Fabdesigns, Inc.

Sustainability- What is your Exit Strategy?

What Does It mean To Knitting?


After spending months, developing and putting together an extensive new line of products for Kraco Enterprises, the top market shareholder in aftermarket automotive, the founder who had succeeded in business for over 50 years asked, ‘what’s the exit strategy?’  Even though this was many years ago, his words resonated with me, and still do today.  He was talking about sustainability, as in a business model. ‘Can this business be profitable and on-going?’ is what he meant. Not only did the product have to hit the 3 P’s, price, positioning, and placement, we also had to work on the 4th P promotion to make sure that is sold through.  And if not, we had to figure out what to do with the left overs.  The cost of warehousing and getting rid of anything associated with developing and commercializing a product, including production waste, repackaging, and selling off ‘left over’ merchandise, eats into the bottom line EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Discounts, and Allowances).

As professionals, we strive to do our best to make a good business plan, our production as efficient as possible, to get value out of every penny well spent in our products.  With every season, we get better, and faster, until we have formulas that are very reliable; costings that have only tiny variables, and products that go from concept to the store racks like clock-work.  We dream that everything sells as full price, but we know that SD&A (retail sales discounts and allowances) will eat into margins from the start.  And whatever is ‘left over’, goes to off price, or worse must be shipped out of the country where it will not compete with new merchandise and erode the brand value.

Some retail vendor contracts have clauses with a fixed amount to ‘destroy in field, any products that are returned or defective.’  This is agreed to so that there are no surprises.  The retailer agrees that the cost will be a flat rate, and the factory swallows this big pill to get the volume of business. At the time of that product line, one major chain store had a clause for SD&A of 17% of the wholesale price.   You can bet that the entire 17% will be taken every time.  I knew that we did a pretty good job of controlling our production defects, and asked the retailer to send us the defects and returns so we could learn what was going wrong, to make our products better.  We received pallets of ping pong balls, brooms, our product that was not even taken out of the packages. 75% was not even our product. Another 20% was our product, perfectly good, and not even put onto the sales floor.  Where does all this go?  When I asked, I was told it was sent to the landfill.  In today’s context, no wonder retailers are dropping like flies and the malls have crickets.

So, what ARE we doing today?  Manufacturing has evolved to dodge charge backs from retailers. More often than not we are shifting the costs of production to our manufacturing partners like a hot potato.  The less time we hold onto product the less that can affect our bottom lines. Right? The retailers are taking ownership of product in Asia, and even competing with us at the same factories. We are spending our energy putting out fires on all sides, while straddling multiple continents, tracking and analyzing every penny spent in order to ‘be profitable and keep our business on-going.’ (sustainable). 

However, we are all learning rather quickly that being sustainable and expecting to be around in 5 or 10 years means more than just controlling costs and building revenue, whether the product is made house or outsourced.  True sustainability means creating a product or line of products that can be made continually, and profitably and have ALL the actual costs known, accounted for, and in balance.  But in making overseas there are plenty of unknowns.

In house, we can audit, materials, manufacturing labor costs, rejection rates, vendor issues and substitutions, any injury record, quantity of waste removal, child labor, forced labor, other human rights issues, costs of AQMD environmental strategies as well as other things a manufacturer would. In remote manufacturing, most if not all, of these ‘costs’ that go into a product are invisible. Low cost usually means little regulation if any.

This is the current way most products are made.

Am I saying that we shouldn’t outsource production? No. The problem is, that we don’t always know what all the actual costs are when we place a PO.  In today’s world, and most cases, the people who design the products are likely on a different continent from the people who write the PO.  Designers also likely see the parts of the factories the owners want seen, and may be on to the next thing when the product actually makes it to production. There is likely no exit strategy for our products, once they have finished their usefulness, especially those made from polyesters and other synthetics.

Many companies do not have the time or resources to know how our manufacturing partner fulfills the PO, just that it arrives on time, in the right ready to shelf package to avoid charge backs, and that customers have complaints within the acceptable retail expected range. 

Sure, the factory is audited that it is compliant with a policy, the product meets spec, and there are not chemicals of concern. But, most don’t usually check beyond the limited range of business concern.

Moore’s law of electronics now applies to the price of clothes.  They are getting cheaper and faster to make, mere weeks to the sales floor at the mall. Products are being made so fast and so cheaply that we are buying 400% more than we did 30 years ago.  But what happens to all this ‘stuff’ we are making after it is bought?  Perhaps if we took a little bit of design time to plan the materials we use carefully, it would help our products have a next life.

Are we making the right decisions, when apparel and accessories are no longer useful?

