Caroline Cockerham and Laura Tripp are familiar with the intricacies of working toward sustainability in a large company—and all of the hairiness that comes with implementing dynamic change within them. Tripp and Cockerham, who first met as textile designers at Patagonia, formed a friendship from their time working together. "We wound up in New York City living a couple blocks away, both working for other big brands in the realm of textiles, sustainability and material development," Cockerham recalls. "And when you work in that world of big brands…you really understand the global textile industrial complex. You have these somewhat tenuous relationships with mills all over the world, and no transparency. And these are the sorts of things that Laura and I would talk about over wine at dinner."
Casual conversations over dinner ultimately led to the creation of CICIL, a rug company they launched together in 2021 as a way to tackle sustainability in their own way, without the pressures that come with mass manufacture. The co-founders, in fact, unsubscribe so passionately to the tenets of big companies today they even go as far to say they are "anti-innovation". In contrast to bigger operations, their approach to manufacturing is simple and locally sourced—their modern rugs are completely dye-free, made of wool waste by-product sourced from farmers less than 1000 miles away from where they live, and are built to last generations. Due to the fact that their approach is nowhere near the status quo, one could argue they are instead redefining the idea of innovation. The designers are looking to practices of the past as a way to responsibly (and radically) look forward.
We recently had the chance to sit down with the CICIL founders to learn more about how they came up with the idea for the company, how they design backwards in order to create net-good products, and what it take to build more sustainable supply chain processes.
Caroline Cockerham and Laura Tripp, hidden by one of their creations
Core77: Why did you decide to start a company like CICIL?
Caroline Cockerham: We started CICIL to find a way out of the cyclical and draining process of making global textiles without any transparency, and very little nod to sustainability. So we started with a collaboration around hemp fiber. We ended up getting a government contract to develop hemp fiber, and kind of became experts in the field of hemp fiber in the United States by helping foster that industry forward. The concept was, hemp is never going to be really great against skin. So we decided rugs and home goods were a really great entry point for the fiber.
So as a duo, you got this government contract to work on the material?
Caroline: We did. It was kind of a foray in how we build our business with a truth to materials at the core and letting the materials inform the type of products that we make, rather than reverse engineering and saying "we want this design, so let's go back and figure out where in the world we can make it." Instead, we find the material, we design into the material and design into the manufacturing and bring a product to life where it's led by those means instead of the opposite way it's usually done.
Yes, you've written somewhere about your 'design backwards' approach that you're talking about. Can you explain a little more how you're considering materials before design? How do you decide what material to use in the first place?
Caroline: We only use natural materials, that is one constraint we gave ourselves from the very beginning due to our experience in the industry. There are some really cool materials happening in some of the bio-based synthetics. But we really wanted to focus on natural materials, because we think there's an opportunity to not just make a less harmful product, but something that can create a net good as we build out this whole regenerative supply chain concept. So we start with natural materials. And it's really sort of a limitation in a way, because we're also trying to source in the United States. So there's cotton, hemp, wool, and other things coming to the forefront too. We really started there, [asking], how can we make those industries better and work at the farm level to improve the processes there?
Laura Tripp: We're always looking for partners who share our values about how we're building product. And that has really helped us along the way to finding several partners to source the wool with. That's what kind of kicked off our whole supply chain process. We knew that it was a fiber we were interested in, but it's kind of about finding that right connection with the agricultural piece.
It's interesting to have this perspective of thinking about people first, community first, rather than the traditional process of "I have this idea, and I need to do whatever I need to do in order to make this vision come to life."
Caroline: We can't tell you how many times in big brands we heard the term, "I don't care how it gets done, just do it." And that is just the complete opposite from CICIL. We really care how it gets done.
Laura: We've learned that you can't force it if it's not working—you have to find the right way to make what you want happen versus just pushing it forward at all costs. And that part of it has been the most rewarding part of building a supply chain.
Can you illuminate a little bit for me how your process works?
Caroline: The wool is a really good example of how we started. Through experience in the textile industry, we knew of these people in upstate New York who had already built out a really beautiful wool supply chain in the Hudson Valley. One thing we're trying to do is get away from mass agriculture—working directly with small family farms was something we wanted to do, having more transparency down to the farm. Because even at big brands who are really doing their best with sustainability, they have too much inertia and too much complexity to work at the farm level.
So working at the farm level was big. And we found a group in upstate who did that already that we could kind of collaborate with; they were our hands on the ground, and shared the same values as us. We found them, and we found a factory in North Carolina who could help us make products on demand and custom, which for us as a small business and bootstrapped business is key because we didn't have to hold inventory. And it allowed us to get this brand started in a lean and efficient, sustainable way. So at all aspects of the supply chain we're building relationships, and hopefully long term partners. And working directly with every single person involved in our supply chain.
And just to clarify, if you're a bigger company and you're working to implement a material, you're working with the material supplier as opposed to a farm. And the benefit of working with a farm is that you know where it's coming from?
Laura: We know where it's coming from, we know what people are being paid, we understand all the aspects of cost for our product. And I think that's a really important part of keeping the people who are actually producing the material at the table with us versus having them be some distant [entity] where our partner's partner's partner is managing how we interact with them.
Caroline: Especially in wool, There are also the aspects of animal welfare and land management. In mass agriculture, especially with sheep, there are big issues with desertification, where they just eat all the vegetation and it causes a desert; it's happening a lot in South America. So we're working with small vendors who are paying attention to moving their flock. I mean, one of our vendors is a bed and breakfast in Vermont, and they just have the sheep like it's a pet farm. They just love their sheep and love farming and agriculture. And it's just a better way for animals to be raised than in big, huge farms.
