Case Study — Darn Tough Vermont
Family-owned hosiery mill preserves Vermont community, jobs and craftsmanship
Northfield, Vt. – A big sign inside the Darn Tough Vermont hosiery mill reads, “No one ever outsourced anything for quality. Still made in Vermont, USA.”
It’s a daily reaffirmation of the company’s unlikely success story. At a time when many companies are outsourcing, Darn Tough Vermont is experiencing double-digit growth while producing good jobs and the world’s toughest outdoor socks in rural Vermont.
Ric Cabot, co-owner and third-generation sock maker, started Darn Tough Vermont when his family’s hosiery mill nearly shuttered during the outsourcing exodus of the ‘90s. As the town’s largest employer, Cabot saw an opportunity to save the hopes and livelihoods of his community by reinventing the business as a premium performance sock maker, driven by rigorous quality standards and Yankee determination.
“Darn Tough is the name of the brand, but it also stands for who we are, what we make, and the people who come to work in the factory every day,” Cabot said. “If you’re serious about making a product that exceeds expectations, you make it yourself.”
Cabot uses fine Merino wool yarns and Italian knitting machines that knit to the industry’s highest density to produce long-lasting, all-weather socks that the company backs with an unconditional lifetime guarantee.
Darn Tough Vermont’s “buck the industry” approach has vaulted it to the #2 premium outdoor sock brand in the U.S., according to outdoor news magazine SNEWS. Annual sales have risen steadily, with the company growing a remarkable 82 percent in 2011 alone.
But it’s the impact the company has made on this community of roughly 3,000 that makes Cabot proudest. Darn Tough Vermont provides good livelihoods to a skilled, local workforce of more than 100 people, with benefits and a clean, safe working environment. When you factor in spouses, partners and children, the people who depend on the company stretches into the many hundreds.
While Darn Tough Vermont products are made with ethically farmed wool and green packaging, the community is the company’s real sustainability story, Cabot said.
“To me, what’s more worth sustaining than 100-plus people and their families?” he said. “Today, they’re thriving here in this tiny little town in the center of Vermont. The town hasn’t lost the hope that so many other post-industrial towns have.”
Darn Tough Vermont could have moved to more strategic urban locales, but chose to stay in Northfield because the family-owned business has deep roots in community, and strong bonds with the families of its employees. The company continues to expand its Northfield operations, increasing its knitting capacity by 50 percent and investing in new operational software last year, which brought in additional jobs.
“We looked at our long range plans and made a decision that we wanted to stay here in Vermont. We chose the more difficult route of staying local because of the talent and experience that exists here,” he said.
Darn Tough Vermont extends its community-building efforts into sponsorships of outdoor events, races and conservation efforts, such as the USARA Adventure Racing National Championships, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and The Conservation Alliance. It also sponsors cultural events in the state like the Vermont Jazz Festival.
“Vermont is a very small, rural state that has earned a reputation for quality products,” Cabot said. “Things made here in Vermont aren’t industrial and cookie cutter. There’s a lot of craftsmanship and pride behind them. Our people strive to follow that tradition every day.”