This week, Volcom announced that the pillar of its New Future Alliance initiative, Farm To Yarn – a program that has taken sustainable cotton manufacturing to new heights – is launching in spring 2019.

Next season’s product range is the result of a multi-year commitment that Volcom has made, in partnership with social enterprise CottonConnect, to further expand and build upon the organic cotton line the brand has been selling for several years.

The community of cotton farmers in India welcomes Volcom.

The main mission for Volcom, and parent company Kering, is to provide transparency and accountability – both socially and environmentally – in its supply chain and manufacturing process. This a common theme these days for clothing companies.

CottonConnect has helped Volcom work directly with cotton farmers in India, where they were able to support a farmer business school and empower the women growers in rural parts of the country, who are out in the fields doing this work for a living and often don’t have educational resources at their disposal.

Those involved in Farm to Yarn have worked diligently behind the scenes to make it happen, including conference calls in polar opposite timezones, traveling to India and assessing all the hurdles associated with traceability to ensure they only use GMO-free, purely organic cotton.

The program is moving into its second year of supporting farmers, who are now harvesting sustainable cotton for the 2019-2020 season. With this knowledge and experience under their belts, Volcom's CMO Ryan Immegart, global VP of supply chain Tony “Big Tony” Alvarez and sustainability advisor Derek Sabori fill us in on how the program has progressed and how they will continue to build on it in the future – including a forthcoming documentary that highlights just that.

Derek Sabori (left) and Big Tony (right).

What are some of the key learnings you’ve taken away from launching this program?

Sabori: Right away, the thing that comes to mind is partnerships. This was an idea that was made real by the great relationship Volcom has with the Kering sustainability team as well as the skilled and dedicated supply chain partner, CottonConnect. We all worked together over many months to make this program a reality.

We learned so much through this process and having experienced partners who understand the nuances of supply chain project management on our side was crucial to the program’s success.

Also, trust and open dialogue. It’s a whole new experience to have the players of every step on calls and in the same room working out pricing, delivery and certification of raw materials. It was not uncommon to have the Volcom team, Kering, CottonConnect, the Ginner who represents the farmer groups, the spinners, and the knitter and manufacturer all on an early morning conference call, dialing in from multiple time zones, or in a meeting room in India.

There had to be transparency in costs, transparency in expectations, and trust built into the relationships. Managing this many different players is much different than the usual, “Place your order with your agent/manufacturing partner and they’ll take care of the rest,” scenario that often gets played out in small-medium sized operations.

We also learned that it can indeed, be done.

Farmer business school activities in action.

This was a hopeful project in the early days. It was so different than how Volcom was used to working that at times we, of course, wondered how it was all going to get done … Everyone we worked with made it a great experience.

Now, with more than a year’s worth of hard work behind us, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched to do this with more products – in more regions – on a larger scale. To be a part of the movement where brands are able to provide customers with the information they are coming to expect regarding materials, processes, labor, environmental impacts, etc. is very motivating – we’re looking forward to continuing the journey.

Big Tony: The need and importance of a program like this and the impacts it can have on industry, community and humanity. The partnership we have with Cotton Connect and the initial guidance from our parent company Kering, enabled us to have a greater understanding of a transparent supply chain and how important it is to ensure our partners and farmers are protected throughout the process.

This program has many faces that start with the seed and finish not with the garment itself, but the people who cultivate it … The men and women of the farmer business school and the women’s empowerment Program. Our true impacts will be with them in the long run, not the cotton per se.

Without a partner like Cotton Connect, a program like this wouldn’t be possible for a brand like Volcom. Having boots on the ground, real time visibility, transparency and anticipation of what may happen or come next throughout the entire process is key to being successful with a program like this. Cotton Connect provides that for us which is huge.

Biggest challenges involved in the seed-to-source process?

Sabori: Getting through the unknown. It’s a big task, and it’s a slow process so it’s continuously in jeopardy of being sidelined. It takes buy-in from the top, and from multiple department leaders including: M&D, compliance, supply chain, sourcing, sales, and marketing and more … How much cotton? What quality to expect? Will the weather affect crops? How many products? Which products? How to market? Etc.

It was a complex endeavor that required many resources (financial and personnel), much time, much energy and much passion. I applaud Volcom’s commitment to this project – their perseverance, commitment and excitement around the New Future program, and sustainability and responsible manufacturing in general – deserves any and all the attention it gets.

Big Tony: Weather is a major factor, insects can kill crops and animals like goats simply eat the seedlings. A gang of goats can do massive damage here!

Part of the workload that the task requires.

The other is price and being able to provide the farmers with the most transparent price and profit you can, while being able to maintain a price point that the consumer will feel good about and still want to buy. An organic product like our offerings in Farm to Yarn are premium products, yet we must maintain the appropriate price caps for them.

Lastly, I would say the cultural challenge of making sure we are adhering to their needs and wants and maintain their trust and integrity within our relationship together.

Have any other brands in the industry reached out to learn more about this program and/or to be able to put something similar in place for their own manufacturing process?

Immegart: Not yet, but we hope that more brands will start to adopt this thinking on some level.

What other products besides T-shirts will be included in the spring 2019 organic cotton range?

Immegart: For spring 2019 we also offer organic cotton in our ‘Everett Solid’ S/S woven and on the women’s side we are offering the ‘What A Trip Dress’ … We are committed to increasing both the amount of recycled material in our polyester and nylon as well as the usage of organic, recycled and/or better cotton in Volcom products, so that by 2020, we are at a 20-percent New Future mix.

For Volcom, better cotton might consist of organic, recycled, CMiA, BCI, or other cotton sources with an improved environmental and social impact.

Standing proud …

In the last interview, you mentioned a documentary on this process – will there be a feature length film in addition to this roll out? If so, when will that drop?

Immegart: Yes, there will be mini-documentary that will premiere late February; the exact date is still TBD but we will share it with you as soon as it’s available!

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