Knitwear manufacturer FutureStitch has sought to revolutionize the modern garment factory—and in the process, it’s earning accolades.
The China-based sock-production mecca with a 300,000-square-foot campus in the Zhejiang province is now LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). And while the distinction is often given to commercial developments with regard to the architectural construction of their facilities, FutureStitch has earned platinum-level honors for its operational efficiency as a company, too.
In fact, the supplier to American brands like Under Armour and Stance earned the highest worldwide LEED company score for knitwear, according to founder and CEO Taylor Shupe. “LEED is something that we’ve been going after for for some time, and we had it in mind when we actually came up with the idea and built the factory,” he said.
In order to receive the certification, a company must demonstrate energy and transportation efficiency, and must prove that its waste is being managed sustainably, Shupe said. FutureStitch has pioneered a water-free finishing process that relies on dry heat, eliminating runoff into surrounding waterways. “There’s zero waste in that regard, which is something that has really helped us,” Shupe said. FutureStitch says it’s the first business in China to receive the LEED certification as an overall company, and not solely for its energy-efficient structures.
“This is a legacy thing but it’s also a business decision that reflects our long term strategy,” he added. “I think that if you don’t have a plan for sustainability, then ultimately you’d better plan on failure.”
Shupe, who is based in Orange County, Calif., is also looking to plant a stake—or two—in U.S. soil. FutureStitch has been scouting locations in Los Angeles County and in the state of Utah for two new factories that will mirror the company’s China-based operations.
“If you’re going to make a big splash, L.A. is probably the right city to do so,” he said, referencing the city’s rich history in textile and apparel manufacturing. Currently, the company is assessing two potential locations, including a defunct jail that could be gutted and revamped. FutureStitch plans to employ individuals who have been formerly incarcerated in the state of California.
“The statistics show that if there are prospects, people rarely go back to prison,” Shupe said. “But every single person that’s gone to prison needs to check a box whenever they’re applying for a job at any major corporation—and that little box is a huge deterrent.” Shupe hopes that providing an opportunity for well-paid, technical work to former inmates can help them reach their goals of obtaining gainful employment.
The company will base its decision surrounding a Utah location on local demographics as well. According to Shupe, FutureStitch is looking to the state’s underserved Native American community as a potential workforce, given the indigenous cultures’ experience in working with textiles. Alternately, it could position its new factory near a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints compound with the hope of providing a safe haven and livelihood for individuals who choose to defect from the insular group.
FutureStitch has also broken ground on a new product category. The company has begun spinning its own sustainable yarns from different blends of recycled materials, as well as mulesing-free wools and organic cotton, Shupe said, and it’s a business he’s looking to replicate across his U.S. operations once they’re up and running, providing both traceability and self-sufficiency.
“That’s where I see the future: more upstream than downstream in consumer products,” he said. “The approach that I’m trying to take is to own the entire margin chain.”
Asserting control over its own supply of yarn will also give FutureStitch more flexibility in opening up production in new markets, rather than being beholden to the carbon cost of shipping raw materials to its factories across the globe. “If we can you know control the entire thing, and be responsible on the materials and on our employees, then we create a blueprint to expand into multiple different cities all around the globe and be competitive,” he said.
The move will also help the company circumvent some of the pervasive trade issues that have impacted manufacturers based in China. “Raw materials can move a lot more freely, especially in textiles, than finished garments,” he said. Having the ability to sell and export yarns will give FutureStitch a defensive edge against trade tensions and potential restrictions. “It creates another hedge for us from some of the variability with the trade environment,” he said.
Regardless of whether Democratic nominee Joe Biden or Republican incumbent President Trump wins the presidential election, Shupe believes the industry will “see more and more pressure on China.” While he believes in the benefits of global trade and “tying countries together through economic vested interest,” the relationship between the U.S. and China has become increasingly polarized in recent years. “Now, I’m thinking of how do I make my operation in China self-sufficient if it doesn’t need to trade, or couldn’t trade, globally,” Shupe said.
Despite anxieties about how global trade will shake out over the course of the coming months, Shupe insisted that his decision to invest in stateside operations stemmed from a different set of goals. “We always wanted to create a great employment force here—there’s a big social need for that, and we’re looking to build it,” he said. “And I also believe in local-for-local, and I think it can really work.”