Sustainability in Action: Holy Lamb Organics
Losing sleep may have led Willow Whitton ’98 to the dream of Holy Lamb Organics, a luxury organic bedding company now in its 15th year.
A year after graduating from Evergreen, Whitton took a break from the two jobs she held down to make ends meet, and planned a camping trip in the California redwoods with a friend. While gearing up for the trip, she bought a backpacking pillow to take along.
That uncomfortable, poorly crafted pillow, with its ugly stitching, flat synthetic filling, and cheap cover, sparked the idea for the business that would become Holy Lamb Organics. Whitton recalled, “I have always been crafty, starting from my days as a Waldorf School student. I knew I could make something better. By the end of that seven-day hike, I had developed a complete business plan! I came home and announced to my friends and family, ‘I’m going to start a pillow company!’ They looked at me like I was nuts.”
At Evergreen, Whitton had studied botany, ethnobotany, permaculture, and environmental design. With Faculty Emeritus Rob Knapp as sponsor, she embarked on an economic study of eco-friendly homes to examine how they could be made more affordable and economical. When Knapp subsequently developed his first environmental design program, he drew from Whitton’s individual learning contract curriculum, Whitton said.
Whitton’s business philosophy was strongly influenced by permaculture tenets. In the 1970s, when Australian scientist Bill Mollison coined that term from the words “permanent,” “agriculture,” and “culture,” he used it to describe sustainable food production. But permaculture’s definition has expanded over time to embrace social and economic systems, too. This sustainable, whole-systems philosophy informed Whitton’s business plan. “I envisioned a company that would create beautifully made, healthy items, in an environment that would create local jobs and a humane, fun workplace,” the entrepreneur said.
Evolution of a Micro-business
From the start, Whitton was committed to making all of her wool-filled cotton bedding products in-house, using the best organic materials she could source domestically. For the first five years, that “house” was an old school bus she transformed into a work-space. “I had no money to start a business, so it needed to be low-risk, low overhead: no loans, no investors.”
She gradually expanded the product line from those first pillows she sold at the Olympia Food Co-op to a line of comforters and toppers sold wholesale. Over time, Whitton hired employees and graduated from the school bus to a one-room space in Olympia, then a two-room space. At the eight-year mark, with the business bursting at the seams, Whitton started hunting for a bigger commercial space.
A 2008 visit with friends in Oakville, a small rural community 33 miles from Olympia, inspired a new vision: Oakville (population 633) was the place her business should be. “I called the real estate agent and said, ‘let’s look for properties in Oakville instead of Olympia.’” There were just eight listings, but one of them was the Little Bit General Store building. Built in 1902, it served as anchor of Oakville’s main street for 85 years. “The listing photo of the 3,000-square-foot building matched my vision. And when I went to see it, the layout was perfect. It even had sewing machines in the windows!”
Today, the renovated historic building houses the company’s staff of 17, three-quarters of whom live in the Oakville-Rochester area, where good jobs are scarce. The building features the general store’s refinished original wood floors, sales counters, merchandise shelves, and flour bins—now stuffed with pillows. The light-filled room, lined with stacks of fluffy wool battings and rolls of fine organic cotton, is dedicated to all production phases, from fabric cutting, stuffing, and sewing to quality control and shipping. Retail customers can peruse and purchase finished products on display in the on-site showroom.
The product line now includes American-made, natural products from like-minded vendors, including wool and latex mattresses and organic cotton bed and bath items for adults and babies. Fifty percent of Holy Lamb Organics’ products are sold online or in the showroom, while the others are sold wholesale to 100 retailers nationwide. The large order volume, especially during the Christmas holiday season, is the reason behind the company’s recent expansion into a second 3,000-square-foot building across the street.
One can’t talk with Whitton for long before she turns the conversation to wool and enthusiastically describes its many virtues. “There’s something magical about wool. We spend one-third of our lifetimes in bed, and spending it surrounded by wool is very special,” Whitton said, adding, “Wool is the most breathable natural bedding material available. It wicks moisture away from the body and regulates body temperature. Scientific studies have shown that it lowers heart rates. Dust mites cannot live in wool, so it’s ideal bedding for allergy sufferers.”
Obtaining clean, high-quality local wool was not easy. Much of the wool used in the U.S. is imported from New Zealand and Australia. Whitton’s exhaustive research eventually led to the company’s wool source and partner, Woolgather Carding Mill. Located in California, the mill sources fleeces from family farms in the Pacific Northwest. Both farmers and the mill follow strict guidelines to produce Eco Wool, an all-natural product that meets a number of stringent testing standards.
Sustainable Business Ingredients
The term “sustainability” gets lots of press, but it’s woven into the fabric of Holy Lamb Organics, from the organic wool and cotton materials they use to the tiniest leftover scraps of wool, thread, and cotton turned into baby booties, dog bed stuffing, and other items made for the company’s Rekindle product line as part of its zero-waste manufacturing plan.
Holy Lamb Organics’ website lists the many sustainable practices the company employs, including: applying permaculture principles through every fabric of the company; sourcing raw materials from credible, high-quality mills; carefully considering all vendors; pledging to use only natural, local materials; following the commitment to manufacturing in the United States; vigilantly adhering to a zero-waste philosophy; and creating an outstanding work environment for employees.
Whitton said social networking to find good people has been key to her success. Several employees have been with the company five years or more, and either studied at Evergreen or have connections to the college. “Wherever I travel, I meet Evergreen grads,” she said. Whitton also credits Evergreen’s educational philosophy. “I learned the importance of going out there and getting what you want—and creating something.”