The second part of our Interview with Ian Yolles, head of marketing head at the newly resuscitated Nau, a green outdoor clothing maker, which just re-opened it website. Yesterday, in the first part, we delved deeper in to the business side of matters at the new Nau. For this half our investigation looks more at the product itself.
TH: One of the criticisms leveled at Nau by commenters on blogs is that the product is expensive. The price is obviously the result of Nau being a highly designed, intensively detailed product using exclusive fabrics, but why has Nau chosen the low volume, high end approach over the lower priced, high sales volume model? Would not the latter option get the green message to a broader audience? Or can a niche player punch above its weight category?Ian: A few thoughts. Roughly speaking, 70% of our product cost is reflected in the cost of the fabric. In our case we've chosen to develop high quality fabrics (performance characteristics, sustainability considerations, durability, aesthetics, softness of hand or how it feels next to skin) because we think our customers appreciate a considered approach to design.
Regarding specific prices points, we're on par with the upper end, higher quality outdoor brands like Arcteryx and Patagonia. On the more fashion oriented lifestyle side of things, we're in the mid-point price range alongside brands like G-Star and Diesel, more expensive then the Gap but less expensive then Rag and Bone jeans. For us its about designing high quality product that pushes the envelope from a sustainability point of view.
Regarding the volume question, it's a bit of a myth that there are significant economies of scale in the apparel industry based on volume. Yes, as our volume grows we'll get some benefit from a cost point of view but it won't make a material difference (note the pun).
Finally, and from our point of view most importantly, we're going to have to go through a revolution in thinking as it relates to the traditional price value equation of products and services. Why? Because we live in an economic system that externalizes the social and environmental costs associated with the creation, use and end of life strategy for products. For example, does the cost of a product reflect where it was made, how it was made, what the people who made the product were paid for their labor, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the shipping of the product and the cost associated with discarding the product at the end of its useful life (among other variables)? As Oystein Dahle, former Exxon vice president for Norway and the North Sea, observes," Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."
TH: Given that the US economic downturn, and accompanying shrinking credit market was a large contributor to Nau closing its doors in the first instance, how do you see the now escalated financial situation impacting on the green apparel industry as a whole, and Nau specifically?
Ian: Regarding the larger apparel industry and green related efforts, I anticipate a shake out. We think the growing interest in sustainability is not simply a superficial, passing fad. We think it reflects the beginning of a much deeper, lasting cultural shift. On the other hand, consumers are smart and, increasingly, the digital world is enabling greater and greater degrees of transparency. Those two factors, over time, will distinguish authentic, meaningful sustainability efforts from the growing chorus of marketing oriented, green washing hype.
Given the worldwide economic downturn, we are clearly entering a sustained period of minimalism, both by necessity and most likely social pressure. While it should be scary to be re-launching at this moment in time, we think that Nau's brand' sensibility plays very nicely into this on several levels quality, durability, timelessness of design and color, no logo and of course environmental and social value. Our product is considered product and we expect that given external forces, people will be making more considered purchasing decisions.
Beyond that, we learnt some hard lessons the first time around. Our current plan is much more conservative then it was in the past. Additionally, when Horny Toad purchased our assets and decided to partner with us, their Board provided the funding we'll need over the next three to five years. We no longer have to be distracting ourselves on a daily basis trying to raise additional sources of financing. We can focus 100% of our time and energy on our business and our customers. That's a huge relief.
TH: Believe I read somewhere that Nau 1.0 was originally prepared to share some in-house information with other companies that subscribed to the 5% corporate philanthropy model. Is that information sharing still being offered, now that the percentage has been adjusted to 2%, and/or now that Nau is financed by Horny Toad?
Ian:Umm, sort of. What we said we do is provide a royalty free license of any intellectual property used by Nau for making consumer directed charitable contributions to other organizations that implement a similar program. That remains true as we re-launch our business. Beyond that, we're up for talking with anybody, and learning from anybody, when it comes to progressive approaches to corporate philanthropy.
TH: Are you now doing Tencel, like I saw referenced somewhere?
Ian: No, we do not have immediate plans to use Tencel in our line. While it comes close to meeting our design requirements for its beauty, performance and sustainability related attributes, other fibers are currently a better fit. From an environmental standpoint, unlike other natural fibers such as cotton and wool that start with an existing short fiber which is then spun into a yarn, Tencel is fairly energy intensive to process and it requires some type of solvent to break the cellulose down to be able to solution spin it into a yarn. Aesthetically Tencel does have a soft hand and drape. In order to achieve this we are using high count certified organic cotton yarns and silk.
