Why is California Throwing Away Wool?
While browsing my neighborhood farmers market on a sunny September afternoon, I met Rebecca King, a sheep dairy farmer and the owner of Garden Variety Cheese. Upon seeing the word “sheep” on the cheese label, my one-track mind immediately thought “fiber!” To feed my felt obsession, I quickly inquired if she happened to have any wool available. A bit surprised at my eagerness, King responded, “Why yes, I have way too much wool. Why, do you want some?” As we discussed her sheep and their fiber, she lamented about how much money she loses on the wool every year, as the annual cost of shearing (required for sheep health) is more than what she earns in wool revenue. We negotiated a price for a large bag of wool and the next week I walked home, smelling somewhat of a sheep dairy, carrying a huge garbage bag full of spongy felting wool.
In my fiber bliss, I started to think about what Rebecca King just told me. The shock began to set in. “How could such valuable fiber go to waste? Are there other sheep farmers in California that throw away their wool? Can this wool be put to good use?” Before diving into my felt project, I did a quick search on the USDA Ag Census report. I learned that most sheep farmers in California were selling their wool at low prices (below $2/lb) or just simply sending it to landfill and paying dumping fees.
California, the largest wool producing state in the U.S., sends more than 100,000 pounds of raw wool to the landfill and at least 1.4 million pounds is sold overseas for prices less than the cost of production. Land values, diesel prices, and the cost of feed have risen disproportionately to wool income. Not only in California, but also across the entire U.S., sheep farmers have been losing money on wool. As a result U.S. wool production has dropped 90 percent since 1950 (USDA Ag Census, 2007).
Does it make sense to build a commercial-scale wool mill in California?
I started to slowly dig deeper and begin pondering, “What should we do with all this wool? Can we mill it in California? If so, what type of mill?” A year after meeting Rebecca King, a local fiber artist introduced me to Rebecca Burgess, the founder of the Fibershed project. Burgess started the Fibershed project out of a commitment to wear a 100 percent locally (150-mile radius) sourced wardrobe for an entire year. This wardrobe was made from fiber, dyes, and labor derived solely from her fibershed. The biggest challenge for her in producing the wardrobe was the lack of local processing.
While California produces over 3 million pounds of wool annually, the milling capacity is only around 10,000 pounds per year (three tenths of once percent of total production). The existing mills are all small-scale mills, none of which are vertically integrated fabric mills that produce on a commercial scale (over one million pounds per year). The question that both of us were asking was: “Does it make sense to build a large-scale wool mill in California?”
Because we were asking the same question, we decided to team up on trying to answer it. In order to answer the wool mill question, we had to first ask:
- Does California have enough high-quality fiber for commercial scale processing?
- What are the costs and technical requirements of building and operating a commercial scale wool mill in California?
- Could this hypothetical mill be profitable – is there enough demand?
Together with Rebecca Burgess and board member, Dustin Kahn, we started the research for the California Wool Mill Feasibility Study. The Rudolf Steiner Foundation, Blackie Foundation, the Sarah and Evan Williams Foundation, the Clara Fund and an amazing team of consultants and volunteers generously supported the research and writing of this study.
Does California have enough high-quality fiber for commercial scale processing?
Rebecca reached out through her Fibershed producer network and we sent surveys to hundreds of wool producers in California, many of them generously giving their time to answer detailed questions about their flocks. We also enlisted the help of wool shearers to collect data on wool quantity and quality (fiber thickness, length, and cleanliness). Roswell Wool, the largest wool auction house in the United States, also provided us quantity and quality data for all California 2012 wool producers in their database. By July 2013, we completed the first ever supply analysis of California wool and collected quality (micron count) and quantity data on 1.408 million pounds of raw fiber (44.8 percent of the California wool supply see Fibershed Wool map).
In our analysis, we discovered that over one million pounds (83 percent) of the wool we inventoried is under 25 microns; fine enough to wear next to the skin, allowing for the production of functional and commonly worn garments. All wool over 25 microns (241,000 pounds) can be utilized for outerwear, felt and bedding products. We were ecstatic to learn that, yes; California does have enough high quality fiber to potentially justify commercial-scale processing.
What are the costs and technical requirements of building and operating a commercial scale wool mill in California?
We agreed that if California were to build a wool mill, this would have to be a very unique manufacturing facility – one that serves as a model for what textile manufacturing could be. This facility would need to account for the entire life cycle of a garment and support the betterment of local economies. This manufacturing plant would need to operate in a closed loop soil-to-soil system, where all the social, economic and environmental impacts from the raw materials to processing and waste are accounted for and integrated into the environmental performance.
We envisioned a vertically integrated, community-owned textile and garment production system. A system where the ranchers, designers, mill workers and garment workers are not only treated in an ethical way, but are also owners and key stakeholders in this system. This would be a multi-stakeholder coop, much like the Food Commons model.
To better understand these systems and do the research for this model, we traveled to North and South Carolina in June of 2013, engaging engineers and representatives from the wool industry. Over the next six months, working closely with Schlumberger, milling equipment manufacturer, waste water engineers, renewable energy experts, and soil scientists, we built an integrated technical-economic model that reflects a highly interconnected system optimized for environmental and financial performance.
The building systems, specified in the model and report, are designed for milling, but every system has a closed loop. For example, the wastewater coming off the scouring line feeds into a centrifuge where the lanolin is extracted, and then the dirty water goes to the water recycling system, where 100% of the water is recycled and sent back through the building. The toilets and drains feed into the same system.
The energy system is looped into this as well. The water is pre-heated with solar hot water heaters on the roof of the building, and then sent to the scouring line. The heat from the machines is re-captured and used as part of this system. The humidity from the scouring line will be pumped into the spinning room where it will be controlled to maintain the perfect conditions for worsted yarn.
These systems are built into the pro forma as variables, so that they can be analyzed for environmental and financial performance. The goal was to compare and contrast a standard milling facility with an ecologically optimized facility that meets the requirements for the Living Building Challenge and exceeds LEED platinum requirements. Give or take $1-2 million, this type of mill would cost around $26 million to build. We also discovered that over a five-year period it is more cost effective to build the closed-loop, better environmental performance systems rather than the status quo systems that waste and pollute.
Could This Hypothetical Mill Be Profitable (is there enough demand)?
The short answer is, “Yes” and “No.” A California mill could be profitable, but it would need to compete with other mills using current market prices for fabric. The problem is that current market prices don’t reflect the true cost of fabric – as the true cost is passed off to the environment and low-wage workers. After interviews with a number of large California-based apparel brands, such as Patagonia and The North Face, we learned that the mill would have to produce the highest quality fabric at competitive prices in order to be viable. But in order to maintain a positive profit margin using the current market price for fabric, the mill would have to pay minimum wage to workers and rock-bottom prices for raw wool – not exactly part of the vision for this mill.
Pricing is the key variable that drives profitability. The Wool Mill’s financial model takes many variables into account. These variables can be adjusted to create new scenarios. For example: If the mill were to pay California living wages ($16-$20/hr) and give farmers a better price for their wool (more than $2/lb), the mill would have to sell fabric at around $25-$30/yard (much higher than market price), in order to make a profit. But if the mill wants to have good profit margins, it would have to sell fabric at current market price (approximately $14/yard), pay employees minimum wage ($8/hr) and use the current price of wool (less than $2/lb).
The question lingered: With a change in consumer demand, could the Mill charge higher prices and sell enough fabric to be profitable? A number of indicators suggest growing demand for sustainably sourced, domestically produced garments. “In a survey of 1,300 affluent shoppers conducted by Unity Marketing, the U.S. ranked highest on the scale measuring quality in luxury goods manufacturing. It topped both Italy and France, home to such brands as Louis Vuitton, Prada and Hermes (Los Angeles Times, 2011).” Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this trend is a 2013 New York Times survey, showing that 68 percent of respondents preferred products made in the United States, even if they cost more, and 63 percent believed they were of higher quality (New York Times, 2013).
While these indicators give hope, they aren’t enough to warrant a $26 million investment at this point in time. The key question is: Are there enough California consumers that will pay a premium for clothing made from sustainably and ethically sourced fabric? If so, is there enough demand for this to support a commercial scale mill at one million yards of fabric or more?
This is the question has yet to be answered. The only way to answer this is to test the market by starting small. A few of entrepreneurs are doing just this. Valley Ford Wool Mill, on the border of Marin and Sonoma recently started offering wool-processing services for local wool producers. They also sell bedding, clothing and artisan crafts in their beautifully designed storefront. Also, very soon we will see the Mendocino Wool and Fiber mill operational. We must not forget that in California Yolo Wool Mill and Mill Creek Fiber Works have both been providing wool-processing services for years. Similarly, Echo View Fiber Mill in Weaverville, NC is a model for environmental sustainability, ethical treatment of workers and community engagement.
While these small-scale efforts are growing, the work to build demand for domestic and California-grown wool is critical. Organizations like American Sheep Industry Association and Fibershed have important roles to play in developing consumer awareness campaigns. The next campaign should make Americans beg designers and labels for American wool. Americans should know that our wool is just as fine as merino from Australia, we just haven’t done a very good job marketing it.
When Will the California Wool Mill Make Sense?
Consumer awareness is key. Letting people know that they can buy domestic wool that is soft, not scratchy and easy to wash and wear. There are a few labels that use 100% domestic wool and manufacture in the U.S. such as Appalatch and Ramblers Way. They make performance wool garments that fit amazingly well (I know from personal experience). If everyone started shifting the mindset around how we shop and what we wear, we may be able to rebuild a domestic wool industry.
In order to reach the point where it makes sense to build a commercial scale mill in California, the following key changes need to take place:
- American wool needs to become the “in thing” for designers and brands. Apparel companies need to build brand awareness based on economic and environmental benefits of US natural fiber production and cutting edge design.
- US apparel brands need to develop relationships with US fiber and fabric producers so that they can breed their sheep for garment performance and manufacture fabric that people love.
- We need to start reinvesting in our processing and manufacturing infrastructure. We lost an amazing wealth of knowledge and technology when we sent textile manufacturing overseas. It’s time to reinvent textile manufacturing with new models for how it can be done ethically and sustainably.
Why should the world care?
The use of synthetic fibers in everything is destroying our ecosystem. The New York Times published an article citing a report from Environment Science and Technology saying that synthetic garment fibers, released through laundry-based sewage run-off, account for the greatest share of plastic pollutants on the world’s beaches (Browne, 2011). We depend on the oceans for the survival of life on Earth. If we don’t stop killing our oceans, we may not have a future. Our lives may depend on returning to natural fibers. Wool is the best natural performance fiber.
Equally important, its time for the apparel industry to clean up its act. Many companies are starting to seriously look at sustainability. John Anderson, past president and chief executive officer of Levi Strauss & Co., succinctly states: “For the fashion industry to be sustainable economically, it must be sustainable socially and environmentally too.” Essentially, the textile industry needs to change. The visionary R. Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller once said: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”