Consumer Interest Growing for Locally Produced Animal Fiber Products
SAN MARCOS, Texas – When it comes to sustainably produced local farm products, what consumers put on their bodies seems to be just as important as what they put in them.
Based on the results of a Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)-funded project, consumers would prefer to buy locally produced animal fiber apparel. More importantly, they are willing to spend twice as much as long as they know that well-being of the environment, animal and farm family are taken into consideration. And the product doesn’t even have to be labeled “certified organic.”
That’s good news for fiber producers who, in many cases, are unable to raise the animal organically, and as a result, lose out on a potential value-added product by either discarding the fiber as too little to sell or losing its “local” identity by selling it to a regional fiber reseller who sends it overseas to be manufactured.
“The goal of this project was to help the producer and the consumer find a middle ground when it comes to sustainably producing and labeling a product,” said Gwendolyn Hustvedt, assistant professor of fashion merchandising at Texas State University and coordinator of the $140,000 Research & Education Grant. “How much do consumers value local, sustainably produced animal fiber products? Turns out, there is a demand for it.”
In the study, Hustvedt purchased wool, alpaca and mohair fiber from farms in Texas, Virginia and Georgia and procured a mill in Michigan to clean, spin and knit the fiber into socks. In addition, the researcher also bought socks made with fiber from Argentina and Australia, and then conducted an auction with 255 consumers.
“Participants were spending real money they didn’t have to spend on the products we were offering. This means that the price differences for different product labeling or fiber content that we detected are much closer to their real behavior in a store than surveys would show,” said Hustvedt.
The study team also used a series of survey questions to find product-marketing preferences based on a variety of market characteristics, such as retail location, label images and label language.
“What we found out is that consumers are more interested in socks made of fiber that is produced locally, and when it comes to clothing, they see that the benefit of their purchase is to the environment, the animal and the economic well-being of the farm family rather than to themselves,” said Hustvedt. “Consumers were not turned off by the fact that the product wasn’t labeled 'organic'. They were more interested in a product that can make the environment and the local economy better.”
Hustvedt said that the key to marketing a locally produced sustainable animal fiber product lies in the language and the image of the label. In the study, Hustvedt used terms such as “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” and “all-natural”, as well as state local-grown logos to gauge consumer preference.
During the auction sessions, the researchers found that while the terms “eco-friendly” and “all-natural” were widely accepted, the term “sustainable” was not.
“We suspect that’s because the term is so nebulous to begin with,” said Hustvedt. “We asked consumers to buy products with these different labeling terms and then we watched how their bidding changed when we provided a definition of the terms.”
The bids for “sustainable” went up when the participants were provided with a definition, but the bids for “eco-friendly”, “all-natural” and “organic” didn’t change much.
“This means that for fiber producers to use the term ‘sustainable’, they are going to have to find a meaning that consumers can agree with,” said Hustvedt.
Hustvedt also found that consumer opinions vary from one state to another. For example, labels with the Virginia Grown logo were not as positively received as those with the Texas Grown logo.
“Which means,” said Hustvedt, “that we can make a suggestion to Departments of Agriculture on how suitable their logo is for advertising apparel.”
Also, the researchers found that when it comes to the logo image used on product labels, consumers are more interested in photographs or graphics that are animal-focused or environment-focused.
“The take-home message of the study is that animal fiber producers don’t have to necessarily market their product as organic,” said Hustvedt. “If they can convince consumers that their products meet the consumer requirements for sustainable production and market their product as such, consumers will pay for the product."
Hustvedt said that developing fiber cooperatives could help.
“Very small operations that are using sheep to control weeds can turn the small quantities of wool they have to shear to keep the animals comfortable into an additional income stream by identifying other producers in the same position,” said Hustvedt. “One of the ranchers in our project was just going to compost the wool that she didn’t think was worth transporting all that way to market, but when her wool was knitted into socks, they were top sellers.”
While farmers can sell their products at local farmers markets, boutique shops, fairs, and supermarkets, identifying a larger distributor is the limiting factor. The study results showed that consumers were looking for local fiber products at their locally owned grocery stores and at natural foods stores.
“These outlets should be more approachable since they already have ties to the local community or are interested in sustainable products,” said Hustvedt.
Texas consumers, predictably, were thinking big. “Texans are looking for local fiber products to be sold at Sam’s Club and Costco,” said Hustvedt. “We want to demonstrate to stakeholders that it’s not a consumer issue, it’s a supply chain issue.”
To read more about the project, “Marketing of Locally Produced Sustainable Animal Fiber Products,” log on to the national SARE database and search for project number LS08-208.
Other members of the project team include John Bernard and graduate student Kathryn Onken, University of Delaware; and Hikaru Hanawa Peterson, Kansas State University. Project participants include Leah Cope, Zeillinger Wool Company; Debbie Lipinski, Georgia Mountain Fiber; Emily Adham, Simply Abundant Farm; Jan Suthers, Hope Springs Farm; Mike Snow, Georgia Department of Agriculture; Mary York, Texas Department of Agriculture; Deborah Sharp, Texas Fiber Mill; Gail Auer, Ashling Alpacas and Angoras; Scott Grenier, Virgina Tech; John Merrell, Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America; Matt Mole, Vermont Fiber Company; Steve Morgan, University of Georgia; Ronald Pope, Producers Marketing Cooperative; Steven Sturtz, Texas A&M University; and Zane Williard, Mohair Council.
Research & Education Grants, one of Southern SARE’s seven grant opportunities, further sustainable agriculture systems research efforts. Systems research, the core of Southern SARE program fundamentals, aims to understand how a complex system functions as a whole, often beginning with a conceptual model. Read more about Research & Education Grants.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.