A Toolkit for Fibersheds & Brands. Part 2: Brand Stories

Creating a Conversation for a New Era of Design

By Amy DuFault and Sarah Kelley

Photo courtesy of Mara Hoffman

Supply chains have changed dramatically — have you?

The pandemic made it loud and clear to brands that the supply chain is unpredictable. Many fibersheds have reported that brands from all over have reached out to access fibers like cotton, wool, hemp, and flax. The desire to access natural dyes from U.S. farmers is also increasing dramatically. And while this interest is exciting, the same fibersheds tell us that many of the brands they talked with were not willing to move slower, with more intention, or to pay a premium to have access to a U.S-based supply chain. Others have said that although there are opportunities to invest in technology to process these fibers and build a dependable supply chain, brands walk away until things are a little more “together.”

In the conversations we had with our case study participants below as well as with brands as part of our own personal work, the “why” of working regionally all seems to start in the right place and with one passionate person who is part of the sustainability team. Great idea, but you’re going to need a lot more buy-in. Putting emotions aside as to why you should, simply because it’s “good,” what are ways you can bring the idea to your team and make a point that it’s necessary? How can you show other teams that are part of your brand how it’s more than just marketing and trendy?

So, how do brands work with a fibershed? From tips on how to create a meaningful and fully traceable U.S. supply chain, to creating a whole new textile language, our experts weighed in.

Read on for three stories from brands that have worked with fibersheds and download the toolkit to learn more. Interested stories from fibersheds about brand collaborations? Check out these case studies.

Mara Hoffman + Fibershed Climate Beneficial™ Wool

All photos courtesy of Mara Hoffman.

The recent sweater project by pioneering sustainability brand Mara Hoffman in partnership with Fibershed offers lots of great take-homes for brands.

Dana Davis, Vice President of Sustainability, Product and Business Strategy for Mara Hoffman, shares critical lessons from this process.

For Mara Hoffman, the real root of this project was being crystal clear on the area of sustainability that is most important to them. As Dana puts it: “Transparency, always.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic made the importance of transparent supply chains all the more clear, Dana saw an opportunity. “At the beginning of the pandemic,” Dana recalled, “I started really diving more into ‘How do we grow our U.S. supply chain—outside of just what we do as far as cut & sew?’ And I’d always wanted to do something with Climate Beneficial™ yarn.” Dana reached out to Stacie Chavez, owner of Imperial Yarns and the manager of the recently-launched Fibershed Climate Beneficial™ Fiber Pool.

Stacie Chavez had recently strengthened her partnership with Fibershed, and Dana was able to work with her to connect with mills that were already familiar with spinning the Climate Beneficial™ wool. This project also involved a close partnership with the central Fibershed organization and its northern California geographic focus.

Reflecting on the benefits of working with Fibershed, Dana listed a few key benefits.

First, she recalls, “We had a ton of support from Fibershed themselves, with the language about how to speak to the product. That was extremely helpful. We’re a small team, and when it comes to marketing, when it comes to copy, we always want someone to bounce ideas off of. We got that support from Fibershed, and that was huge for us.”

Another benefit Dana found was the ability “to have stories.” As she learned, “Stacie [Chavez] is really close with the owner of the farm. If this wasn’t COVID-19, we would have been [to the farm] in a hot second. But even though that wasn’t possible, we were still able to get that personal connection, because these were people who’d known each other for a really long time, and that’s always really important to us.”

In practical terms, Mara Hoffman benefited from the localized supply chain in ways that led to cost savings. Dana notes that “Even though it’s a complex supply chain and the lead times are long, we’re able to move quickly, which is always great when having that localized supply chain. We didn’t have to overproduce, which we never want to do. We were able to order the exact amount of yarn we needed. Everybody was nimble throughout the process.”

For other brands interested in piloting a local project, Dana has some key words of advice: “Leaning into your suppliers’ knowledge is key here.”

In terms of pricing in particular, Dana notes, “That’s when the supplier has to educate the brands on what these costs are. And then they’re being transparent about what those costs are, why, what it looks like … I think you have to trust the supply chain for that. And If you’re not getting to the price you need, dissecting that and understanding WHY you’re not getting there.”

Dana also reminds brands that this partnership approach extends to thinking about timing, purchasing practices, and payment terms.

“I think a lot of brands are used to working like, ‘I place an order, and I don’t know much about it.’ I don’t think that’s a way any brands should be working, but I would imagine that brands would want to know more about this. Timing has to be thought of. You’re not just placing a purchase order (PO), and here’s the due date. A PO really is a contract when you take it at a legal level. There’s jargon that is added that gives people that way out. But how do you ensure that responsibility is taken, that ownership is taken? That’s how we do business, but I know there are so many people who don’t.”

“So we need a way to protect small businesses. Deposits and terms are some of the ways. In the beginning, especially if it’s a new brand, they should be paying up front for those services.”

In the end, Dana has some more succinct words of wisdom. “It’s literally all about relationship building.”

Large Footwear and Apparel Brand

Photo credits (left to right): Andrew Burleson, 10,000 Pounds of Cotton Farmer; Paige Green; Vincent James x NY Textile Lab

Our conversation with the sustainability manager for an anonymous brand revealed key lessons for both brands and Fibershed Affiliates.

After some initial discussions, this project officially launched with a day-long tour along the supply chain organized by the fibershed that brought the brand team and the fibershed team together. The brand team had a chance to see the farm, tour one of the manufacturing facilities connected to the project, try their hands at natural dyeing, and get to know the people in this local supply chain.

