The apparel industry has faced multiple challenges since the rise of mass-produced, affordable clothing in the U.S. In recent years, the issues of where fabrics are sourced, and where fabrics are produced have both become contentious issues. With a global community interconnected through digital means, transparency has become a common theme for many companies, and the concept of corporate social responsibility has extended beyond the occasional community charity 5K or fund drive. Many bigger manufacturers now offer employees at their international facilities amenities like daycare, healthcare, and overall improved working conditions compared to previous decades.
One organization in particular that has decided to actively pursue this business model is the GO Exchange (GOEX). Founded by the Global Orphan Project (the GO Project) in 2013, originally as a retail artisan company, GOEX now manufactures and screen prints apparel at a facility based in Haiti that employs members of the community. The move to apparel was an evolution from other sewing and clothing production pilot projects that GOEX experimented with in Haiti including pajamas and school uniforms.
“Our product offering included some retail apparel items that we made in Haiti,” explains GO Exchange CEO Joe Knittig. “In 2014, we decided to offer custom group apparel to businesses, schools, churches, and other organizations that were already involved with the GO Project ministry.”
Knittig partnered with Mike Mitchell, a veteran of the apparel industry and current president of GOEX, to transition his organization from artisan goods to apparel. Despite the humanitarian roots of his cause, Knittig stresses that the goal was to produce viable, utilitarian goods.
“We didn’t want to do any gimmicky products, we wanted to make quality products that people actually wanted,” Knittig explains, adding that in many instances products built through social enterprise endeavors can be low-quality, novelty items that don’t hold any value.
Manufacturing and printing T-shirts also made it possible for the organization to provide a product that was in demand year-round. Artisan goods, Knittig notes, often usually see a spike during the holiday gifting season, and tend to level off after that.
Like many shops, the GOEX screen printing component of the operation started with one manual press, eventually graduating to two automatic presses. The staff still uses the manual press frequently though, Knittig says, for short-run, custom apparel designs. With a headquarters in Kansas City, Mo., Knittig and an intricate network of domestic and international staff oversee both the Global Orphan Project, and GOEX.
The GOEX production facility in Haiti provides local residents with full-time work. Most of the individuals are Haitians that were orphaned as children, now reaching late teen or adult age and in need of an income. GOEX makes a point of paying the employees a wage that is more than twice the local minimum wage. This is crucial Knittig says, because a significant number of employees are responsible for taking care of as many as eight family members. This number doesn’t always necessarily equate to family living in the household with them either, Knittig points out. In many instances, employees also send money back to family they were orphaned by to help provide for education and necessities for siblings.
In addition to a living wage, GOEX provides continuing education program for young adults through Pathways University. The two-year academy for youth 18-years old and older who have legally aged out of orphan care.
“Students can choose apparel as a major,” explains Knittig. “Our apparel school directly connects with our production facility in Haiti, which is called ‘LIFE,’ so that students train on the same machinery and can prepare for excellence in production.”
Graduates of the program, he adds, have the opportunity to join the GOEX team. The facility hired eight Pathways graduates in 2015 and expects to hire 20 graduates from the upcoming 2016 class.
As for markets, the facility focuses on three main categories: custom group apparel, private label, and sublimation. With custom group apparel, Knittig explains that because the GOEX model features the entire circuit from production through printing, the company offers a competitively priced product that is also an ethically produced garment. Within the group apparel category, the company also offers blank T-shirts for screen printers. Private labels benefit from the facility’s operation because of their ability to turn small runs at a relatively quick rate.
“We can partner with them to custom produce their products in Haiti,” says Knittig. “We’re setup to be extremely versatile to handle shorter run, quick-to-market opportunities and can provide uber customization.”
Sublimation is the newest offering to the organization’s services. GOEX began offering roll-to-roll dye sublimation in Sept. 2015, and Knittig aims to expand capacity this summer with the addition of two industrial printers. The shop will eventually open this offering up to other screen printers as a contract option.
When asked about steady growth at the organization since 2014, Knittig sums it up with one word: flexibility.
“Our production team is cross trained to sew different garments, and to shift from one garment style to another, quite often in the same day,” Knittig explains, pointing out that additional staff is trained as “flex” operators for short-run orders. “They might sew an order for 50 sublimated polos, switch to sew 200 sublimated tank-tops, and then sew 1,000 standard GOEX T-shirts.”
Proximity to the U.S. from Haiti also contributes to a fast order turnaround, which results in higher profit margins for the company, he contends. For fabric sourcing, Knittig says the organization eventually aims to coordinate with textile mills in the U.S., to perpetuate what he refers to as a “glocal” operation, an international business that helps to improve employment and economic conditions in multiple countries.
“We want GOEX to be a ‘glocal’ company, creating jobs globally in Haiti and locally here in the U.S.,” Knittig elaborates. “Sourcing U.S. fabrics and doing our printing and fulfillment here in the U.S. is important to us long term.”
While success as a for-profit/non-profit hybrid enterprise is a main goal of the company, Knittig is quick to point out the idea that GOEX is neither a charity, nor a company focused solely on the bottom line.
“These young men and women earn this dramatic change in their lives,” stresses Knittig. “We don’t rely on cause to win business. We produce with the quality and efficiency to win business on the merits.”
For more information on the Global Exchange, visit: http://groupapparel.goex.org/