More and more consumers today want to feel good about themselves and the products they buy. Since there are so many product choices in every category, shoppers will often buy the one that is made most sustainably. While companies don’t need to enter the marketplace with a 100% sustainable business model, the fact that they have sustainability as a core business value is a great place to start. The same can be said for existing businesses. As a company looks to adapt manufacturing and operations, future decisions made with an eye toward sustainability is quite often the best way to go for continued profitability and longevity.
I recently spoke with Wylie Robinson, Founder and CEO at Rumpl to learn how this innovative blanket business came about and why having sustainability as a core business value enabled the company to grow and attract loyal customers.
Wylie explained the “aha” moment which led to the creation of Rumpl, how the company’s sustainability initiatives have grown over the years, and why having a “look to the future responsibly” business value has helped the company in everything they do. His key takeaways follow.
- Sometimes you need to take a fresh look at an existing product: We realized blankets are some of the oldest textiles ever. And despite them being so old, really very little material innovation has taken place in this category. Most blankets are cotton, wool, or some sort of low-tech material. Meanwhile, we’ve seen this big performance textile revolution in sporting goods and athletic equipment. We’ve seen the emergence of the athleisure category — a billion-dollar category with technical materials for everyday use. And all of that technology is perfectly suited for this blanket category. So we are literally just drafting off the technologies we saw developed for apparel and applying them to this everyday blanket. (3:55)
- Your businesses’ core values must align with your everyday operations: Our core value is “look to the future responsibly,” but there are two ways we think about that statement. The first is the environment and ensuring that in creating and shipping our products around, we are doing as a little harm as possible. Additionally, we look at that from a fiscal perspective. We’re a venture-backed company. We want to make sure the business can stand on its own and we don’t only rely on money coming in from investors. (5:10)
- See how you can use recycled or upcycled materials versus virgin materials: When we started the company, we used virgin nylon material. Three or four years down the road, we started seeing samples of high-quality recyclable shell material which performed pretty much the exact same as the virgin material from a cost and performance perspective, so we said this makes so much more sense, let’s just transition everything over. And today we have upcycled over 10 million discarded plastic water bottles. (7:20)
- Proper logistics planning can help you be more sustainable: We really try as hard as possible to not do any air freight of our products because it’s expensive and we have to offset the carbon at the end of the year. It is way more efficient for us to get our purchase orders in on time, make sure we have the right inventory, and send all that product through to our warehouse on a slow boat. It costs less and it emits less carbon. The goal is really more of an operational goal and it just happens to be integrated with our sustainability committee ethics. (9:36)
- A company can be sustainable without having an official “sustainability team” in place: We don’t have a sustainability team at Rumpl. It’s just the small team where everybody is responsible for knowing what they are doing and the effects they have. (10:25)
- Companies can be sustainable by alignment with organizations like 1% For The Planet: Three or four years after the company was started, we actually started our relationship with 1% for the Planet with just a small selection of SKUs. A couple of blankets would donate 1% of sales to various causes that are members of 1% for the Planet. Eventually we realized the economics of the company were healthy enough, our margins were healthy enough, and we could actually go full company wide 1% of the Planet. And for us, there are two things. There is just the personal, moral, good feeling you get when you do something like that. You contribute a percentage of your sales back to environmental causes. Additionally we are rooted in the outdoors — the majority of our customers fancy themselves as outdoors people. And this stuff matters to our customers. It goes well beyond just kind of a feel-good aspect of it. This is actually having demand for our products. We can pretty clearly point to increased sales because of our participation with 1% for the Planet. (11:07)
- A demand for sustainable products or practices has to come from the customer: The customer has to demand it. If the customer is demanding it, you can very easily align your fiscal success with responsible business because you can very clearly state that our customers are asking for this, we can now do this responsibly and make sure we’re providing the customers with what they want. And that should correlate to increased revenues and increased business overall. (12:44)
- An organization can continue to add sustainability scopes as it grows: We began with a commitment that all of the carbon emitted through the creation of our product is offset by Rumpl each year. Later we moved into the textiles to make our product — approximately 99% of the product is post-consumer recycled. Then we began participating with 1% for the Planet, so 1% of the revenue we generate from all of our products goes straight back to environmental nonprofits. All of these things really resonate with our customers, so we’re just continuing to build on that connection that we have with our customers through our sustainability activities. (13:26)
Watch the video or read the transcription below.
Jennifer Wong: Hi everyone. Welcome back the The Business of Sustainability. Today, we have
Wylie Robinson, founder and CEO of Rumpl joining us. Welcome, Wylie.
Wylie Robinson: Thanks. I’m really glad to be here.
Jennifer: Well, I am very excited to have this conversation with you. Not only have I seen the clip-on Shark Tank, I saw that you are a member of the 1% pledge. I also recently got this in the mail as a gift from a friend. It’s not even opened yet. So, I’ve seen all the videos on how you can clip this like a cape, but this is kind of the first time that I’m opening it so I’m very excited. I have had heater issues all year at my apartment so this will come in handy. I think I got the original so I’m very excited.
