Interview: Disrupting Sustainability For Good
Wanda Weller, former director of design at Patagonia, founded a sustainable home goods company to push for transparency in organic labeling
At PSFK, we tried to support the conversation when the green movement emerged in the mid-2000s. We celebrated the new ideas that were being discussed with articles about innovators and hosting talks by pioneers. Now a decade later, green as a concept has hydra'd into multiple strands: sustainability, social impact, sourcing transparency, workers rights and on and on.
It seems to us that there’s still much to do and that while we broaden the topic, we spend less and less time looking at the ‘green’ approaches of companies and industries. For a PSFK PurpleList podcast, I recently spoke to a pioneer who saw a misuse of the terms around sustainability and wanted to pioneer a new way for a brand to behave. After her career at Patagonia, Wanda Weller saw a confusing and misleading use of the term ‘organic’ in fabrics and she set out to build Alterra Pure, a new company focused on organic bedding.
Wanda: The reason we started Alterra Pure was this awareness around what's happening with the organic cotton industry, where there is this an escalating increase in demand, but the actual source of organic cotton has depleted so much so that it's at almost at the opposite level that it was seven or eight years ago.
This discrepancy was a bit confusing, so we started to do some research and found that not all cotton is what it claims to be. My business partner and I were both coming from the textile industry— my background at Patagonia offered a wealth of experience in terms of sustainable product development.
We just decided that we wanted to understand where this discrepancy was happening, and why. We started to learn that there was some non-truth-telling in what organic meant.
So we wanted to create a product line that we could use as a tool for shifting the paradigm of how organic product is made honestly, with integrity and full transparency, so the consumer would know exactly what's going in and the questions to ask of their other products, or anything that's claiming to be organic.
Piers: You and your co-founder are textile professionals, and you saw something a problem in the marketplace: products being sold as organic just because the cotton had organic seeds, not necessarily organic pesticides. How did that insight translate into picking bedding and sheets as the products?
Wanda: I've spent 30 years in the apparel industry. It is a really complicated industry to get into and make an impact, but it seemed like there's just this beginning wave in home textiles.
The fact that really struck us was that you spend a third of your life in sheets, in your bed, and the impact of toxicity in your sheets—chemicals that we're not even aware of—seemed like a obvious place to start.
It's something we all use and we all understand, but I don't think we are connecting the dots of the impact of textiles against our skin, versus product we consume or literally lather on our skin. The team at Alterra Pure is trying to also raise awareness around that.
We see consumer awareness about what they put in and on their bodies, but you think there will be movement in terms of fabric touching our skin?
Absolutely. Again, because of the amount of time we spend in our bedding, that seems to be an awakening—with no pun intended—that this is something to be concerned about. If you're sweating at night, your pores are open and you're very susceptible to chemicals. One of the worst offenders is wrinkle-free chemicals. People want their beds to look clean and pristine, but the chemical that allows the anti-wrinkling is formaldehyde, and that's a carcinogen.
Imagine sleeping for eight hours and being shrouded in that toxicity. That's something that we're not really talking about. I don't think the connection is really being made, because it's a very passive thing. It's not tangible in the way that food is.
What is different about the product that you sell versus other product that is labeled organic on the marketplace?
There are a couple of other companies that for sure are doing the right thing. The big distinction is, when a company says organic, that doesn't necessarily mean the whole process, the production process, is organic. It's just saying that the seeds are organic.
If a product doesn't have the GOTS certification, there's a high likelihood that there has been some alteration or chemical infiltration along the production process, because there's no government mandate that says it has to be disclosed. There's a huge window of deception that's allowed in the industry, and many companies will take advantage of it.
And that's not to say the company making or selling the product is even aware of that—it's something that happens very subversively in the market. It happens with food, and that's why there's this outcry for labeling and being very transparent about what is actually going into our products.
What's important to the consumer today?
Transparency is really the number one thing right now because more and more consumers are becoming aware of the deception, and want to take ownership of what they're investing in and putting on or near their body.
One of the huge benchmarks for Alterra Pure is to ensure that we are clearly and concisely communicating anything and everything that is touching our product, from the seed to the ginning, to the manufacturing. We are disclosing the whole process because we want to know that information as much as we want our consumers to know it.
More and more people are just getting fed up with being misled. I don't want to say lied to, but the misleading marketing vernacular that's used in product is just throwing people off big time. Consumers want the resources now to know what do we need to look for, what do we need to ask about, so providing that language is helpful, too.
A direct-to-consumer model allows brands like yours to be more vocal and communicate directly to consumers, without being worried about what retailers think and what the big players think, as well.
Yes. I think also, by eliminating the middle-man, there's a lot more control over content—both what's going in product and how we are relaying that back to our consumer base.
How does Alterra Pure communicate with its customers?
One thing that my co-founder Kevin Dixon and I talk a lot about in the building of this brand is the idea of the farmers market and the community, and how important it is to be on-site—be in communication directly with the source that's planting the seeds, growing the seeds, making the cotton, ginning. We have made touchpoints along the entire process. That's something that we are invested in communicating.
We're talking to the farmers in Ojai and asking how they are doing. It's important to be aware of things that are affected by seasonality, water, weather and politics, and those are things we actually want to share with consumers—especially as we start doing more seasonal product. We want to be connecting our product to the seasonality of how it grows.
That would be quite fresh, especially for that market. Do you have plans to explore other products within the home, or do you think you're going to stay a one-product-type company?
We definitely have the intention of building a home collection. Right now we're really focused on creating the foundational elements for your home. Next, we'll be working on duvets, pillows—some more product to work with the sheets—and then we'll be looking at seasonal products with limited editions, and working with makers.
There's this wonderful opportunity to really deepen the story of sustainability in this product line, and keep it feeling a vibe of community, that's really our hope. Even though it's a global company, it's working with a small, organic farming community in India. There's a lot of it that we're trying to just bridge a global community in our efforts.
We find Wanda’s story compelling. She found a category that for many—and for me specifically—was invisible in daily life and she saw a need for change. How many other product categories could be disrupted for good?