What would you do with a wool sweater that accidentally got shrunken in the wash? Throw it out? Give it to a thrift store? Most people would probably do one of those things, but Sue Burns of Traverse City saw a business opportunity when that exact laundry mistake happened to her 17 years ago.
She turned that sweater into cute clothing for her daughters, bolstered by skills in both sewing and graphic design, and realized the potential for recycled children's wear. So Baa Baa Zuzu
began, as a line of children's clothing made out of reused wool garments that have gone through the wash in a process like felting.
"The first year, we had a lot of adult women ask if we could do something in their sizes," says Burns, who co-owns the business with husband Kevin. It wasn't long before Baa Baa Zuzu morphed into a women's clothing line, with jackets, hats, bags and mittens to start. At first, the materials were gathered from local thrift stores.
Now, the company has grown far beyond that; it gets 1,500 pounds of discarded wool garments from salvage companies every two weeks to keep up with demand for its original creations.
"Our sales have been increasing 30 or 40 percent each year. We've been very fortunate," Burns says.
"It all comes from the post-consumer market," says Lisa Brookfield, the company's general manager. "We call it 'upcycling,' taking stuff that already exists and repurposing it. It's more eco-conscious than recycling because we don't have to use all the resources to break something down and rebuild it."
Buttons, zippers and other embellishments found on the clothing also are removed and reused in the final designed products.
The random nature of the incoming garments means product lines are constantly adapting and changing.
"How it turns out in the wash determines what product line it'll go into," says Burns. She and other designers constantly are at work combining textures, colors and patterns.
There's been so much growth for the company that it became impossible to hand-cut everything, so two years ago, they switched to die-cut machines to speed up production.
Last year, boot liners, billed hats and headbands were added to the line-up, and this year, customers can expect to see a new cape and an urban-styled bag.
"A lot of our product development comes from scraps we see. Like when we were making jackets, they consistently had a strip left over -- so we started using that on the bags," Brookfield says. The smallest scraps go into pretty felt brooches.
Right now, Baa Baa Zuzu employs about 40 to 50 people between its in-house employees and local outsourcing of pressing and finishing, which are done by workers at Grand Traverse Industries and two small garment manufacturers in Manistee and Central Lake.
The company has made improvements toward being even more eco-friendly. The original washers and dryers used too much energy and water, so they've switched to higher-efficiency machines designed for fewer cycles, less energy use, and less water use. All the garments are washed with a Traverse City-made soap from Selestial Soap
that's biodegradable and uses no bleach or phosphates.
"We try to be as green as we can," says Burns.
Baa Baa Zuzu also reuses cardboard shipping boxes and uses sustainably-sourced office supplies, and of course, recycles paper and other typical recyclables.
It's fitting for a company whose beginnings were based in reuse, and it's also an approach customers have shown their appreciation for.
"I would attribute our growth to a consumer-led movement toward buying things that are made in the USA and things that are sustainable," says Brookfield.
Baa Baa Zuzu products can now be found in more than 900 stores in the U.S., Canada and Japan. The U.S. stores are mainly in the Midwest and on the East Coast, but Burns hopes to expand further, to the Rockies and the Northwest.
And international expansion is far from out of the question. Brookfield says global target markets include Canada and Japan, where there are only a handful of stores carrying the line now.
The seasonal nature of the products is one thing Baa Baa Zuzu hopes to overcome by going global.
In the Southern Hemisphere winter comes at the opposite time of the year, opening up what could be a summer-months market for the company.
Perhaps, Baa Baa Zuzu can bring its green business approach to other countries along with its upcycled creations. Brookfield says that feeling of doing the right thing for the earth is part of why she is so passionate about the company.
"It's great to be a part of something like this, creating something beautiful out of something that otherwise would be going to the landfill," she says.Kim Hoyum is a freelance writer based in the Upper Peninsula. Her credits include contributor to Geek Girl on the Street as well as a regular writer for several weekly and monthly publications. Hoyum is a graduate of Northern Michigan University where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in writing.