Credit: http://www.weardonaterecycle.org/

In doing some research for some of the statistics for this article, I ran across some astonishing numbers that made my head spin.

·         The amount of global water used for solely coloring textiles is equal to half of the Mediterranean Sea.

·         200,000 tons of chemicals and dyes from textiles is not recovered by filtration, and put into our waterways and oceans.

·         25% of all the chemicals produced worldwide are for textiles

·         87% of all global cut and sew is performed in 5 countries

·         97% of fast fashion is made in those 5 countries

·         85% of clothing goes to landfills, most are synthetics that do not disintegrate

·         5% of global landfills are textiles

·         15% of clothing is recycled (includes donations, thrift stores)

·         5% of recycled clothing gets made into other textile products

·         The average person throws away 70 lbs. of clothes per year

·         Fast Fashion is $3 Trillion dollars and growing 15% per year

·         Fast Fashion is creating an environmental crisis.

·         From 2001 to 2010 use of textiles has increased 47%,

·         80 billion pieces of clothing are purchased every year, which is 400% than 10 years ago.

·         Companies that invest in sustainability do better financially

Anyone working in factories is aware that each piece of that clothing also had 20 to 30% fabric cut away as waste before it was put on a store rack. Home furnishings has more than 25%.  Most shoes have 60% wasted materials (knit shoe example below).  Automotive is approximately 25 to 30% waste. Medical products have 20% waste depending on product. But all have warranties that cause destruction of out of date products.  For instance, adhesives and hook and loop components on those products have shelf lives of 1 to 2 years. So, the rest of the product may still be good, but the guarantee on the entire product is tied the component with the shortest shelf life. They are destroyed for eliminating liability and risk of product failure. Fashion is the most perishable of all shelf lives.  Fast Fashion is deliberately created to last only a few washings – one season, and then it is unwearable. “No wants used cheap old clothes – not even the neediest people on Earth.” Not my words, but Newsweek’s. So, what happens, most are put in the trash. Only 15% of all clothes are recycled, this includes donations. 85% go to landfills.  What is wrong with that? The problem is that most are synthetics that are not biodegradable and do not disintegrate. Our love of polyester is growing exponentially.

Credit: https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/tag/synthetic/

What is worse, is that these materials have value and can be made into something else if recycled.  We need to start recycling more of these materials and close the loop in manufacturing.

Closing the Loop

Closing this loop on the stuff we make is key to our future, and could be sustainable as well as profitable for business and our planet.  Plain making things from recycled materials is not good enough anymore given the current waste increases over the past 10 years.

Closing the Loop: Reduced waste Cut and sew (above) Reducing waste by recycling worn out product and fabric that is left over.

Tightening the Loop

In knitting to shape and building 3 Dimensional products we are all building the fabric at the same time we build the product, and building components that go straight into the manufacturing process.  The waste is significantly reduced to nearly zero.  We remove 30 to 60% waste in the ‘Make Garment” stage.

Closing the Loop: Reduced waste knit to shape and 3D products (above) Eliminating fabric waste and dead stock; reducing production wste to less than 1%, reducing dead product stock to nearly zero, and sending all used product to recycle.

Is Sustainability Profitable?: 'Investing in Sustainability Produces Returns'

The Harvard Business Review  reported on a study :“What these findings suggest is that an investment strategy based on resource efficiency not only produces returns in excess of global benchmarks, it also identifies management teams that are forward thinking, aware of the economic imperatives brought about by resource constraint. Just the kinds of companies a responsible investment manager would put clients’ money into.”

Building products to shape is a sustainable and efficient manufacturing mind set, and an exit strategy can be created as we build from the polymer upward. With nearly zero waste, to save the maximum amount of materials and energy in making any product, even a shoe upper, production would also be hyper efficient.  Probably the most talked about revolutionary success for nearly zero waste manufacturing, was a shoe that brought this technology to the global stage as a viable alternative to cut and sew. The point is, that the material savings has been quantified on this product. There are now 20,000 plus flat knitting machines around the world making shoes and fabric for shoes for many companies, but many of them are completely wasteful of time and materials. Why? For various resons we will discuss in a minute.

What about building sustainability in the most polluting textile processes?

There is a company tackling the issues in dying fabric along with all the chemicals the process entails.  

Waterless dying has been around for several years, yet it has not been adopted because it is cheaper to let the dyes run into the rivers in emerging countries.  The YEH group is working on it, using hyper critical carbon dioxide. The critics will say the the cost is more than the old, way. But is it, if no one is counting the damage from disbursing chemicals, dyes and toxins into our rivers and oceans. Imagine if the dye houses were given the bill for clean up in those developing countries.

