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Is Haiti the Future of Compliance?

In the midst of worldwide concerns over garment factory safety and labor conditions, one modern-minded manufacturer in Haiti emerges with a model for social responsibility.

The newfangled factory, Industrial Revolution II (IRII), believes in social advancement for its workers and is on a mission to shift Haiti’s apparel products to the higher end and improve the country’s perception as a garment producer.

When the massive earthquake debilitated Haiti in 2010, exports from the Caribbean nation suffered.

In 2012, Haitian apparel exports to the US totaled 270 million square meter equivalents (SME) compared to a pre-earthquake total of 238 million SME in 2009, a 13.4% decline, according an Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA) report.

In terms of value, Haiti exported $730 million in apparel goods to the US, up 4 percent from last year’s $701 million and up 42 percent from 2009’s $513 million.

IRII, the self-titled, “different kind of garment factory” plans to keep Haiti’s apparel exports growing.

They set up shop in a 35,000 square foot Port-au-Prince factory earlier this year with the capacity to cut, sew and digitally print up to five million knit and woven units annually.

With the latest sewing technology from Pegasus and Juki, including double needle mocksafety machines, triple needle coverstitch machines, single needle lockstitch machines and specialty machinery for plackets, button holes, and button attachments, IRII intends to facilitate a valuable production process.

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They have also invested in the top-of-the-line Kornit Avalanche technology for digital garment printing–allowing for a wide range of color and design options with quick turns for custom runs–and are the only company in Haiti with this printing capability. The system uses water-based, eco-friendly ink compliant with Oeko-Tex and GOTSV3 standards.

IRII emphasized a goal to focus on quality and flexibility in production over volume and stressed that smaller orders, custom runs, quick-turn requests and low-minimum printing demands would be no problem for them.

With a star-studded cast of founding partners including Rob Broggi, a former finance executive at Tudor Investment Corp., Joelle Berdugo Adler, president and CEO of Diesel Canada, actor Matt Damon and fashion designer Donna Karan, the IRII has already made a name for itself.

The company gained support from Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), who decided to help finance the factory for its potential to change Haiti’s model for manufacturing. IDB is a development financier that backs efforts to reduce poverty and inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rahul Desai, the project team leader at IDB’s Opportunities for the Majority initiative said in a news release, “The IDB is supporting IRII because we believe the project can change the paradigm for apparel manufacturing in Haiti by demonstrating the feasibility of producing higher-quality products that yield greater benefits to workers, the local community and the country.” The nearly $1 million loan helped IRII equip the factory and provide training for workers.

IRII’s mission stresses that not all profit is created equal. “Profits involving a social purpose represent a higher form of capitalism, one that creates a positive cycle of company and community prosperity.”

A sizable 50 percent of IRII’s profits will be invested into workers and the local community, going toward healthcare, education, training and infrastructure, a practice that supports the company’s “train the brain, not the hands” mantra. They intend to train employees on the complete manufacturing process and cross-train them for multiple functions of garment construction.

With the Rana Plaza factory collapse in mind, IRII issued an op-ed stating that, “Public outrage over Rana Plaza has created a scramble to put tougher regulations in place, and many brands are reactively beefing up manufacturing compliance protocols for their vendors. But while more stringent factory audits may help at the margin, the impact will most certainly be limited.” The company added that because of corruption and auditor-pleasing practices of feigned safety, a longer compliance checklist is not the answer to poor factory conditions. “In order for real change to happen, the mindset among industry players and consumers alike must completely shift into a new phase of awareness and understanding.”

IRII has already made plans for growth investing in architecture and engineering designs for a new LEED certified factory–which would be the first in Haiti–in Croix-des-Bouqets. The factory would use solar and wind power for full energy independence. The company said they would share any excess power generation and water treatment with members of the community to help sustain economic development.