Retailers today want to show shoppers that they (and the brands they sell) uphold, protect, and share the same values and way of life. Often, that starts with giving back.
In the quiet, chirping dawns of Bondurant, Wyoming, Stephanie Housley steps out onto her porch to glimpse a deer standing in the cold or an owl taking flight. She then heads into the woods, often with her dog Fuji, to draw inspiration from the wildflowers, fox kits, and sandhill cranes she encounters on her path. She then brings them back indoors, stitching some of their cold mountain spirit into her carefully curated, responsibly sourced linens, which have become highly sought after across the country.
You can learn this all on her website —plus how many hours each embroidery takes, every detail of the production process, and pretty much everything else except her star sign. (She’s a Virgo.) Vendors today have to bare it at all to consumers, and Coral & Tusk, Housley’s 11-year-old startup, is no different: An ever-growing mountain of statistics indicates that shoppers want to know what they’re buying, who they’re buying it from, and even become intimate with the entire life cycle of a product in order to feel good about the purchase.
Do they like it? That’s important. But do they like who made it? That’s become an increasingly crucial question as consumers become educated about the carbon footprint of manufacturing, the labor laws of various countries, and the social and political opinions of the personalities behind even the largest brands. Toms’ one-for-one donation model and Burt’s Bees’ all-natural line may have paved the way for a more philanthropic and sustainable marketplace, but many Western brands have been walking that walk all along.
Here are a few of our favorite socially-conscious brands to take note of:
The Brooklyn-born Coral & Tusk, now headquartered in Wyoming, lives and breathes on conscientious production. Housley uses 90 percent natural, unbleached, undyed linens. Her warehouse in Pinedale, Wyoming, uses sustainable packing materials: recycled boxes and biodegradable bags. Causes are written into all of Housley’s designs — the pheasants and partridges that traipse across pillows, and the feathers, pine cones, and geometric patterns stitched on table linens and accessories. Ten percent of proceeds from one capsule collection of dog and cat designs went to the ASPCA. An ocean-motif collection inspired by Housley’s travels to Big Sur benefited the Ocean Conservancy, an organization Housley favored because she likes “science-based solutions,” notes Alicia Scardetta, a Coral & Tusk wholesale accounts manager.
Scardetta adds that Housley’s artwork taps into something buyers respond to. “People see our designs and immediately have an emotional reaction. Whether that’s because the animals remind them of stories they read as a kid or their grandmother used to embroider, our company does appeal to people in this way that’s very personal. They’re interested in our story, in Stephanie as a designer ... and in turn, they’re interested in the causes that are important to us.”
Sustainability drives the high-end equestrian brand In2Green, a 2006 initiative that collaborates with local Brooklyn artists on artisanal, nature-inspired organic blankets. A strict missive to manufacture in the United States means the brand has a reduced carbon footprint (no overseas shipping and production) and fuels American job creation. Products are small-batch, handcrafted, and sometimes created on-demand. The fierce idealist behind these efforts, co-founder Lori Slater, says sustainability is a luxury that her horse-riding shoppers can afford. “It represents living outside in this idyllic lifestyle — having these majestic creatures around you — so it’s really aspirational.” The no-cut-corners production value and responsibly sourced craftsmanship heighten Slater’s brand equity and deepen the desirability of the lifestyle she sells.
Even a megalithic Western institution encompassing five iconic lines can be wrought into a carefully curated reflection of one founder’s core beliefs. John Justin’s two signature programs, the Justin Sports Medicine Team and the Just Cowboys Crisis Fund, are the proof. The former outfits trailers with a volunteer network of surgeons and physical trainers who travel to give free medical care at more than 100 rodeos every year and act as first responders when a cowboy gets hurt. The latter supports injured rodeo cowboys while they are unable to compete. “In rodeo, there’s no salary, so you don’t get paid unless you’re competing and winning,” says marketing manager Tassie Munroe. “I think that this is one thing that separates Justin: We quietly support. The teams are great advocates for the brand, but that’s not why we do it. We do it to support the industry that is our core constituency.”
Zero-waste distribution facilities in the United States, upcycling nitrogen-rich factory waste to reforest in Mexico, and 6,700 community service hours in one year. Water-use reduction, renewable-energy investment, and chemical restrictions. That’s the tip of the iceberg of what sustainability means at Wrangler, an industry leader that’s ditched petroleum-based synthetic indigo dye for natural indigo plants in new collections and thrown their considerable weight behind innovations in the industries they rely on, including farming practices and soil health. It all boils down to two things: doing a good job and helping out, two values their website says are “central to the American spirit and to all of us at Wrangler.”
One pink boot has made a footprint of $257,000 in donations to breast cancer research. The Pink Ribbon Lady Rebel, now in its sixth year, speaks to women close to its cause and allows them to stand for its sufferers and survivors, as well as share their stories with the bootmaker. “That pink ribbon and the DNA of the brand, they gravitate towards it,” says marketing manager Erin DeLong. She adds that the Lady Rebel boot is consistently one of their top five sellers. “That tells me this is going above and beyond. Our retailers are buying into this concept, they want to reach those folks as well. It’s something that catches your attention on the shelf.”
Will Leather Goods looks like a blue-banded hat worn by a smoking Jeff Bridges in a GQ profile; a custom leather bicycle; a signature collection based on Disney’s Lone Ranger; a trend-setting man purse. It also looks like a ticker on the website’s homepage that tracks the number of backpacks donated to kids through their new “Give Will” initiative, which pledges 2 percent of every single purchase to the cause. (At press time the number is at about 9,214 of their six-year 100,000-backpacks goal.) Buyers get to know exactly how much of their purchase goes to the kids — and get the emotional reward of seeing the ticker move up one when they click “buy.”
Waxing Kara’s products look so good you could eat them. And you probably could. Apiarist Kara Brook, bedecked in wide-brimmed hat and knee-high Hunter boots, makes natural bath and beauty products with honey, ever mindful of the crucial role bees play in the world’s ecosystem. Brook’s message of health, beauty, healing, and the symbiosis of nature implores shoppers to welcome her products into their homes. “Saving the bees” is central to the company — which preserves indigenous wildflower ecosystems for its hives — and to the feel-good shopping experience for consumers. The elevated aesthetic, back-to-basics appeal, and on-point messaging has garnered attention from prominent media outlets and 250 retailers, including Anthropologie, who want a taste of the magic (and the honey lollipops).
PHOTOGRAPHY: Will Ellis/courtesy Coral & Tusk
Featured in the January SOURCE issue of C&I's sister publication, Western & English Today.