The anonymous brand representative and the fibershed alike agreed that this was an incredible way to launch the project. As this sustainability manager put it, “When we were able to do that [tour] day … it was such a good hands-on moment of seeing, this is where my color came from, this is where my fiber came from, and then seeing it come off our knitting machines at the factory—it was like, this is it!”

Overall, this brand representative believes, “People underestimate the value of people in sustainability. Everybody’s very interested in carbon sequestration and animal welfare and how many trees you’ve planted and water savings—that is all important, and we need to pay attention to it, but at the end of the day … if you potentially have people who are being taken advantage of in an externalized cost situation, that doesn’t make me feel good about what we’re making.”

For that reason, this sustainability manager holds a straightforward and inspiring goal that fibersheds are uniquely suited to help meet:

While driven mainly by personal passion, the sustainability manager points out that this approach is critical for the brand’s efforts as well. They pointed to data that shows that consumers are not willing to pay more for just a sustainability label or a made in-USA label alone. Overall, they feel, “To pay a premium for that [product], you need a premium story—and I think that that’s where this more local, domestic manufacturing comes into play.”

The local supply chain effort that this sustainability manager worked on with the fibershed was unfortunately put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking back, they shared some key reflections that will hopefully help inform other brands and restart this project in the future. Reflecting on barriers, they recalled that, “The very first initial barrier … was just establishing what the supply chain actually looks like. If [the brand] is at the front and a farm is at the backside, what are the steps along the way that we need to take to get there? And where can we customize that a little bit?”

The supply chain tour day was a major step in overcoming this first barrier. As the project went along, they recalled, “The technical things became a barrier after a while—we just did not know how to work with the [local fiber] in the way that we were using it in our knitting machines.” To address this barrier, one key piece of advice is to connect the brand’s product engineers and technical people directly with the fiber producers early in the process, so they can communicate directly on technical issues.

Another key lesson the sustainability manager learned, was that “I think I should have allowed myself to be a little more nimble with how I wanted to see the end project. I had this grand vision in my head that we were going to do a [100% local fiber product] because I wanted it to be this very pure product. If I’d had the awareness at that moment to say, ‘OK, this is becoming too complicated in this form, maybe we could switch to a [simpler product],’ just to get the story, the proof of concept DONE and on the ground, that probably would have been beneficial.”

TS Designs + Solid State Clothing

All photos courtesy of TS Designs.

Eric Henry, President of TS Designs, has been a decades-long believer in the importance of rebuilding local supply chains. His perspectives offer key insights for brands, smaller apparel makers, and fibersheds.

Based in North Carolina, TS Designs has evolved from a screen printer to a maker and printer of premium, made-in-the-USA t-shirts that are grown and manufactured with fully traceable supply chains. As such, TS Designs sits in between farmers and larger buyers who purchase their shirts for employees, events, or their own lines.

Eric emphasizes what should be self-evident in apparel supply chains, but is too often forgotten:

“The farmer has zero say in the price of a product, and that’s the most basic thing we have to fix in agriculture. The farmer has to have a voice and has to make a living. They are the most important part of the conversation!”

And, Eric adds, “The best people to fix that are the brands. They have to have a relationship with the farmer, and they have to support what the farmer charges.”

To allow this shift, Eric says, “You’re going to have to have patience and a long-term perspective.”

However, Eric believes that the COVID-19-induced supply chain disruptions will bring change in this regard: “COVID-19 destroyed those global supply chains. What we learned from COVID is how much resiliency we need to move forward.”

To demonstrate how local supply chains can build that resiliency, TS Designs has launched its own small brand, Solid State Clothing, and developed the 10,000 Pounds of Cotton Project, or the 10K Project for short.

Through these linked projects, TS Designs committed to buying 10,000 pounds of cotton at a fair price directly from third-generation farmer Andrew Burleson in New London, North Carolina. TS Designs then crowdfunded the manufacturing of the t-shirts from Burleson’s cotton, and in late summer 2021, the t-shirts were manufactured and sent to those who had bought into the project.

The 10K Project offers a key pilot for both brands and fibersheds seeking creative models for pricing and sourcing. As Eric says, “With the 10K Project, we’re proving all of this can be done.”

Reflecting on earlier experiences where he functioned more as a supplier to brands, Eric has additional lessons to share. As he puts it, “A small fibershed wants to sell the fiber, and they get excited, but then they get caught in a trap where they overcommit and under deliver. It’s tough to say no when you have an opportunity to get yourself into the spotlight.”

Drawing from his own experiences with an earlier brand partnership, Eric encourages fibersheds to understand their own value and ensure that their interests are protected: “It’s true with any business relationship where you have one side with more power … you need to have more due diligence with the contracts. My fault was not having an agreement where we both knew what the expectations were.”

Nowadays, Eric says, he asks tough questions to ensure if a project is really viable. “I like to talk about the worst case scenarios and what the brand is bringing to the table, what happens when I can’t deliver, what happens if my supply chain breaks, if it doesn’t get shipped on time,” he says. “Better to have those discussions now. Understand the things you don’t have control of, for example, the farmer doesn’t have control over the weather. Take the time to make sure the brand knows the potential for failures and how you will handle the failures.”

“And sometimes,” he concludes, “you just have to make the call that the project just isn’t a fit, even if you do everything perfect.”

In the end, Eric reflects that brands and fibersheds have a key shared interest: “We can all be in different places, but let’s all agree on where we want to go to have a more resilient supply chain, a more equitable supply chain.”

For TS Designs, the best business relationships start with “understanding the value of the relationship and seeing where you can meet on equal ground so that both sides gain from the relationship.”