Dec 8 2010

Wool – Not just for grandma’s sweater

What happens to all those sheep who do not get the honor of producing itchy sweaters for the following market segments:

  • the elderly (love you grandma!)
  • 20 something’s who have run out of party theme ideas, and,
  • teachers who have given up on fashion?

I’ve recently discovered that some of them get employed by a couple of pretty cool companies that are looking to disrupt their respective industries by putting a big focus on sustainability.  We just wanted to take a minute to share this story – yet another example of “old fashioned technology” coming back to challenge our great technological innovations of the 20th century.

Merino Wool Source

Champion Merino Ram - 1905 Sydney Sheep Show


Hikers have known the magic of a special kind of wool called Merino wool for years now, but this material is only recently starting to get noticed by the broader public.

Bad-ass New Zealand sheep (pictured above) make this fabric which is:

  • Uber-soft (read: not itchy)
  • Breathable
  • Keeps you warm when wet
  • Regulates your body temperature (cool in hot weather, warm in cold, just like a thermos!  how do they do that?)
  • And, best of all, doesn’t stink…even after days of intense use (trust me, I push the limits…).
  • Actually, better yet, it’s 100% natural, and renewable, and companies like Icebreaker and Smartwool seem to be working with local herders to ensure that the sheep and local communities are treated fairly.

Everyone I’ve talked to who has tried these garments (shirts, socks, hats, etc.), agree it knocks the socks off [pun attended] most synthetic materials in many ways.  Here’s hoping for wider adoption of the material, not just because of the quality of the product, but because the more popular it gets, the more accountable synthetic material producing companies will need to be.

Bonus: Check out this new suit that can be worn in the shower, then dries within a few hours w/ no ironing required – can’t argue against that awesomeness.


So, what about the wimpy American sheep that do produce the itchy material we’ve all come to love to hate?  Well, 90% of the wool they produce currently gets wasted.

Enter Bellwether Materials (and a few other small European companies) that are taking that throwaway wool and using it as high quality housing insulation.  Turns out that wool has great qualities for insulation:

  • Its crimped nature (60-80% of volume is air) gives it a R-value (resistance to heat flow) higher than fiberglass, cellulose, and mineral wool [source]
  • It’s allergen-free
  • It’s naturally resistant to pest, fire, and mold
  • It pays back its energy costs more than 5 times sooner (only 15 kW of energy are used to produce 1 m³) than traditional insulation materials
  • It’s natural and renewable

On top of all that, Bellwether Materials is being produced in American mining towns as a way to bring back jobs to those areas.

Compare that to the common insulation material, fiberglass, that can be dangerous to your health.

Why do I (and should you) care?

Certainly, there are obstacles (particularly, scalability) for these new ventures to overcome, and some negatives to consider, but we think this is another example (check out my talk on barefoot running) of natural things outperforming, or at least equaling in many ways, the synthetic things that have engulfed many parts of our lives.  I’m excited to see what comes of all this, and in the meantime, will keep enjoying my wonderful merino wool clothes.


Jun 16 2010

“… as a means to an end”

In some ways, it was inevitable that the mission of Night Train Consulting would be to help others pursue novel business strategies and technology solutions “as a means to an end,” rather than as the end goals themselves; we are both analytical (read: a little geeky), with Jeff’s background deeply rooted in start-up technology and data mining, and Alan’s in sustainability strategy. When you put those two backgrounds together- and sprinkle on top a little Bob Dylan and a healthy dose of reading on topics like economics, psychology, mathematics, environmental science, well being and social capital- it became obvious that while there are many, many things an organization or an individual can choose to maximize, over and over again we find ourselves returning to the basic things we have valued since the beginning of time: genuine, meaningful social relationships with other people. Ergo, “Technology with Social Skills” was born.

This has very obviously been the case while working with certain organizations, such as nonprofits like Machik (whose main objective, in my opinion, is to optimize trust and social capital between key groups in and outside of Tibet), or the many social entrepreneurs we have come across at Ashoka. But we are now understanding that this is true of for-profit businesses as well.

This is the reason that one business professor I deeply respect at the University of Virginia, Brad Brown, recently dusted off an analytical tool he was first taught in business school years ago: linear programming. Professor Brown teaches undergraduate business students at UVA about sustainability, so the reason he is kick’n it old school again with linear programming is to ask the question (paraphrasing); are we leading students and businesses astray with the thinking that any “profit-maximizing business” can maximize economic, social, and environmental goals all at once? If you’re not familiar with linear programming, it boils down to this; to maximize any given system, you can have many constraints, but only one objective. He points to a rockstar of the NGO world- BRAC- which set off maximizing something as simple as calories per dollar, rigorously and scientifically monitoring, testing, and iterating all programs against that goal.  They went on to build the world’s largest and arguably most effective NGO, which earns 80% of its own revenue through for-profit businesses owned and run by the formerly-poor. I know there is plenty of conversation about this in the so-called “Impact Investing” community too, which refers to investing with an explicit social objective in mind. Can you maximize both economic and social objectives at the same time, or must you pick one?

When Jeff takes the stage tonight at Ignite D.C. and makes his D.C. debute in the performing arts, this theme will focus front-and-center in the form of a conversation about barefoot running and minimalism as a philosophy. Minimalism is basically about maximizing something, using your resources as lightly and efficiently as possible. The “something” you maximize can be anything, but when used as a philosophy for living your life, it seems to focus mainly on maximizing well-being relative to resources consumed (conveniently, the same basic formula behind the Happy Planet Index).

Tomorrow we will be recapping the evening and the various conversations we will be having in and around it today, and we will be asking you; what do you or your business maximize? If you think you are maximizing multiple things, how is that working out for you? Or, do you find yourself giving preference to one objective over others when the going gets rough? In a pinch, what is the one objective you will not sacrifice for the sake of any other objective?

We look forward to hearing from you.