For cotton the savings in pollution, using this waterless technology eliminates 90% of the water, 75% of the energy 95% of the chemicals needed, and 100% of what would be discharged as waste water. We still need to close the loop and recycle the used and wasted fabric, but it is a tremendous start in creating sustainability, with an exit strategy for dye waste - there is nearly zero.

The average citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing every year, all of which ends up in our already crowded landfills.

Credit: http://www.weardonaterecycle.org/

Personal example of building sustainability with an 'exit strategy':

“Exemplifying Sustainability”

In 2008, Stoll asked us at Fabdesigns to do a favor. The favor was to see if we could help one of their potential clients. After the introduction, asked if we could help them build a product.  We’ve done slippers and medical footwear, so why not?

Our contact at the client asked us to make five pieces that could be semi-finished, clipped, and stitched together like a regular shoe upper is made. We asked, ‘why do you want to use five pieces?’ We told him there was, ‘so much time and waste in individual components.’  We invited him to look thought our studio in North Hollywood in January 2008. After he spent half a day with us, looking through our entire library of thousands of 2D and 3D knit swatches, we suggested to him to instead make a shoe all in one piece. He said he’d get back to us. About a month or two later he did.

He could not believe that a shoe upper could be made all in one piece. He said they’d been trying to make a shoe for 10 years and all they had was a sock shoe. He challenged us to prove that not only could we make a 3D shoe on a flat knitting machine, but added another challenge, that this shoe would stand on its own and not collapse under its own weight. With decades of 3D knitting, we weren’t daunted.

This technology we have been building since the CMS debuted in 1987, is our 'textiles on steroids' version of a textile manufacturing format that precisely engineers yarns and fabric variations solely where they are needed. By doing this far more efficiently than WYSIWYG CAD software, we are able to create fabric structures and or functional variations for load or performance, which are mapped into the resulting products, any product, with anatomical correctness and a virtually seamless fit. The knits’ structures are specially engineered for performance to create light weight designs that minimize excess materials and feature only the essentials.  There is nearly zero waste. Yes, it takes some time to figure all this out.We started as we start with any project from the fiber up, using yarns from our studio.  We tested structures next, then integrated many types of techniques into different zones, while also using a fusible yarn we used in apparel for stiffening specific areas.

We showed the client that we can make rigid areas and stretchy areas, holes for ventilation, padding, all in one piece, making the fabric do more than a single fabric structure. The entire 3D shoe was built of 100% polyester from our studio, on our own feet for size.  

The additional bonus idea we demonstrated, was the built-in exit strategy. By using only one polymer the upper could then be again recycled into something else – cradle to cradle.  We made the first prototype of a 3D shoe in 2 weeks in the late spring of 2008.  In two months, we made 14 prototypes to prove that not only was make a 3D shoe completely finished off the machine possible, including the tongue. but it was also hyper efficient, repeatable, and scalable to mass production. 

Above is an example of knit to shape integrated shoe upper that takes 10 minutes and 38 seconds on a CMS 502

At this very same time in 2008, it was reported in Fortune Magazine that post production waste for footwear alone from one company was $800 million dollars. $800 million of scrap that is thrown away. At that time, the company was a $18.6 billion-dollar company.

This project was supposed to be only 3 months, and we expected to go back to our own highly efficient sustainable knitting factory in North Hollywood, but the client was excited.  The rest is history and complicated, but we will focus on the positive here.  To date, as noted by the UN, this technology we brought to the client, has saved 3.5 million pounds of scrap in post-production 2012 to May 2016 from entering landfills

This process of knitting to shape, or knitting in dimensions is not new, Cashmere in Hawick, Scotland has been knitted to shape since 1883, and Johnstons of Elgin since 1797.

The process we built on the CMS, by integrating multiple fibers and zones of structure, also eliminates cutting, the department where the most serious industrial accidents happen in the apparel industry. Modern flat knitting machinery makes these pieces so much faster and more precise than past generations of equipment. Our techniques which we have used for years before meeting the client, allowed a savings of over two minutes knitting time alone in the waste section over the machine builder’s standards.  Multiply that by millions of pairs of shoes, and that is serious savings in money, time, and machinery.

The client has published that this technology in make 3D knitted uppers saves 90% of cost of materials and energy that goes into making a shoe.  These savings came from just one product using this technology.  In 2013 MIT quantified the amount of carbon in making shoes. In 2013 The client ’s investor relations meeting was full of this knit technology we brought and taught. Today, the client is worth 27.8 billion in revenue. And, they promote that knitted shoe and the manufacturing system we taught them as 'exemplifying sustainability.'

