Can locally produced garments actually be profitable to a massive international apparel corporation like VF? Or is this a loss leader, a one-hit wonder, a mere marketing project attempting to tap into a consumer trend? “It was definitely more expensive to produce in the U.S. It was a challenge to balance that versus what the consumer is willing to pay to support the local economy,” said Mott, repeating one of the age-old economic dilemmas of conscientious capitalism and value pricing.

“The North Face plans to continue to explore ways of bringing locally sourced products to market and develop the next generation of the Backyard Project,” Mott reassured me. “This was a pilot project that taught us a great deal. The Backyard Hoodie was a design challenge that left a lasting impression with our design team and an inspiration for the business overall. We hope to scale it by building upon the insights we gathered from our efforts with the first collection.”

The project partners echo his enthusiasm. “Cleaner Cotton is a local, cleaner cotton that links manufacturers, brands and consumers directly with the farmers,” said Marcia Gibbs, executive director of Sustainable Cotton Project. “The Backyard Hoodie is a perfect example of how this exciting new connection can establish a U.S.A.-based sustainable apparel supply chain.”

View the video and decide for yourself if you support TNF’s efforts. Comment here and tell us your opinion. Or, do the American thing and vote with your wallet. Only simple economics can truly determine the fate of U.S.-based apparel manufacturing.

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