Organic Wool Warms Up The Organic Fiber Industry
By Heather Larson
This winter, eco-conscious shoppers have more ways to stay warm and fashionable than ever before. Organic wool, or “O~Wool,” from Vermont Organic Fiber Co. is being woven into everything from sweaters and jackets to blankets and bedding—and can now even be found on the racks of mainstream retail stores such as J.Crew and Barneys. Drawn in by the functionality and the ecological story behind this fiber, these companies, as well as innovative manufacturers such as Patagonia, REI, Maggie’s Organics, Loomstate, Ecobaby, lululemon athletica, Timberland, Ambler Mountain Works, Fox River Mills and many others have added O~Wool to their labels.
In addition to selling their organic wool yarn and hand-woven fabrics to manufacturers, Vermont Organic Fiber Co. also offers a line of their own consumer products including blankets and hand-knitting yarns, which are sold by independent retailers throughout the country.
With all of this combined, Vermont Organic Fiber Co. has doubled their growth in 2006 alone and will most likely continue to grow as the company expands its offerings. Vermont Organic Fiber Co. has already created organic wool-cotton and organic wool-nylon blends to give manufacturers and designers more tools to work with in their efforts to create sustainable products. They’re working on options that incorporate other eco-friendly fibers as well.
An active player in creating the Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS), Vermont Organic Fiber Co. is not only leading new developments in fashion but in regulatory policy as well and is helping bring about a new level of awareness and transparency within the organic textile industry.
Shepherding a New Concept From Field to Fashion
Vermont Organic Fiber Co. was the first, and is currently the only, company to develop commercial supplies of organic wool yarns and fabrics and bring them to market.
Founder Matthew Mole was inspired to start his company while working on a research project on natural fibers at the University of Vermont. At the time, there were a few operations making organic wool products, yet no one had developed a commercial market or supply chain for it. Mole saw an opportunity to make a difference.
“A lot of my passion and drive comes from what can be done to support organic agriculture and provide a return to the broadest group of organic producers,” says Mole. “By looking at what had been happening in the marketplace with other sustainable fibers, and the fact that wool was a highly functional fiber that designers and consumers were familiar with, there was really an opportunity to be moving volume here.”
He found organic sheep farmers in New Mexico, Oregon and North Dakota who were either selling their wool in conventional markets, or not selling it at all, and struck up a win-win deal. The farmers were already raising their sheep in accordance with organic standards and were thrilled to have a premium market for their wool.
Processors, on the other hand, were not so easy to convince. “This is where the biggest mind-shift took place,” said Mole. While conventional wool is treated with several harsh chemicals and soaps throughout processing, O~Wool uses only organic-compliant natural plant-based products. Cellulose is removed from the fibers mechanically rather than through acid baths used in conventional wool processing. “Getting mills to change the way they are doing things or understand potential contamination from pesticides and other chemicals took a lot of education and training,” Mole said.
Slowly the company began to grow but the real jumpstart came when Vermont Organic Fiber Co. began working with Patagonia by supplying O~Wool organic yarns for their sweaters. Then Mole looked at other companies who had made sustainability commitments and approached them about O~Wool. As the company grew, Mole realized that domestic wool alone was not going to meet his needs. For one, domestic sheep farms tended to be very small and he would only be able to get a couple hundred pounds from each, resulting in a hodgepodge of textures and quality. Also most sheep farmers in the United States are more focused on raising sheep for lamb meat rather than wool, so the only wool he could find domestically was a thicker, more coarse wool. So he went to the wool capital of the world—Australia. There he was able to work with certified organic farmers who specialized in merino wool, a finer, softer wool that would allow him to expand his offerings to please the designer who desired a more finished look and softer feel.
Mole still works with many domestic farmers and is even working with the American Sheep Industry Association and universities to generate more interest in domestic production of organic wool. More domestic wool means less is transported from across the world, translating to environmental benefits, an expanded range of products, reduced cost of transportation, and a reduced carbon footprint. “It’s tough getting farmers to take the risk right now, but as they see organic wool becoming more of a hot commodity, I am sure there will be more converting domestically,” he said.
Today, O~Wool, which trickled into the market, is now starting to flood every corner of it. Vermont Fiber Co. works with over 130 companies who manufacture products using O~Wool. Partnering with Jasco Fabrics in New York, the company has worked to produce some fashion knit fabrics for Diane Von Furstenberg, Linda Loudermilk and other top designers and the feedback Mole is getting from the brands is that his wool products are selling very well. The sweaters Gaiam did in 2007 with O~Wool have been a hot item this year, which may lead to another product with the catalog company in the future.
One market that may come as a surprise is the cloth diaper market. O~Wool supplies fabrics to at least ten companies who manufacture diaper covers including Vermont Diaper Co., Loveybums, Love Bug Diapers, Better For Babies and Tiny Birds Organics. “Wool can hold up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture before it even begins to feel wet,” said Mole. Merino wool from Australia goes into the cloth diapers and Mole says its softness feels great against babies’ skin.
Expanding Functionality For Eco-Conscious Designers
Organic cotton spearheaded the environmentally conscious textiles movement and has been a huge success, but many types of garments require functionality that cotton alone cannot offer. Designers are embracing organic wool for its warmth and performance qualities. Wool is not only extremely strong, it serves as a temperature regulator for the body by keeping the wearer warm in winter and cool in summer. Its wicking properties are not the only reason why wool works great as an active wear blend. “A great thing about wool is that it actually doesn’t smell,” says Mole. “If you have fleece or synthetic long underwear and you go out and you’re active in the wintertime, once you take it off it smells horribly. Wool doesn’t do that.”