Why isn’t this version of sustainability mainstream?

So why aren’t more products, including other knitted shoes made this way?  There are a couple of reasons why companies don't knit to shape.

- The most prevalent reason we’ve come across as to why knitting to shape is dismissed, especially those in the 5 countries that do the lion’s share of production, is that it is easier for companies with unskilled labor to enter the market making rectangles, cut and sew.

It is far easier for machine builders to sell machines to companies getting into knitting and with limited machine knowledge, by starting with how to make rectangles of fabric. It is also simpler for anyone wanting to get into the knitted shoe trend, to take rectangles of knitted fabric, regardless of what machine they are knit on, (warp, flat, circular), die cut the 2D fabric, send the cut pieces to a shoe factory and send to the landfill, the 60%, of the material in that rectangle that is left.   The shoe factory then pulls, tug, and ease the fabric into a shoe for multiple sizes.  The result is that the the 2D fabric doesn't fit properly. The fabric then needs a lot of extra support of PU, foam, felts and liners.  The knit fabric is then just the exterior and treated like a component, that mimics a genuine knit shoe, but is completely a different product.  The addition of all the other components, which are not of the same fiber content, means that the shoes WILL go to the landfill, rather than being recycled.

Because these new factories have been taught to make 2D rectangles in cut and paste modules by the machine builders, this is the easiest way for them to make a significant volume of product as fast as possible. But, if you look closely at any graphics or stripes, the right and left shoes never match.  Most times the rectangle is not graded for sizes, and the same graphic fits from a 6 ½ to a 13, and more.  This means that you will see a lot of solids, gradients, and simple designs, while also seeing a lot of additional support materials added.  How many shoes’ toe areas collapse so much that fabric takes the shape of the wearer’s toes in all their twisted and hammered glory. Is this good enough to sell the product? 

For low end sales around the globe, the answer is yes. Due to little government oversight in those 5 countries, the tremendous amount of waste generated in production, with no exit strategy other than the fate of a landfill, is not an issue.  Nor is the fate of now having to landfill the product when its usefulness is over.

Knitting to shape guarantees that any graphic will fall into the same place on every single pair.  Mirroring gives the exact reverse for the opposite foot of that style.  

The graphic needs to be graded for sizes.  We have seen factories uses these templates to make many variations of the same style (same upper pattern), for multiple styles.

Yes, there is more preparation in the up-front programming for each type of fabric in knitting to shape, but the knitting is faster, nearly 50% more efficient. There is nearly zero waste in production, and each upper fits precisely into the upper shape pattern needed at the shoe factory, and fits better. The prep time for the first in then amortized into all the styles every made. By then the time is negligible. What is more is the fully integrated product is all of one fiber and can have an exit strategy of being recycled into something else. It is hyper-sustainable because it can be multiple loops of different products.  We think of new recycled products like sourdough bread. Thy always have a part of the first mother product in them.

We were told recently, by a very popular factory in China that knitting to shape is not efficient and costs too much to produce. We proved that knitting to shape is much more cost effective. 

Given that the machines are about the same, (slightly less expensive in China, due to high volume machine sales), and that one person can run 8 to 10 machines, the labor and machine cost, are negligible in cost sheets.  Material is about 50 to 75 grams per shoe when knitting to shape.  It can be 3 times that wastage when knitting rectangles and die cutting. All of that fabric that the machine spent valuable time, utilities, and maintenance knitting is trash. All of the yarn which the yarn supplier spent time, materials, and dye making, is thrown away.  Where does all this production trash go, but into the landfills, and water supply.

Here are the differences by time and waste made on Stoll 530 machine (not ‘High Performance’ HP)

See sketch at Right 

26 minutes: die cut 60% waste             21.5 minutes: die cut 30% waste    15.5 minutes: no cut >1% waste

The second most prevalent reason this technology is not main stream: Rampant and ridiculous patents in general knitting now being one of them, thanks to changes in the US patent system over the past several years, which allow patents if no one has filed one in that area, even when industries have been using the technology for decades.  Patenting 'sustainability' in a such common product, and preventing the rest of the world from using decades old technology, which existed, while encouraging thousands of machines in the developing world to be left to pollute the planet, is . . . (I will leave it up to you to fill in the blank.)

If this science of technical product development is something you would like to learn more about, or for a list of the companies that we know of that make recycled yarns, contact us. If you make materials from recycled products that have ended their usefullness, and want to be added to the list we give out, please email our admins @ info@fabdesigns.com

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Connie Huffa – Fabdesigns, Inc.

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Newsletter for manufacturing technical textiles & 3D flat knitting
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