MAKING IT RIGHT Joe Walkuski, Textile Technology ’82, helps companies navigate the daunting complexity of global sourcing
Say you’ve designed a child’s raincoat and want to manufacture it overseas. Twenty years ago, you’d need to ask only three questions: Can you (a) make the product (b) within my budget and (c) deliver it on time? No longer.
“Today it’s a whole lot more complex,” says Joe Walkuski, Textile Technology ’82 and a member of FIT’s Textile Development and Marketing industry advisory board. “Now it’s 20 questions or more.”
For example: Are any of the chemicals in the finished product on a government or industry list of restricted substances? Does the garment’s performance match the claims on the label? Does it comply with myriad safety rules? Are the factory workers treated ethically? And if that raincoat is sold in 20 countries, does it meet all of those countries’ standards? (If you think the U.S. has the strictest laws on imports, think again: it’s China.)
Walkuski is founder and CEO of Texbase, a software business that helps clothing companies answer those questions and more. By tracking the sourcing process from the raw materials to the retail shelf and offering comprehensive guidance at every step, the software helps ensure consistent quality when products are constructed in multiple countries, tested in multiple labs, and delivered to nations around the world. Used by more than 100 brands, including Under Armour, Brooks Brothers, and Patagonia, Texbase helps organize an immense mass of data—factory audits, test results, environmental reports—to make sure no box has been left unchecked.
The software tracks four categories of data: material innovation, color approval, quality testing, and compliance. “If there are problems in any of the four areas, the government can make you destroy your inventory at the port,” he says.
One of Walkuski’s clients was told by U.S. Customs that a garment contained too much formaldehyde, used to create wrinkle- and shrink-resistant clothes. Texbase helped the company scrutinize testing reports at every step along the supply chain to discover the source.
As it turned out, the toxic chemical was coming from the plastic bags the final product was shipped in.
Sometimes Texbase can help prevent a public-relations fiasco. “When companies expand, they also have to grow their supply chain,” Walkuski explains. “It’s easy to lose control of the process—and that can damage the brand in the eyes of the consumer.” In 2013, a well-known athletic-wear company was expanding to meet enormous demand when customers complained that their yoga pants were too sheer. A media uproar ensued. The company signed up with Texbaseto avoid future mishaps.
According to Walkuski, supply-chain transparency, driven by consumers who increasingly want to know where their clothes come from, is pushing the apparel industry to become more proactive: instead of testing for substandard fabric, banned chemicals, and flimsy construction in the finished goods, smart companies are “engineering compliance into the product,” vetting their mills and factories to minimize issues at the testing stage. In 2015, Greenpeace found that per- and polyfluorinated chemicals, used to make jackets water-repellent, have been washing into mountain lakes. Now manufacturers of outdoor gear are trying to achieve the same waterproof effect with safer chemicals.
Before starting Texbase, Walkuski was director of textile research and development for 13 years at Patagonia, where his team created the first organic cotton supply chain and the first fleece made from recycled soda bottles. Toward the end of his tenure there, he created the precursor of Texbase, software that tracked the rising complexity of governmental regulations resulting from burgeoning textile innovation. He left Patagonia in 2002 to move the software to the cloud and license it to other companies facing similar challenges.
“Our job,” he says, “is to give them the information and tools they need to not let compliance get in the way of innovation.”
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO IMPORT THIS RAINCOAT INTO THE U.S.?
Manufacturing apparel requires thorough labeling, record-keeping, and textile testing to adhere to rules laid down by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, plus an assortment of voluntary ethical standards. These steps ensure that the goods are safe, nontoxic, durable, and responsibly sourced. Unsurprisingly, the rules for children’s products are especially stringent. Here are just some important precautions when producing a children’s raincoat.
1 Indicate small parts, such as decorative rhinestones or googly eyes, as a choking hazard on a warning label.
2 Ensure buttons are secure. (They don’t count as “small parts” if they’re functional.)
3 Ensure drawstrings do not represent a strangulation hazard.
4 Test zipper for nickel content. The metal is toxic.
5 Test all components—textiles, surface coatings, trims—for lead.
6 Include a permanent label with tracking information: manufacturer, location and date of production, batch or run number, fiber content, and more.
7 Ensure inks used in printing do not contain phthalates, toxic chemicals used to soften plastics.
Avoid chemicals on the restricted substances list.
Test garment for flammability.
Back up waterproofing claims with testing data.
Label country of origin.
Spot-check test results.
Report defective products.
Keep records for five years, in case of audit by U.S. Customs.
Pay customs duties.
Periodically test future shipments.
Cross-check recall listings to eliminate known hazards.
Draw up a recall plan.
Perform a voluntary social audit.