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Leon Kaye headshot

Tom’s of Maine Founder Wants to Revitalize the U.S. Apparel Industry

By Leon Kaye

Tom Chappell co-founded Tom’s of Maine with his wife, Kate, in 1970 and revolutionized the personal care industry. Over the years, skeptics said there was absolutely no way consumers would buy apricot- or calendula-scented deodorant; the same was said about fennel mixed with propolis and myrrh in order to create toothpaste.

But then the products started to appear at retailers including Trader Joe’s and Target. A decade ago, Colgate-Palmolive acquired Tom's of Maine for a reported $100 million.

Soon after the sale closed, Chappell was inspired to establish another company with a similar mission -- only this time within the apparel industry.

During a trek through Wales, he struggled to find a fabric that could wick away moisture, keep him warm, and allow him to go from the trail to town without having to change. Cotton, silk and synthetics were not up to the task. Wool, if woven in a certain way, could do the trick. But sheep in the U.S. are generally raised to produce meat, not wool.

Chappell insisted that he could transform clothing the way he changed personal care, and Rambler’s Way was born.

The idea behind Rambler’s Way is a high-performance clothing line that looks great with an entirely American supply chain. Chappell developed relationships with ranchers in Western states. He found both a wool-scouring plant and a spinning mill in South Carolina, and partnered with a knitting mill in North Carolina.

But in the decade since Chappell conceptualized his latest venture, he has confronted one huge challenge: the American consumer.

Americans’ simmering resentment against manufacturing moving overseas finally bubbled over in the last few years, the result of which led to the insurgent presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders and, now, the insurgent presidency of Donald Trump.

At the same time, Americans want their products fast and they want them cheap – whether they go to the big-box stores like Target and Walmart or have them delivered to their doorstep via Amazon. Hence the struggle for companies that are determined to manufacture clothes in the U.S., from Los Angeles’ American Apparel to Massachusetts' Osmium. The 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh sparked some interest in both domestic and 'ethical' clothing manufacturers, and consumers understand the appeal of locally-made clothes – as long as they don’t have to pay for them.

And as a result, the American textile and clothing sector has declined to the point that many of the mills that once employed many workers in the South and New England, as well as their suppliers, are gone.

As profiled in Inc. magazine this month, Chappell had to slowly build his own vertically-integrated supply chain. His journey included cajoling ranchers into raising a particular breed of sheep known for its wool quality. At one point, he even tried to launch his own ranch. Finding a mill that could create the thin and lightweight fabric he coveted was also a daunting task.

Then there was the sales and distribution of Rambler’s Way clothing. At first, Chappell tried to rely on independent retailers and consignment agreements. But the lack of interest, as well as the boom in online shopping, almost shuttered the company two years ago. Now, it is making a big push into brick-and-mortal retail stores, running counter to industry trends. The first stores have opened in towns such as Hanover and Portsmouth in New Hampshire, as well as in the company’s home base of Kennebunk, Maine. More stores are scheduled for launch across New England.

Chappell believes there is a target market for this line of men’s and women’s clothing, and the clothes reflect a timeless quality that should appeal to just about every consumer. But unfortunately for American manufacturing, customer’s hearts and wallets are far from aligned. Men’s shirts, including a classic wool gabardine button-down, are priced as high as $230; a shirt at H&M or Target costs a tenth of that, an easier sell for consumers even if they know how it may affect garment workers in countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh and China.

Image credit: Rambler’s Way

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye