Alabama Chanin has long looked to Patagonia, and Yvon Chouinard, as the standard for sustainable design, manufacturing, and corporate culture. The recent film “Legacy Look Book” (shown above) is a beautiful reminder of why we love this company so very much.
When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he wasn’t implying that an unexamined life is boring or holds less meaning. He said the unexamined life is not worth living. As difficult as this process may be for an individual to understand and undertake, deciding that a company should live an “examined life” only adds to the challenge. It demands a carefully plotted and specific corporate mission, along with employing people who are willing to work openly, honestly, and for the right reasons.
We all understand the basic principles of supply and demand. In a perfect world, the two work in balance, supply always meeting the demand, one never exceeding or disappointing the other. Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and as with any product driven business, there are occasional supply issues. Unfortunately, we are presently experiencing one of those challenges with our lightweight cotton jersey.
Our lightweight cotton jersey is currently out-of-stock in Black. It has been our most popular color, particularly for our Alabama Chanin Basics. Some colors are still available in limited quantities. We wish we could say exactly when the situation will be remedied and simply apologize for the inconvenience. But, the supply chain is not so simple. It’s actually quite complicated, so we asked Phillip Glover, Vice President of Green Textile, from whom we buy all of our cotton jersey, to answer a couple questions and help us better understand the situation.
Yesterday, I wrote about my appreciation of hand-painted signs, inspired by the book Sign Painters, authored by friend Faythe Levinewith Sam Macon. Faythe and Sam have directed a documentary – also called Sign Painters, as a companion to the book.
In 2008, Faythe co-authored and directed a book and film, both named Handmade Nation: The Rise of Craft and DIY. We welcomed her to Alabama last April for our Visiting Artist Series, where she highlighted “craftivism” and brought her light-hearted stories to the Factory. This summer she has taken Sign Painters on the road for a series of screenings.
Faythe has an itinerant spirit. She states in the book’s preface, “Many of my earliest memories involve travel, much of which was by car. I’d stare out the window of the family station wagon and watch America transition from one place to the next.”
At Alabama Chanin, we practice Slow Design, which focuses on producing goods in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. The intent is to design clothing and home goods that are made from sustainable raw materials using environmentally sound methods, resulting in beautiful, healthy, and long-lasting products. We want to create connections with our customers and for Alabama Chanin pieces to be used and worn for many years, to be incorporated into the life of a customer.
Our business model and method of production is based on sustainable practices. Rather than purchase low cost materials and manufacture products quickly and cheaply, we opt for a Made-in-the-USA approach, using local, artisanal labor sources. To-date, Alabama Chanin items have been made entirely by hand, without any machine work.
Last month we wrote about Slow Design, specifically in contrast to Fast Fashion, as the death toll from a collapsed garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh rose by the hour, reaching 1,127. During the three weeks the tragedy made headlines, NPR’s “Fresh Air” broadcast an interview with Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, where Cline and Terry Gross discussed Overdressed and how the Dhaka tragedy has affected global consciousness of the Fast Fashion issue. The interview ushered us to (finally) read Cline’s book, and we’re glad we did.
Overdressed isoften compared to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for its social influence, and is a book we feel is a necessary read for anyone wanting to better understand the negative impact Fast Fashion has on our environment, our humanity, and our personal carbon footprint.
We have written before about the rich manufacturing and textile history present in our community. The Shoals area and surrounding communities were working fabric and textile materials beginning in the late 1800’s. Those earlier years were often unkind to the mill workers and their families who worked long hours, lived in factory-owned apartments, and shopped in factory-owned stores. But, as the Industrial Revolution gave way to reform, textile manufacturing stayed in our community and flourished. Eventually, it was something that we in The Shoals were known for, as we were often called the “T-Shirt Capital of the World.”
Terry Wylie’s family founded Tee Jay’s Manufacturing Co. here in Florence in 1976, and in doing so became the foundation for a local industry. Whole families were known to work together, producing t-shirts and cotton products. Typical of our community, the company and the employees were loyal to one another. It was common for an employee to stay at Tee Jays for decades. Our Production Manager, Steven, worked for the Wylie family for years – for a time, working in the same building where Alabama Chanin is currently housed. It was this way until the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tee Jays and other local manufacturers eventually shuttered all domestic manufacturing. It was an undeniably tough hit for a community that had “worked” cotton for most of its existence. Some of those who hand stitch for us once worked in mills and lost their jobs when plants here in Alabama closed and moved to cheaper locations. This move left our building, once a thriving manufacturing center, an empty shell, as you can see from the picture above. Machines like the ones below were moved elsewhere, and the resounding hum of our once busy manufacturing community was silenced.
Here is a bit of information that may surprise you: not all cotton is white cotton. If you are like me, you may not have always known that natural cotton comes in plenty of hues. In fact, there were originally shades of cotton that ranged from many tones of brown, to dark green, to brown, black, red, and blue. These varieties of cotton were widely used by Native American peoples and, occasionally, slaves were allowed to grow small plots of colored cotton because plantation owners considered it worthless. Colored cotton became obscure because farmers and manufacturers believed it too difficult to work with due to its short staple length, which makes the cotton problematic to spin. As a result, the varieties of colored cotton have dwindled. The Central Institute for Cotton Research in India has cultivated 6,000 varieties of cotton, only 40 of which are colored.
The white cotton we primarily see now was created by planting mono-crop, or only one variety of cotton. This type of cotton requires more pesticides than other varieties and the dyeing of this cotton is a massive cause of land and water pollution (not to mention its human impact). According to the ECO360 Trust, nearly 20% of all industrial water pollution results from textile dyeing and production methods. They have discovered at least 72 toxic chemicals that are present in our water system purely due to textile dyeing.
Popular culture, social media, and our peers are all embracing a trend in home gardening across the country (though few of these gardens are as radical as Ron Finley’s median-turned-vegetable-garden project in Los Angeles). A guest for dinner last night mentioned that “even Oprah is on trend now,” having planted her own garden. Here in North Alabama, the home garden is hardly a trend. Most people grow at least a couple of tomato and pepper plants every summer. And if you take a drive down one of our many county roads, you’re likely to see large swaths of lawn devoted to food, with neat rows of summer vegetables stretching over red blankets of Alabama clay.
I’ve had a garden since I moved into my house in 2006. Putting it in might take only a weekend, but the cultivation takes years. However, it’s the week-to-week management that becomes difficult. When temperatures reach 98 degrees in the shade (and stays there for days on end) keeping up with the insects, weeds, the harvest, and watering becomes quite the challenge. Making time becomes stealing time. This is why my generous fall garden was still in the ground in late May, every kale or broccoli plant flowered and well on its way to seed.
Cows were born to roam and graze. Hogs were born to root and wallow. Chickens were born to scratch and peck. According to Will Harris and White Oak Pastures, these are the natural behaviors of animals, making them commonsense tenets of how to raise healthy livestock. “Nature abhors a monoculture,” is one of Will’s favorite sayings.
Five generations of Harrises have farmed a tract of land in Georgia that now raises livestock using traditional, multi-species grazing rotation, no hormones and no antibiotics. But, business was not always done this way. Post WWII, the Harris family farm moved away from the traditional ways of doing things and began raising livestock using more chemicals and fertilizers and blending into the industrialized complex of food production. In the mid-90’s, Will Harris, the current head of White Oak Pastures, made what some called a foolish decision to bring the family farm full circle: moving back to the traditional ways of natural grazing, healthy animals, and respectful butchering.
In 1982, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw opened Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The deli quickly became Ann Arbor’s premiere specialty foods store. As the business grew to include mail order customers across the country, Paul and Ari were presented with an opportunity to open stores nationwide and follow a traditional franchise business model. What they did instead is a great representation of the philosophies that Alabama Chanin tries to embody. Community, sustainability, and education are at the heart of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, which is made up of eight different, semi-autonomous businesses that operate as one organization. Zingerman’s has remained firmly in Ann Arbor, building successful commerce from within the community, by the community, for the community. This year the organization will have annual sales of about $46,000,000 and employs nearly 600 people.
The Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (aka, the ZCoB) includes a bakery, a coffee roaster, a creamery that makes both fresh cheese and gelato, a candy manufactory, and a James Beard award-winning restaurant. ZingTrain, Zingerman’s business training service, offers seminars that share the organization’s approach to leadership, service, open book management, visioning, etc. They offer baking classes at BAKE, their nationally recognized baking school for the home baker. Zingerman’s also runs a publishing house, which publishes several books by Ari, focused on guiding the small business owner. You can find the titles Building a Great Businessand Being a Better Leader in our online store. In the spirit of Alabama Chanin, the books were beautifully designed and illustrated by the Zingerman’s team, printed in Ann Arbor on recycled paper and are not available through mass market distribution.
We sat down with Ari Weinzweig to find out more about this unusual and innovative prototype for a new kind of business model.