Jennifer: Can you tell me about the founding story of Rumpl?
Wylie: Sure. So, let’s see, the company was started I think the idea for the company I guess was started on a ski trip I was on with a good friend of mine in 2012. We were heading down to do some skiing in southern California, and we were camping near Mammoth, just outside Bishop, and our car broke down, it froze overnight. So, we couldn’t get out of there, so we had to wait around for somebody to show up and tow us out. We had no cell service or anything so we couldn’t call anybody. While we were waiting there, [2:00] we bundled up our sleeping bags and kind of got to talking about how we were actually pretty comfortable, despite this unpleasant, sort of sketchy situation we found ourselves in. And it was really because the materials in the sleeping bags were so good. You know, just really warm, comfortable, cozy and we got to talking about how we liked our sleeping bags so much more than our blankets back home and it just made sense to us to make a blanket out of sleeping back material, right?
Wylie: It didn’t have a form factor like a sleeping bag, you know, zipper, etcetera. When we eventually got towed out of there and made it back home, we lived in San Francisco at the time, we went to a fabric store and picked up, you know, just generic nylon and poly insulation and sewed up what was the first Rumpl. And that was sort of the end of it honestly. We had the…we made two. We each had one. And we used them, you know, ourselves and that was kind of it. But a bunch of our friends thought this is a really cool idea and they would be interested in having something like this, so we thought, you know, let’s try a Kickstarter. This like now, you know, halfway through 2013 maybe and Kickstarter was a really big deal at the time. A lot of companies were getting quite a bit of press about Kickstarters. And we thought, you know, this is a low-risk way, you know, pretty inexpensive to test the idea. And let’s give it a go. And we launched Kickstarter in December of 2013 and ended up raising about a quarter of a million dollars in 30 days for this idea. So that told us, you know, this is an interesting concept, people are resonating with this, this idea makes sense to people. And when that happened, you know, we took a step back and said, okay, is this just a singular product we created here or is there an opportunity for expansion and a whole category that we are kind of shaping? And what we realized was that blankets are some of the oldest textiles ever. You know, some of the first textiles ever discovered in fact, are like [4:00] really old blankets. Tens of thousands of years old. And despite them being so old, really very little material innovation has taken place in this category. Most blankets you can by nowadays are like cotton, or wool, or some sort of low-tech material, natural fibers and things that have been around for years. And meanwhile, we’ve seen this big, you know, performance textile of revolution in sporting goods and athletic equipment. We’ve seen the emergence of the ath-leisure category, you know, a billion-dollar category with technical materials for everyday use. And really all that technology is perfectly suited for this blanket category. So, what we’re doing is we’re literally just drafting off the technologies that we see developed for apparel and we apply them to this everyday blanket.
Jennifer: That’s amazing. I had no idea and when I was doing some more research about your brand, I noticed that sustainability is highlighted all over the place, all across your website. I think one thing that really caught my eye is one of your core values is look to the future responsibly. Can you tell me more about what that means?
Wylie: There are two things that we think about with that statement. The first is quite literal where we talk about, you know, the environment and ensuring that in creating and shipping our products around, we are doing as a little harm as possible. We’re rooted in the outdoor industry, we’re generally an outdoor minded group of people at the company, employees, and so it is important to us that we cause, you know, as much as possible no unnecessary harm from that perspective. Additionally, we look at that from a fiscal perspective. So, we’re a venture backed company. There’s a lot of company that, you know, take outside funding and they build their business, you know, pretty much on the foundation of customer acquisition and they don’t actually [6:00] have a profitable business and for me, I just don’t feel super comfortable building as business that is not profitable because I think then you’re relying on investors, you’re relying on, you know, those funds to come from exterior sources, external sources, excuse me. And so, I think there is a two-part meaning to that which is first and foremost we want to make sure that we are causing no unnecessary harm to the planet in the creation and transportation of our goods and then additionally we want to make sure that the business can stand on its on and that we don’t rely on money coming in from investors.
Jennifer: That’s amazing. And one thing that I think related to your technology innovation in terms of the materials, I think I also saw on the website, and correct me if I get this number wrong, but it looks like you’ve upcycled over 6 million discarded plastic water bottles. Is that right?
Wylie: Yeah, its…you know, we actually put that statistic up there a while ago, its quite a bit more now. I think its well over 10 million at this point. But each blanket we have, that one that you got right there, that is made using 60 upcycled plastic bottles.
Jennifer: Okay, is that something that you initially created the company and found out about this technology and set a goal against or how did this get incorporated into your business strategy?
