TOM CHAPPELL – TOM, FROM MAINE!
The sixties and seventies are remembered mostly as a time of social and political upheaval. With its madly unpopular war and related protests, its breathtaking musical revolution (e.g. British Invasion), its heartbreaking assassinations and its raging civil rights-related clashes, this was a time marked by boundless hope and permanent loss. One particularly unrecoverable loss was our nation’s former Teflon-coated innocence. Throughout the tumult, harsh lessons were learned, or not, and the generation destined to carry us forward, each scarred with our own individual experiences, would forever be changed.
Another less examined but equally tragic loss during this same period was occurring across New England and the Atlantic seaboard. It was the hollowing out of America’s once robust textile business (e.g. apparel, clothing, shoes) and the concurrent shuttering of hundreds of factories and many thousands of livelihoods.
Fueled by two-income households, growing wages and household wealth, and the sudden widespread availability of credit, our post-WW II economy of throw-away consumerism had taken off. Demand for newfangled products was soaring, including a flood of lower-cost and generally lower-quality imports. In order to survive in these transformational times, our antiquated American textile industry would need to modernize quickly, or it would die. Mostly, it died.
A young man living in Massachusetts named Tom Chappell was observing all of this from a deeply personal perspective. The Chappell family has a deep and rich history in textiles. Tom Chappell grew up in the family textile business in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Kate Chappell, Tom’s wife, grew up with fabric in her blood, too – her family ran the Cheney brothers, the largest manufacturer of silk and velvet in the US in the 1940s.
Tom and Kate Chappell moved to Maine from Philadelphia in 1968, looking for a healthier, simpler life for their growing family. They discovered the benefits of natural and unprocessed food, and started looking for the same qualities in personal care products. But all they found were labels listing artificial flavors, fragrances, sweeteners, colors and preservatives. So, they decided to create their own. In 1970, with the help of a $5,000 loan from a friend, Tom’s of Maine was born.
It is impossible to overstate just how revolutionary were the decisions and actions of the Chappells in these early days. Even the starry-eyed peaceniks left Max Yasgur’s rolling upstate New York farmland a hypocritical wasteland upon their departure. I suppose they assumed someone else would clean up their historic mess for them. In the ensuing years, not much changed in this context. Except in the hearts and minds of the rarest of socially-conscious innovators like young Tom and Kate Chappell.
Building a Legacy
In the following three-and-a-half decades, they grew both a nourishing life and a durable legacy through their impressive family and highly successful company. Starting with its iconic natural ingredient-only toothpaste, and a few other similarly conceived personal care products, ‘Tom’s of Maine’ began to grow sustainably.
The early success enabled the hiring of a like-minded industry expert who guided them in expanding ‘Tom’s’ personal care lines. As interest in environmental causes steadily grew, ‘Tom’s’ took market share steadily away from the industry heavyweights. In 2006, with their legacy secured, the Chappells sold their prized possession (other than their family, which wasn’t included in the deal) to one of these luminaries, Colgate-Palmolive. They settled in their family home in both material comfort and renewed contemplation.
A New Adventure
What do entrepreneurial spirits do once their vision has been realized far beyond any reasonable expectation? Once they’ve devoted more than half their lives to a certain cause, and while the cause remains active, they are no longer leading its direction? Typically, they sit down in side-by-side rocking chairs on a porch overlooking sweeping views of a pine-crested, New England mountain range, or a glistening, wind-swept harbor town, with the stack of books they’ve forever promised to read piled high between them. Correct? No, this would be incorrect. Instead, they go hiking in Wales.
The story has been oft-told so suffice to say while in Wales, Tom learned the true meaning of both hate and love concurrently. He hated his bulky, uncomfortable synthetic and wool clothing which was keeping him neither warm nor dry in the chilled mist of this ancient country. And he fell in love with his nearly constant furry companions who in their soft, silky woolen attire seemed a good deal more cheerful than he with the inclement weather. And just like that the latest venture was hatched, the Chappell family-run, sustainable clothing business, Ramblers Way.
In 2008, Ramblers Way was established on these values:
- We strive to use American resources whenever possible.
- We are an independent, family-owned company. We use our autonomy to think constructively about the ways we may apply sustainability to our activities.
- We are entrepreneurial. We use our values to innovate solutions.
- We will provide a safe, healthy and supportive work environment for our employees where they may earn a living wage, be provided with health care and enjoy flexible working hours.
- We give our time, talent and resources to support environmental conservation, human need, arts and education organizations.
That’s quite an ambitious list of values. So, nearly a decade later, how are they doing? By the wide breadth of premium quality clothing they offer on their website (www.ramblersway.com) and in their bustling Portland, Maine flagship store, and by their estimated revenue and store expansion plans – I’d say just fine, thank you.
All in the Family
They’ve had a few bumps in the road as all start-ups do. For instance, they opened and closed a few small-town trial stores, learning that urban centers are the best physical locations for their premium quality clothing. In the meantime, as is true across our new economy’s retail landscape, social media is doing yeoman’s work in keeping their website working overtime.
Importantly, it appears they’ve kept to every promise made including the “family-run” pledge. With daughter Eliza’s women’s wear design talents, son-in-law Nick’s supply chain oversight, from sheep to fabric makers, and oldest son Chris’s marketing and e-commerce expertise, it may be that Mom and Dad have an occasional chance at those rocking chairs after all.
What is heard often at Ramblers Way is their steadfast commitment to certain sets of standards. They are practicing what’s called “farm-to-fabric-to-fashion,” the textile industries version of “farm-to-table.” Their organic wool and cotton clothing lines have met, and in several cases exceeded, difficult certifications for both environmental and social criteria, including internationally recognized, ‘GOTS’ (Global Organic Textile Standard), ‘RWS’ (Responsible Wool Standard), and ‘cradle 2 cradle.’
These organizations comprehensively measure the textile manufacturing process to include sustainable agriculture, fair social practices, clean water standards and end-of-life product requirements. It’s what they call “a circular path from earth-to-earth.” They want the world to know that once disposed, a woolen t-shirt will decompose in six months versus a synthetic t-shirt’s sixty years. They award their ‘seals of approval’ to the companies doing it correctly. And that resoundingly includes Ramblers Way.