Domestic Debate: Dirtball Apparel

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In 2008, Joe Fox – Dirtball founder and president – started the brand in his native state of North Carolina, with each initial decision informed by social, economic and environmental concerns. Find out how he was able to keep his manufacturing up to par with all of these standards.

You founded Dirtball in 2008 as an environmentally-friendly action sports brand. How has this commitment affected the way the company sources and manufacturers its clothing?
It really hasn’t affected us in any manner, as this is all we know. We source locally first, regionally second, domestically third and finally globally on whatever we can’t get done here.

What have been the greatest benefits of developing and manufacturing products in the United States?
As we are a triple bottom line company, it is the impact that we have with our stake holders. In other words we know our actions are having a direct impact on that local community and that our dollars will be spent in that community.

What have been the greatest challenges?
What hasn’t been should have been the question you asked me. No just kidding. Quality of make up, margins and the U.S. Government. Quality is always the top of the equation but it is disappointing when you go to a mill or have to pull production from a mill because management doesn’t get it or just doesn’t want to put forth the effort. Margins because U.S. labor costs are high. But I don’t have to hop on a plane and fly halfway around the world to manage my supply chain. Finally the U.S. Government, outside of the politics and whether you stand on the right or left side of the aisle, the U.S. Government books up most of the production for cut and sew facilities left in the U.S., so an 18,000 Marine uniform order trumps my 1,000 pair of shorts order. So even though the mill may be 120 miles away, I still have to wait sometimes four months to get my stuff. To make matters worse if a mill loses a contract they’d often rather close than downsize and take small runs.

Why do you feel it is important for Dirtball and other companies to produce apparel in America?
Overseas apparel production is not sustainable. Too much emphasis is put on shareholder value and profitability so larger brands and retailers look for lower cost goods and greater margins, but at what cost? Look at the trade deficit we have with China, which continues to grow. We are exporting jobs and money, two things this country could use more of now. We try to have a more balanced approach so we take into account our stakeholders which are our investors, consumers, retailers and our mills and their employees and also a good bottom line, satisfied consumers, retailers getting a proper margin and our mills and their employees having a paycheck. Of course everything we do is also eco-friendly so we also take into account what effect we have on the environment. It’s a lot to consider but for us it is just plain old common sense.

As the company expands both its product offerings and distribution throughout Europe, do you have to modify your production models to remain competitive?
Currently we have two supply chains and really don’t see a need to modify other than bringing more production to the U.S. When we can get adequate quantities, make up and margin we’ll make it domestically. Some things we can’t and the bottle neck is usually make up. 45 minutes up the road I can get more PET fiber than I would know what to do with and 10 minutes away I have knitters, weavers, and finishers that can make all the fabric I would ever need. But to find a mill that can put it together in a timely fashion with proper quality, the pickin’s get slim. Until fuel costs, supply chain management and foreign labor go up so high that you can match one to one, I don’t see more U.S. cut and sew facilities opening up. Looking forward, I see that changing in 36 to 48 months.

How have record cotton prices affected Dirtball? Do you see many companies following Dirtball’s lead by using more environmentally-friendly materials like recycled PET (derived from plastic bottles) and repurposed cotton?
Cotton prices have affected us but not to the degree you may think because we use post industrial recycled cotton and post consumer PET. Energy prices have affected us more which has caused our materials to cost more. When I started Dirtball two and a half years ago there were very few suppliers of materials. This has changed for the better as there are more suppliers who are starting to offer sustainable, eco-friendly products. Yet the vast majority are still sourced abroad, which you have to keep an eye on to make sure you are getting exactly what you ordered. This is one thing that is nice about domestic eco-friendly fiber, yarn or fabric– there is never a question of it being legit.

From your home base of North Carolina, you’ve seen countless changes in the textile industry. How would you describe the current state of apparel production in the South?
Well I would say it is not on life support but is still in the ICU. It is an industry that is somewhat set in its ways. You couple that with tight lending standards from banks, little flexibility in adapting, and an aging workforce, and it makes it hard for brands to make it domestically. In other words, banks won’t lend you the money to help build the brand, mill owners often times will not work with a start up because of the smaller quantities they need initially, and then when you get the big orders and you want to expand production you sometimes can’t because you can’t find enough quality operators to assemble the garments. Though, ultimately, I see the industry continuing to improve as more brands look at domestic production.

What advice would you give to companies looking to manufacture apparel domestically? Don’t do it! No just kidding. Patience and due diligence. It will be hard to put together a supply chain from start to finish and it will take time to find good partners that understand the brand’s goals.

Within the action sports industry, to what degree do you feel consumers value goods made in America?
Small but growing. There is more of an emphasis on eco-friendly vs U.S. made. Though in our mind and business model they are one in the same-producing a sustainable product.

Anything else you would like to share?
Everybody buy some Dirtball and check out the 2 Piece and a Biscuit Tour we’re doing with Monster Energy. It is a bad ass, four stop, grass roots, North and South Carolina skate series.