Ralph Lauren-Backed Material Innovator Cuts Jobs

Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) has laid off just under 10 percent of its workforce, although the Illinois-based biomaterials firm insists that this isn’t an indication of ailing financial health but rather a desire to trim its operational fat as it seeks to scale its leather alternative Mirum and others.

“It was more of a reorganization,” company spokesperson Amber Robinson told Sourcing Journal, confirming a brief report by National Public Radio affiliate WCBU last month. “We realized that some of our operations were not a good fit for us.”

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The dismissals, which affected fewer than 30 employees, cut across all areas of the business, Robinson said, from the C-suite to the factory-floor level. Some of the impacted staffers worked locally in the city of Peoria, where NFW is headquartered, while others clocked in remotely. But this won’t affect the company’s core enterprise, she said. Instead, greater operational efficiency will allow NFW to drive quicker uptake.

“When you can get your material to a customer for a lower price, they can adapt your materials at a faster rate,” Robinson said.

NFW has been on a collaborative tear of late, working with brands such as Allbirds, Ralph Lauren, Pangaia and Stella McCartney to spread its gospel of “plants, not plastic.” Besides Mirum, which a life cycle assessment found emits 10 times fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than incumbent cowhide and pleather, its portfolio includes Clarus, a performance textile derived from natural inputs like cotton, hemp and wool. NFW also recently commercialized Pliant, a natural rubber-based outsole, and Tunera, a “bio-neutral” plastic-free midsole foam for a shoe it made with Unless Collective in December. Brands aside, it’s linking up with the California Cotton and Climate Coalition to grow and source “Climate Beneficial” cotton in the Golden State with help from Allbirds, Stella McCartney, Pangaia and Reformation.

Because NFW is in the middle of a funding round, Robinson wasn’t able to divulge any specifics about its bottom line. But she said the firm is profitable. While it’s still spending investor money—it has the $2 million Allbirds chipped in, plus $85 million in Series B funding from investors such as Advantage Capital, BMW i Ventures and Ralph Lauren—NFW hopes to be “self-sustaining” soon, she said.

“This was really just a way to cut some costs to really make this better for our brand partners,” Robinson said of the layoffs. “What this allowed us to do was to reallocate funds to growing and building.”

Fashion, after all, was only the beginning, she said. NFW has already made headway into the automotive industry. Soon, it’ll tackle upholstery. Chugging along are the company’s two facilities in Peoria: its 60,000-square-foot home base on Galena Rd., where R&D and Clarus production takes place, and a 145,000-square-foot Jefferson Ave. space that churns out Mirum. In a few weeks, a 25,000-square-foot Peoria Welding Center, specializing in Clarus, will throw open its doors on Pioneer Parkway.

NFW, Robinson said, is “committed” to Peoria, but it’s also looking at potential factories elsewhere, including outside the United States. But despite its sudden ubiquity, the company is still very much a startup, she said.

“What happened was we were making things on a very small scale and then we kind of blew up overnight,” she said. “As a startup, you’re just not ready for that. So now we’re ready and we’re getting our factories ready.”

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