Wylie: Yeah, so when we started the company, the first three, four years we used virgin material. We were using a nylon. And what you’ve got in your hands there is actually a polyester shell. Most people can’t tell the difference. But…we just, you know, we looked for…we prioritized first and foremost performance when we started the company. And whether it was for lack of really diving deep on sourcing or just the recommendations we were given from our manufacturing partners, we were just shown a bunch of nylons, virgin nylons. And we picked the one that we felt, you know, [8:00] the most confident in. It felt the best, it looked the best, it had all the performance qualities from a rip and tear strand perspective, weight perspective, you know, water repellency perspective, all of those things and it just so happened that it was a virgin material. And it wasn’t until three or four years down the road when we started seeing samples of really high-quality recyclable shell material and we thought, well, you know, couldn’t we just use this exact same materials on our products to change that one form factor, or that one component out? And we got, you know, pricing quotes, testing quotes on tear strength, all the performance factors that we care about and it was pretty much the exact same as the virgin material from a cost perspective, from a performance perspective, so we said this makes so much more sense, let’s just transition everything over. Now, there was sort of an unforeseen consequence of this which thankfully we’re past now, but we had a year where there was, you know, what we would call 1.0 Rumpl products and 2.0 Rumpl products in the market where we had virgin product and also new recycled product and that caused a big challenge for us because, you know, our regional partners they just wanted to make sure that they had the newest stuff. We offered to take back a lot of that older product and move it through clearance channels and that was a whole sort of operational challenge that we had to deal with but generally speaking the activity of actually transitioning things to recycled was fairly seamless. It didn’t really have a big impact on our cost structure at all. We really try as hard as possible to not do any air freight of our products because one, its expensive, and two, we have to offset the carbon at the end of the year. So, its way more efficient for us to get our purchase orders in on time, make sure that we have the right inventory, and send all that product through to our warehouse on a slow boat. It costs less and it emits less carbon. [10:00] So, the goal is really more of an operational goal and it just happens to be integrated with our sustainability committee ethics.
We don’t have like a sustainability team or anything at Rumpl. You know, it’s just the small team we have that kind of everybody is sort of responsible for knowing what they are doing.
Jennifer: I should have asked that actually because I think that’s really great.
Jennifer: What I am finding is sustainability ends up being a very small team, but I think that’s a good thing. I think oftentimes it’s small because it just ends up giving a little bit of direction or goal setting and then measurements. But sustainability is really only powerful if it’s incorporated throughout the entire employee organization. Along those lines too one thing that I mentioned earlier, you are a member of 1% for the Planet, how did you decide to make that commitment?
Wylie: So that’s another one that came in, you know, probably three or four years after the company was started. We actually started our relationship with 1% for the Planet with just a small selection of SKUs. So, a couple of blankets would donate 1% of sales to various causes that are members of 1% for the Planet. Eventually we realized that the economics of the company were healthy enough, our margins were healthy enough and we could actually go full company wide 1% of the planet. And for us, its…there’s two things. There is just the personal, moral, good feeling you get when you do something like that. You contribute a percentage of your sales back to environmental causes like that. But additionally, you know, I mentioned we are rooted in the outdoors; majority of our customers fancy themselves as outdoor people whether or not they’re spending a lot of time in the outdoors or not. They like outdoor products and they like being outside. And [12:00] this stuff matters to our customers. You know, it’s actually it goes well beyond just kind of a feel-good aspect of it. You know, this is actually having demand for our products. So, we can, you know, pretty clearly point to increased sales because of our participation with 1% for the Planet.
Jennifer: That’s kind of the ideal story around how sustainability should be incorporated into your business. And just a couple more questions, you’ve clearly decided to incorporate sustainability increasingly throughout your business over the years, what do you think it is going to take for more companies to start integrating or investing in sustainability as they think about the future of their business?
Wylie: I would just go back to what I just said where it has got to come from the customer. The customer has to demand it. If the customer is demanding it, you can very easily align your fiscal success with responsible business because you can very clearly state that our customers are asking for this, we can now do this responsibly and make sure that we’re providing the customers with what they want. And that should correlate to increased revenues and increased business overall.
Jennifer: What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about the sustainability of their Rumpl blanket at home if they have one already?
Wylie: Let’s see, what would somebody be surprised to learn…you know, assuming they haven’t done a deep dive on the product, or our brand, or our website, the carbon, all of the carbon emitted through the creation of that produce is offset by Rumpl each year. So, in addition to 1% for the Planet members, we also offset the entire carbon footprint for our company, scope 1,2. And 3. So…that’s another…
That is sort of a self-imposed tax that we put on [14:00] ourselves…and similarly to what I mentioned on 1% for the Planet his is something that our customers like and really resonate with so we’re just continuing to build on that connection that we have with our customers through our sustainability activities. So that would be one thing. Additionally, you know, the product is made almost entirely out of post-consumer recycled content. There are some things that we can’t get recycled that have be virgin like various little trims and, you know, thread that its sewn together with but its, you know, 98, 99% post-consumer recycled and then all of our products, 1% of the revenue we generate from them goes straight back to environmental nonprofits. So, all those things are perhaps things that a customer might not know if they just…
Jennifer: Wylie, thank you so much for spending time today.
Wylie: Sure, absolutely. Thanks for having me.