In California, gathering the ingredients for a locally sourced food product is a challenging but attainable goal. Putting together the ingredients for a locally sourced, mass-market item of clothing is not nearly as simple.
This week, The North Face announced its new Backyard Hoodie–a piece of cotton clothing that was intended to be entirely sourced and manufactured within 150 miles of its Alameda, California, headquarters. Though North Face did come close, the company ultimately failed.
Today, The North Face’s supply chain takes it all over the world. The cotton in a fleece or hoodie might be grown in the U.S. or India, and sent for manufacturing to Asia or Central America. But a little over two years ago, the company started talking to Rebecca Burgess, the founder of Fibershed, a project that brings together local artisans, growers, spinners, knitters, ginners, and manufacturers to make homegrown production easier. The idea for the hyper-local hoodie was born.
“As a big apparel brand, we typically buy finished garments. We work with textile mills to get the specific qualities we want but we don’t typically have insight into who’s growing that material. It’s a unique experience for us, getting down to the actual farmer level,” says Adam Mott, sustainability director at the North Face.
The North Face was the largest company that Fibershed had ever worked with, according to Burgess. When the company came calling, she happened to have a bale of brown cotton from Foxfibre, a cotton grower in the Capay Valley, on hand (Foxfibre’s creator, Sally Fox, invented a method for mass-producing naturally colored cotton). The North Face loved it.
Ultimately, the company settled on two cotton providers for the Backyard Hoodie: Foxfibre and the Sustainable Cotton Project, which works with farms in the Central Valley. The cotton is blended, spun into yarn, and knitted–all the way out in North Carolina. “It was really hard to find a cotton spinner in California. [North Carolina] is where the heart of the textile industry is still,” says Mott.
After that, the product comes back to the Bay Area, where it’s dyed, cut, and sewn in the East Bay, close to North Face headquarters.
California is in the middle of a severe drought, which could have impacted the availability of cotton for the hoodie. But the North Face got lucky; the cotton used in the item was grown two years ago, before the drought was as intense as it is today. If the company ever uses local cotton sources in its other products–and it plans to–this could be an issue.
“I didn’t even grow cotton this year,” says Fox. “I hope there’s enough rainfall that I will be comfortable putting in cotton next year. I feel like we’ve all been in shock about it.”
The unique supply chain ended up dictating the Backyard Hoodie’s design, instead of the other way around. Foxfibre grows cotton in a handful of colors, including brown. “It was seeing this beautiful brown cotton and figuring out how to turn that into a product,” says Mott.
But Foxfibre’s heirloom brown cotton–ideal since it already has color embedded in it–wouldn’t work on its own. Fox didn’t have much cotton on hand when North Face came knocking; the type of cotton she had available spins best at the speed that commercial spinners use when it’s blended with longer cotton. As a result, it’s blended in the hoodie with dyed white cotton from the Sustainable Cotton Project. The blend gives the hoodie a heather color.
The North Face also set a goal of creating as little waste as possible, which is reflected in the hoodie’s design. “The spiral pattern on the sleeves, the extra fabric for a pocket on the inside, the articulation in the shoulder–it’s all about trying to maximize the pattern of the product,” explains Mott.
Could the North Face have succeeded in its 150-mile radius goal if it was located in another part of the country? Possibly in the Southeast, where cotton is grown and the spinning and knitting industry still exists. But there is a market for cutting and sewing in California, and Mott isn’t sure if that part of the process would be possible in, say, North Carolina. Creating a hyperlocal garment is difficult anywhere in the U.S.
This wasn’t the case just 25 years ago. In the 1990s, Fox had multi-year contracts with big companies like Levis and Fieldcrest Cannon, growing thousands of acres of her cotton with help from 45 growers. Then, between 1995 and 2000, the textile industry collapsed in the U.S. after the North American Free Trade Agreement passed.
“We almost could have made a big environmental impact,” says Fox.
Now, with so few mills left in the U.S., Fox relies on a single mill in North Carolina to spin her cotton. The colored cotton that she grows is particularly difficult to spin in industrial mills because it can’t be mixed with conventional cotton. “The mills that are very large make small margins. They can’t have some specialized little thing,” she says.
Back before the collapse, though, Fox used a mill in Richmond, California, which falls well within the North Face’s 150-mile-radius goal.
The Backyard Hoodie is part of the North Face’s larger Backyard Project–a line of polyester/polyester and cotton blend hoodies and T-shirts that are all manufactured in the U.S. The rest of the line won’t be quite as local, but the North Face does hope to apply its experience with the Backyard Hoodie to other products.
Of course, there has to be a market for them. The Backyard Hoodie is $125, which isn’t exactly cheap (the North Face sells many other hoodies in the $50 to $100 range). “One of the interesting things about this project will be to see what consumers think about this kind of stuff, if they’re willing to pay more,” says Mott.
The Backyard Hoodie will be available for a limited time, beginning in early December.