November 7, 2008 in Business

Montana firm makes ‘green’ toys for pets

Eco-friendly business model paying off
By AMANDA RICKER Bozeman Daily Chronicle
 
Sean Sperry photo

West Paw Designs employee Tonya Tulibae sews a dog bed in the Bozeman factory. West Paw produces eco-friendly pet beds, toys and apparel.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

BOZEMAN – Bozeman-based West Paw Design’s mission is to appeal to the human desire to reduce their carbon footprint by helping them cut their furry friends’ carbon pawprint as well.

West Paw produces eco-friendly pet beds, toys and apparel. The “green” material employed by the company ranges from old cardboard Dole banana boxes, used to store and transfer materials during manufacturing, to soy-based ink and corn-based plastic on the merchandise tags.

And the eco-strategy is working. West Paw Design employs 40 people, twice as many as 10 years ago, said owner and President Spencer Williams. The company ships 10 percent of its products overseas; sales in Montana represent just 1 percent.

“It’s something, I think, a lot of us have in common, this belief that we need to take care of this place,” Williams said.

While many manufacturers, from cars to textiles, are struggling in the current economic slowdown, Williams said West Paw plans a warehouse addition on Bozeman’s east side next year and more staff to fill it.

“In fact, this summer we took measures to curtail our growth,” he said, such as telling retailers they’d have to wait for products.

Twelve years ago, Williams was selling research to money managers on Wall Street when he and his wife decided they wanted to move back to his home state and actually make something.

“Growing up on a ranch, I think the hands-on thing was something that I really valued,” said Williams, who grew up in Columbus, west of Billings.

At that time, West Paw was Pet Pals, a small company in Livingston that specialized in designing and sewing plush pet toys.

Williams bought Pet Pals, added a line of organic catnip and started the hunt for other emerging eco-friendly materials.

As much as possible, he wanted to keep production local and under one roof to reduce the fuel needed to transport products and hold on to Pet Pals’ original employees.

Williams found relatively cheap machinery because many companies, moving overseas, didn’t want theirs. He got help making the assembly-line work from professionals at the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center, an outreach program based in Montana State University’s College of Engineering.

Sewing machines buzz as employees surrounded by stacks of fabric work in the bright light of West Paw’s manufacturing rooms.

But surprisingly, pets are absent at West Paw, even in the front offices.

“It would be like bringing a kid into a candy store if we brought our pets to work,” said Ryan Buck, head of customer sales and service.

Buck’s three dogs and other employees’ pets do quality assurance testing for West Paw – from home.

Inside one of three manufacturing rooms, a machine blows puffs of crimped green fuzz into bags that will become the stuffing in a pet Bumper Bed. The fuzz, dubbed IntelliLoft, is made exclusively for West Paw out of recycled plastic soda bottles. Each West Paw pet bed is filled with IntelliLoft, and fabric covers for the beds are made from 85 percent of the material.

Williams estimates West Paw’s use of IntelliLoft has diverted 198 tons of plastic bottles from landfills over the years.

IntelliLoft is made in New York and shipped to West Paw, so the transportation adds to each product’s carbon footprint. But the recycling process consumes eight times less energy than creating a new product. And, because there are no fabric mills around Bozeman, virgin products such as wool or cotton would have to be shipped in, too.

West Paw’s emphasis on the environment extends beyond pet beds. The company makes Zogoflex chew toys out of a hard plastic designed to be recycled. The company collects worn-out Zogoflex toys and turns them into new ones.

West Paw markets to pet owners who are willing to pay more for a durable, eco-conscious product. The thinking is that if the toys are more durable, it’s better for the environment because fewer need to be made.

“They’re virtually indestructible,” Margie Taylor, executive director of Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter in Bozeman, said of the toys.

Williams said he hopes West Paw will eventually be able to recycle all of its own products. He cited the Patagonia clothing company as inspiration. Patagonia encourages its customers to return its fleece, cotton and polyester clothing, including undergarments, to the company, which it then recycles into new gear.

“There will come a time when more manufacturers like us will be asking people to recycle,” Williams said. “If people don’t recycle, we won’t have the raw materials for our products anymore.”

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