Janessa Leone started her business with $10,000. The brand now pulls in more than eight figures, she says (aka, more than $10 million). It’s still self-funded, and it’s more mission-driven than ever before.
The California native first discovered the beauty of handcrafted hats on a visit to Paris. She wanted to bring that quality craftsmanship to a category that had been ignored. In 2013, she launched primarily with hats, and a few leather accessories. But in the last 10 years, she’s been building a brand squarely focused on regeneration. “It’s not easy. This is not the typical way to do business. But I can’t imagine doing it any other way,” she says.
Leone, who grew up in southern California, spent years battling chronic health issues. The healthcare system, she says, was good at two things: sustaining health and emergency health, but not restoring health. “The body is a well-designed machine that can heal itself if given the right nutrients.”
So to help herself heal, she turned to food and nature. By eating more nutrient-dense foods, she discovered regenerative agriculture. “The way food is grown does impact the nutrients in it. The richer the soils, the more nutritious that piece of fruit or that vegetable is going to be.”
Thus, building a regenerative-minded brand came through an unusual route. “I’d been an animal lover. I was keen on nutrient-dense foods. And I was interested in slow fashion. All the roads pointed me to regenerative agriculture. It’s a slower way of doing things, for sure. But just like I could heal my body, the land could be healed as well, and give back more in dividends.”
With the guidance and support of Rachel Cantu, who was VP of Supply Chain at Patagonia for 5 years, Leone set out to build a supply chain from scratch for all the materials used in products. And she added one more key item to her lineup: wool sweaters made from regenerative wool that’s grown, sourced, and turned into yarn entirely in the US.
They connected with Jeanne Carver of Shaniko Wool Company in Oregon. Carver had been working with ranchers like herself to create a ranch group, practicing regenerative agriculture. To qualify to be a part of the ranch group, a farm had to show they were already incorporating regenerative practices (no to low tillage, rotational grazing, managing pastures, and more). Plus, they’d have to be part of the Responsible Wool Standard.
For these ranchers, it would be beneficial to sell this wool to brands such as Janessa Leoné rather than on the commodities market, but there are not enough companies sourcing directly yet.
In fact, Leone says, “When I would first ask my leather suppliers where the hides were coming from, few, if any, could trace it back to the animal. So many brands do not know where the materials are coming from because the intermediaries in the supply chain itself don’t know.”
For her, though, it was imperative to have a fully traceable supply chain, given that she wants to source more than 80% of materials from regenerative farms in the near future.
There are concerns about greenwashing with regenerative agriculture, Leone admits. “That’s why we’re focused on traceability and data. Our suppliers are tracking the carbon content in soils, taking samples yearly, and monitoring the activity. Granted, they’re already starting from a stronger place than a conventional farm. But they’re proving it with data.”
Carver, for instance, has reported this data at Textile Exchange gatherings, where Leone is also sharing feedback and helping the organization build out its regenerative standard. The last update was that the ranches had sequestered carbon the equivalent of 43,600 cars in one year. (The U.S. EPA has found that a typical 22 MPG gas-based car emits about 5 tons of carbon dioxide per year, she adds. Plus, this data has been verified by a third-party).
Yet today, Leone iterates that Carver and the ranchers need more support. Thus, she’s encouraging other like-minded brands to collaborate with her and her suppliers. For example, she works with denim brand Citizens of Humanity to source regenerative cotton, and vice versa, they’ve discovered wool supply chains thanks to her.
“Lots of companies have to come together to make this happen. It’s not going to be just one company that can do it all.”