When you hear the words “locally grown,” images of leafy-green-lined farmer’s markets, multi-colored CSA boxes, and interestingly odd-shaped heirloom tomatoes may come to mind – and not necessarily a piece of clothing. Borrowing a cue from the local food movement, The North Face has developed an all-cotton hoodie that was grown, designed, cut and sewn within 150 miles of its corporate headquarters in California. The Backyard Hoodie, as it’s called, is the first in The North Face’s Backyard Collection, a line of products manufactured in the United States using locally sourced materials and resources.
The limited-edition men's and women's sweatshirt represents the brand’s commitment to connect with its regional textile supply chain and build products with local roots that have a positive local impact – a significant feat not common within the global apparel industry. In collaboration with the organizations Fibershed, Foxfibre, and the Sustainable Cotton Project, The North Face sourced the cotton used to make the Backyard Hoodie from California farmers who implement biologically-based practices that protect land, air and water resources and result in improved water and air quality, healthier soil, and reduced chemical exposure for farm workers and rural communities.
Beyond the source material, the Backyard Hoodie’s design was also intentional: Motivated to reduce waste, designers accounted for excess fabric in the design process and consequently lowered the hoodie’s waste percentage below the apparel industry average. This type of apparel production gives a new meaning to conscious design. I spoke with Adam Mott, director of sustainability at The North Face, to hear more about the making of the product from seed to sweatshirt, and why a locally grown product like this matters.
TriplePundit: Why did you choose California as the source for the cotton in this product? Adam Mott: Our goal was to make a product locally from soil to skin within 150 miles of our headquarters in Alameda, Calif. We set out to support our local community. California has some of the highest quality cotton in the world and we were able to source from two different cotton farms within 150 miles. Sally Fox provided heirloom 'Buffalo' brown cotton from her farm in the Capay Valley and the Martin family provided Cleaner Cotton-certified through the Sustainable Cotton Project from their farm in the San Joaquin Valley.
3p: The original idea was to create a hoodie using materials and manufacturers within 150 miles of The North Face’s headquarters, but it wasn’t possible to do the sewing and spinning in California due to the lack of cotton mills in the state. Do you think a big apparel company like The North Face will ever be able to make a product within 150 miles of one place in the U.S.?
AM: The main limitation was the lack of spinning and knitting infrastructure in California. (Due to the decline of cotton mills in Northern California, the cotton spinning and knitting had to be completed in the Carolinas before the fabric was returned to a cutting facility in Oakland and a local sewer in San Leandro, California, who constructed the garments.)
The U.S. is bringing a lot of production back (in multiple industries) and, overall, consumers are becoming more interested in buying local. This movement will probably continue and therefore it's only a matter of time until entrepreneurs bring that type of knowledge and production back to California so it can be close to the cotton harvest.
3p: Most apparel (or most products, for that matter) are designed with only the consumer-use in mind, not with what resources are available to make that product. The Backyard Hoodie is an example of what can be created through conscious reverse design. Why did you decide to take that approach?
AM: It's really about bringing back an older form of design where available materials and resources dictated your design choices. We decided to take a bale of beautiful heirloom cotton and see what we could make with it. This created more collaborative, deeper connections with the artisans involved in the textile production and inspired us to think about reducing waste in the design process for this exclusive collection.
3p: What's your measure of success for the Backyard Hoodie?
AM: This was more about the process than the final product. We have several learnings that can carry through as inspiration for future products. For one thing, Backyard helped us understand more about sustainable cotton farming practices and connected us with local artisans and growers in our community. We also experienced what it was like to let materials further inform design. Rather than starting with the goal of a specific design, we asked ourselves how we could let materials be a visual cue and primary driver in the design process.
On sourcing, when we couldn’t source from within 150 miles, we looked to other U.S.-based vendors. Our teams did a lot of work to try to make that happen so now we have a base of American suppliers we know we can partner with in the future. The measure of success will be the extent to which we can apply these learnings to scale up in the future.
3p: How do you think The North Face consumer will respond to the way this hoodie was made?
AM: The typical The North Face consumer has an appreciation and respect for the environment and community. We hope the story of this product will resonate with them.
More and more, consumers want a deeper connection to and understanding of the products that they buy. We are evolving to higher expectations for products with which consumers have an intimate connection. The food industry is a good barometer for such interest in transparency, health and connection to the local community.
3p: How has designing this hoodie changed the way The North Face designers think about the design process?
AM: The true benefit of the Backyard Project was the inspiration it generated by taking a different approach to making a product and bringing it to market. Backyard is really about asking new questions and making deeper connections. The project inspired our teams to better understand local production, encouraged us to reduce waste in the design and manufacturing processes and allow unique materials and partners to tell a story through design.
In turn, this helped inform a whole series of products we are calling the Backyard Collection. We are digging deeper into the origins of our raw materials, making stronger connections with the partners that help us bring product to market and gaining a better understanding of the impacts we have as a business. People here at The North Face are thinking ‘what can we do next?’
Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of Creators Circle, a nonprofit working to close opportunity gaps for future generations of impact changemakers. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past decade. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots. Follow her on Twitter @NayelliGonzalez.