In an interview, the iconic brand explains its ambitious Made in America agenda.
The history of Wrangler blue jeans is rooted in America. The Greensboro, N.C., company first introduced its authentic western jeans to America’s cowboys in 1947 and eventually became one of the United States’ most popular brands.
Today, all the major–brand blue jean companies manufacture most of their products in foreign countries where labor costs are less prohibitive.
But Wrangler has undertaken a strategy to return to its roots by unveiling a plan to make a line of 100–percent Made in America denim pants.
Appropriately, the new “authentic American” jeans are known as the Rooted Collection.
Wrangler has partnered with single-family farmers to produce five collections with each line of jeans branded with a different state. The Texas and Alabama jeans were available for purchase in April and jeans from Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia will hit the market in late June shortly before America celebrates its independence on July 4.
The state-specific jeans project is not only about returning some manufacturing to America. Important components of the American-grown cotton plan include conservation, soil retention, land stewardship, sustainability and helping local farmers.
“One of the original charters of the Rooted project was that the jeans had to be built 100 percent in America,” said Roian Atwood, director of sustainability at Wrangler. “We actually started out with how hyper-local we could go. Could we make a Texas jean that was grown in Texas, cut and sewn all through the supply chain and delivered in Texas? We couldn’t quite achieve that vision because we don’t have that much infrastructure left in the United States for each of the five states.
“What we were able to maintain is to make sure everything was made in the U.S. including the zippers, rivets and everything else.”
When purchasing clothing these days, it is difficult to tell where the garments were manufactured, where the fabric came from and who did the sewing and assembly. The Rooted Collection’s transparency was the goal Wrangler was seeking so that every American knows the details of its blue jean construction.
The cotton is grown in the state the jeans were named for and then sent to the cotton gin machines where the fluffy white crop is separated from seeds, pods, branches and other unusable byproducts of the plant. The pure cotton is then sent to Mount Vernon Mills in Trion, Ga., where it is woven into yarn and eventually denim fabric. Mount Vernon Mills, which has been in business for more than 175 years, is America’s largest manufacturer of blue jean material.
After the fabric is dyed, the denim is sent to Excel Manufacturing in El Paso, Texas, where it is cut and sewn. The inside waistband area of each pair of jeans has a silhouette of the state where the cotton was grown and an American flag. The pockets that hang inside the jean inform the consumer the product was USA Made, the name of the farming family who grew the cotton and what state provided the downy fiber. There is also an outline of the state’s geographical shape on the button fly and stitched discreetly on the outside of the jean’s left pocket.
Wrangler began in 1904 as the Hudson Overall Company, and was renamed the Blue Bell Overall Company in 1919. The company made a final change to its permanent moniker as Wrangler in 1947.
Before the Rooted Collection was produced this year, Wrangler continued to manufacture two limited lines of American-made jeans. The rest of production went offshore.
“We know that more than 80 percent of the cotton that is in Wrangler North American products comes from U.S. growers which is significant. That is very high,” said Atwood. “Wrangler operated in the U.S. from 1904 until 1994. That was a 90-year commitment.
“You know that 1994 is the year NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) was enacted and it was the final straw. It changed our industry. But it’s nice when you really tease out all that value and the meaning of something like Rooted. It’s our heritage. It speaks to the American heritage of denim and really commemorates those growers, factories and mills that are working so tirelessly to thrive and survive in this very modern age.
“We’ve always had some manufacturing in the U.S. and we always will.”
The Texas and Alabama jeans have been so successful that Wrangler has set a target of 2025 to source all its cotton from farmers using eco-friendly soil practices. This includes all cotton used globally to supply its factories around the world.
“We had to set a target and we need to move forward expeditiously,” said Atwood. “We need to be cognizant of global issues and know the power of what we can do, and we know the power of what these growers can do to maintain land stewardship. It’s what we call a big, hairy audacious goal. It’s one of those targets we put up there to drive our activity and our focus and dedication.”
Laying a Foundation for Sustainability
A copious amount of research and development went into the Rooted Collection project before the first pair of jeans were sold. Wrangler representatives met with many farming experts to learn the secrets of growing a healthy, eco-friendly product and is now sharing the information with cotton farmers who will be future suppliers in creating all–American denim.
Each cotton grower must use effective crop rotation that requires at least three different crops grown on the farm over a five–year period.
“It’s all about the soil. Rotating crops creates fertile soil,” said Atwood. “Soil and land stewardship are at the epicenter of this program. Rotation is one key component. So is the use of cover crops which is a non-cash crop on the field in the offseason to keep soils intact. If you just plow over the field in the fall time and have no cover, no vegetation on it, what happens is you have wind and rain that washes away the fertile soil. You lose a lot of those micro-organisms. They are also destroyed by light and UV rays.
“The third requirement is conservation tillage or precision planting. Instead of opening up all of the soil you just open a small six-inch strip that is elegantly plowed up and then they drop a skin in it and then the patch folds back over. It actually acts as a vegetation mat. It actually prevents weeds from growing up.
“It’s these three practices that are really at the epicenter of the sustainability component of the program and all five of our current growers utilize these three practices.”
Wrangler is hoping to add more states and styles to its Rooted Collection by 2020. It is in the process of expanding its farmer pool by teaching potential Rooted cotton growers how to share data so that Wrangler can form a meaningful, long-term relationship with them. Wrangler has even partnered with the Soil Health Institute to present a series of trainings about healthy soil practices.
"There is no service sector economy in a rural area. You can’t just eat out and expect this halo to develop over new economics when you lose a base like your manufacturing." Roian Atwood, director of sustainability at Wrangler
Wrangler jeans were originally built with the cowboy in mind and considers the rugged west part of its core identity.
But Atwood believes Wrangler could do so much more.
“Collectively, we need to do more to make sure those folks in a rural area, whether they are cotton farmers or ranchers or no matter what they are doing, that they have viable vocations,” he said. “They have to have good, healthy lifestyles.
“The economics in the rural communities have been very challenged over the past 20, 30, 40 or 50 years. It is very much related to the manufacturing base and all this lost American manufacturing. There is no service sector economy in a rural area. You can’t just eat out and expect this halo to develop over new economics when you lose a base like your manufacturing.
“So, I do see this real economic undercurrent in what’s embodied under the Wrangler Rooted brand. I think if we could have this conversation more broadly as a society, we could learn how we can help infuse better economics into our rural communities. It’s important.”
Priced at $99 per pair, the Rooted Collection jean is more about fashion and style than everyday jeans that require a good cleaning after having been worn in the fields working with crops and cattle all day. But most American-made jeans are priced in the $250 to $350 range so Wrangler is keeping to its American everyman heritage by offering a classy denim you can wear when dancing on a Saturday night.