TH: Seems that you've pulled back on the corn-based PLA (polylactic acid) quite considerably from the launch days - is there a reason for this?
Ian; Now that we have a few seasons under our belt, we've made a few adjustments based on what we learned about sourcing and caring for PLA. (Note: PLA, is the first commercially viable biopolymer in the textile market. A manufactured biopolymer produced through a fermentation process that converts natural plant starch into a polymer, it can be made into woven fabrics, knit fabrics and plastics for packaging. Currently the biopolymer is derived from corn, but could ultimately be made from any starch, including agricultural waste). We have indeed moved away from 100% PLA baselayers and are now focusing exclusively on a PLA-cotton blend we call "Two Faced". This renewable resource based fiber brings technical performance characteristics (fast drying, moisture wicking) to our organic cotton.
Our decision to stop using 100% PLA products was based on two main factors; the reality of the supply chain and long-term care and durability challenges. PLA by itself is a tricky fiber to handle. It's harder to dye and process then other fabrics. In addition, it has low melting temperatures and much of the textile process requires heat. Like the early versions of Polypropylene, 100% PLA garments are prone to melting in hot dryers during the consumer care phase of the garment. While we were happy with the performance characteristics of PLA as a natural fiber, the difficulty to care for it throughout its lifetime made the PLA blends more practical for our suppliers and customers.
By blending PLA with the characteristics of certified organic cotton we're able to offset these challenges and provide a more commercially robust fabric while enhancing durability and performance for the consumer.
It should also be noted that since the PLA fabric we use is corn based, and since most of the corn grown in this country is GMO corn, we invest in an "offset" program to plant the equivalent volume of naturally grown corn as the amount of corn used in the production of our product.
TH: Given that for Nau, all materials must have environmental credibility, what is the company's take on other much touted 'eco-fabrics' like soy, bamboo, flax and hemp?
Ian: While soy and bamboo are natural resources, they are not necessarily a sustainable solution for developing fabrics that are environmentally friendly. We don't currently know of any sources that use clean chemistry to process these plants into a high quality fabric. Clean processing does exist for processing soy and bamboo into Tencel, but for the reasons listed above, we're not using it in our line.
There are also options for clean hemp processing. However, aesthetically we haven't found a place for hemp in our product line. Not to say that it couldn't happen in the future, we just haven't had the need for it yet.
We were in fact able to find a clean source of flax to make high quality organic linen. We have plans to use it in our Spring 2010 line, so stay tuned!
TH: Is the previously rumored Nau luggage line still sitting on the shelf, waiting for an opportune moment to show itself? What might that moment be?
Ian: Rumors are good. We like rumors. What we can say that "luggage' isn't entirely accurate. Prior to closing the business we were working on a small line of accessories that included a few pretty cool bags made from organic cotton or recycled polyester (think messenger bag, computer bag, duffle), wallets and belts. We're now working on their introduction and hope they'll be ready for delivery in early summer of 09.
TH: what was some of the Nau staff's favourite garments from Nau 1.0, and what are your new faves from this season just launched?
Josie - Customer Service
Nau 1.0 Dualist jacket
Nau 2.0 Merino 3 hoody
Caitlin - The Voice of Nau
Nau 1.0 I'd like to be buried in my Shroud of Purrin Trench!
Nau 2.0 Can't wait for the M3 Hoody which will no doubt keep me toasty on those chilly Fall/Winter days.
Peter Kallen - Design Director nau
Nau1.0 The courier windshirt and the riding jacket and they are still my favorites along with the down shirt and the condfidant pants, and shorts , the denim,
Nau 2.0 Anything shroud of purrin, oh hell there are a lot of things in the line coming up that are making me smile.
Tyson Wipper - Undersecretary of Graphics and Web Content
Nau 1.0 The Regime dress 'cause my wife looks smoke'n in it. Favorite nau 1.0 product on me is the Twill Cargo Pant because it's the first pair of pants that ever fit me right (and they somehow give the illusion that I have a booty).
Nau 2.0 The M3 Hoody. Warm. Comfortably. Cool.
Ian Yolles - Head Of Marketing
Nau. 1.0 The Courier Windshirt which regularly accompanies me on my bike as well as on my trips to New York City. I'm also attached to my Shelter Jacket which I wore frequently while paddling The Snake River in the nortern Yukon this summer. 14 days of stormy rain but I stayed cozy and dry.
Nau 2.0 Well, I'm diggin the Modus Trench.