Organic wool allows clothing manufacturers to expand the range of products they are able to offer to consumers. If they are already making products that are made of organic cotton or other eco-friendly materials, then adding O~Wool to the repertoire is an added value for them. “They can diversify their offering,” says Mole. “Wool is a classic fiber with a broad range of applications in everything from business to active wear. There are many markets in which it can be utilized.”
Blending other fibers with wool gives the company a chance to widen the variety of offerings available, providing different benefits in the way of hand feel, customer demand, fashion and functionality. A cotton blend gives a nice heathering and works as a good cross-season yarn. Hemp means strength and durability, while fabric made from Tencel, which is considered a more environmentally friendly replacement for rayon, adds strength to a wool blend as well as a slick visual effect and feel.
“In Asia, we’re working on recycled polyester,” says Mole. Brands wanted an eco-friendly recycled material that could offer some cost savings but also provide performance. For instance, recycled polyester can reduce pilling. Organic linen and flax are other options the company is researching as well. They’ve also looked at using bamboo as a blend because it’s very trendy right now but have chosen not to use it because currently bamboo rayons have to use harsh chemicals in processing to break it down from the tree state to the filament fibers.
Setting the Standards
Besides blazing the trail in organic wool, Mole has shown his deep commitment to organic fiber through his company’s involvement in developing both OTA’s American Organic Standard (AOS) and the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS). Because of this involvement, all his manufacturing mills had to abide by the standards before the standards had officially been created.
In creating the standards, Mole and fellow organic companies looked globally to see what the varying standards of organic production were. They found a variety of viewpoints about processing steps, like what kind of dyes should be used, and started a dialogue in order to create a global standard. The standards were ratified and accepted in 2004 by the OTA and then it took another year for any certifiers to come on board to certify to the standards. Soon after, Vermont Organic Fiber Co. began certifying their mills. Then it was time to take the standards to the next level and Mole worked with many others to develop GOTS. The GOTS working group includes the International Association Natural Textile Industry of Germany, the UK’s Soil Association, the OTA, and the Japanese Organic Cotton Association (JOCA). Now Mole is getting everyone certified throughout his supply chain, which takes time and involves training. It’s not so much about the materials as it’s about getting suppliers to maintain proper records and handling procedures.
“If everyone worked with the same organic standard it would make this a much less confusing industry to navigate globally,” said Mole. “The goal is to have the whole supply chain GOTS certified rather than having one part of it being AOS certified and an Australian mill being EU certified, for example. As brands, manufacturers and even consumers become better educated about what GOTS means, it brings a level of transparency to organic fiber while eliminating consumer confusion,” said Mole.
Mole sees a successful GOTS future for his O~Wool. “It’s becoming very well-regarded and accepted globally,” he says. “Now we have brands that we are developing programs with for the future. They actually understand it and say ‘well, we want our whole supply chain GOTS certified.’ A year ago, I’d have to provide an hour or two presentation on organic certification for them, but now they’re coming to the table much more educated.”
The O~Wool slogan is: “Organic. It just feels right,” communicating the message that buying organic wool can make you feel warm and fuzzy quite literally because of its soft texture, as well as figuratively, due to the fact that you are supporting earth and animal-friendly practices.
One way the Vermont Organic Fiber Co. is actively working to educate consumers is via their website. They get a lot of traffic from customers who find their hand-knitting yarns in retail locations. On the retail level, Vermont Organic Fiber Co. provides marketing and support materials, including point of sale items to help reach out directly to consumers. Catalog retailers even get help with their copywriting from Vermont Organic Fiber Co. if they need it. Because of this opportunity to educate, Mole concentrates much of his efforts on catalog retailers. Mole also reaches out to students at design schools by offering a discount so they can become familiar with his product.
Greener Organic Wool
What has always been important to Mole remains central to the company’s mission more than ever. He wanted to start a company that would be nothing but positive to the environment. It’s something he has already achieved, yet it also continues to evolve. Mole is very conscious of how his product is being transported around the world and tries to avoid the use of airfreight. Production stays on schedule so they can use rail or boat for transport rather than air. One way he reduces transportation miles is by creating strong relationships with manufacturers so that they can cluster production steps closer together. They are working to identify manufacturers who are geographically closer together to reduce both transportation and environmental costs. Internally they look at the use of resources like paper and other materials. Can they cut back on processing aids? Can they run a machine a little slower? It is questions like these that Mole asks frequently to keep Vermont Organic Fiber evolving in an eco-conscious way. He is also always working with his processors to get them thinking about changes they could make. Could they switch their boilers to bio-fuel? Recently he got a processor to stop spraying for moths and put in an organic pest control system instead. “These are the little changes that give me a lot of joy,” says Mole. “Getting them to understand the big picture, how the materials we are using every day impact the environment and what alternatives are healthier for the environment. If everyone makes a little change, it can create a large change.”
After all, besides wrapping up in an organic wool blanket, another great way to get that warm and fuzzy feeling this winter is knowing you are doing all you can to make the world a better place.
Heather Larson is a contributing writer for Organic Processing Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.