But to your question, the way that typical brands [work], they pick out their fabrics, so they'll work with mills to pick out fabric. It is very rare that brands pick out yarn—that's a tier prior to fabric, and then before that would be fiber. So it's just impossible to work at a big brand and go down to the fiber level.
"Design is absolutely in the front of our minds. But the most important thing about what we do is supply chain."
Would you say that an impactful sustainable product is creating more of an infrastructure or an ecosystem for that product that is sustainable? Is that a key element now to creating something that's sustainable?
Caroline: Absolutely. With our brand, we brought to life these funky rugs, you know, cool shapes and stuff. So design is absolutely in the front of our minds. But the most important thing about what we do is supply chain. And building this [supply chain], it's not exactly easy—we're touching every single point of the process. So yes, building an ecosystem, and having an efficient process throughout is really important.
I'm interested to chat with you about your stance on innovation, because you've commented on how you have a bone to pick with it. What would you say is the inherent issue with the idea of innovation today?
Caroline: As material developers from all those big brands, it was a constant request. Every year, what's the new innovative fleece? What's the new innovative running tee? "Innovative" just became synonymous with "newness". It was just a vicious cycle of, what new chemical can we slap on this to make it interesting? What PCM finishes to make the product cooling can we add?
But really, if you just step back and think about fibers and supply chains, we think that simplicity is a much better approach. Because often, brands were trying to make polyester feel like cotton—just use cotton, let's not try to finagle this. I think the word 'innovation' has led brands down a vicious, never ending path of creating stuff that's really unnecessary.
In which ways would you say that CICIL goes against the grain when it comes to innovation for innovation's sake?
Caroline: I think we're using fibers that are really proven to be great textile fibers. We're working with wool, hemp, jute—these are fibers that have been tested by time. And we know, through our process, that we're not creating any additional or unforeseen harm. Because a lot of times, that's what happens in innovative supply chains. People think it's a great thing. For example, recycled polyester. Everybody was switching to recycled polyester, but still creating major issues with micro plastics. So there's a lot of unintended consequences in textile supply chains, and we think by working with these tried and true materials, and paying attention to the supply chains that we're sourcing them in is really a differentiator and kind of a more simple way to work.
Laura: I think it goes back to that word that you've been saying, Caroline, simplifying. While we're saying that we don't necessarily promote innovation, I think that really is our innovative approach—just paring things down, doing it more simply, getting back to the essentials of the material, and making it well.
What's also interesting about what you all are doing, from what I've read, the rug and textile industry is probably in need of a product like yours in that there aren't a lot of pollutive materials or any manipulative materials in them.
Caroline: One other bit is we don't dye our fabrics. So we use the natural color of the wool, and wool actually comes in all different shades. From brown to silvery gray and reddish tones, and white obviously, but big brands want red, they want purple. And in order to dye those colors, you have to start with white wool. Grays and browns, they get bred out of flocks. Actually, the term "black sheep", that's why it became a negative term. Because if your flock gave birth and had a black sheep, they wouldn't want that sheep because they can't use their wool. So we're utilizing that wool. Often it becomes a waste product farms will burn or compost, and we play up on that. In fact, we're working on a new supply chain out of North Carolina that uses alpaca and it's this reddish oatmeal color- it's super beautiful, completely undyed.
I think there's a lot of info out there about the ways that fashion is harming the planet, but I'm not sure people necessarily know a lot about the ways in which rugs and textiles can be pollutive. So I was curious if you could kind of give an intro here about what the biggest sustainability issues within your industry specifically is.
Caroline: You can find more out about this from the Environmental Working Group, but rugs and especially carpeting are super toxic. Rugs sometimes have over 57 different chemicals in them, and they're usually all synthetic. They have things like PFAs, which are in home goods and upholstery. They always tout them as easy care or stain free, you know, stain repellent. But it's carcinogenic, and it's a forever chemical.
Laura: To her point, there is so much finishing that's used. So we found that all of this is being used in carpeting. We know that from our experience in the industry. So again, our take here was what do we really need? We know, like Caroline said, that wool is a proven fiber. It has inherent characteristics that make it antimicrobial, stain resistant. We don't need the finishes. And I think that was a big part of what we saw.
A pattern I see through what you're talking about is to embrace the inherent advantages of the material in order to design something rather than adding to something where you're using it in a scenario where that's potentially not the best material to use.
Laura: And build something to last a really long time, that's another big trend that we're seeing in the home industry. Similar to fast fashion, things are more trend-following, not built to last as long. That's one thing that we also think about the wool fiber, it'll last you forever. And the way that we're making it is really, we think, quite durable.
What do you think are some of the most important ways designers or people with a say in the production process can contribute to more sustainable production and manufacturing processes?
Caroline: Good question. One thing we've learned from studies is that over 80% of a product's carbon footprint comes from the materials. So focus on the materials is probably the biggest way you can impact the overall carbon footprint of a product. That would be my advice—really hone in and get laser focused on the materials, where they come from, how they're made, where they're made.
Laura: I would definitely say the same. And I think it's also kind of the thing that we've been talking about here, just asking yourself, what do I really need? What is necessary here? What's unnecessary? What can I pare down? What can I simplify? That's the question that we're constantly asking ourselves.
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