Published Work

This N.J. company collects nearly 100,000 pounds of clothing every day to help stock thrift stores and resellers

Consumer

Secondhand clothing has become popular with environmentally minded Gen Z and Millennial shoppers. The recommerce market in the U.S. could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023.

Recommerce sales in the United States reached $38.6 billion in 2022, according to Global Data, and could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023.
Recommerce sales in the United States reached $38.6 billion in 2022, according to Global Data, and could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023.Read more
Helpsy

by Kathleen N. Webber

October 12, 2023

For the Inquirer

Not far from the Shore, a steady stream of trucks hauls in thousands of pounds of donated clothing a day to a warehouse in Eatontown, N.J. There, it is weighed, sorted, and categorized so it can be sold in bulk to a coterie of 6,000 wholesalers, thrift stores, and small resellers who will sell everything from Aritzia dresses to Abercrombie & Fitch jeans to Outdoor Voices yoga pants.

The warehouse in Monmouth County is owned by Helpsy, a company that collects 96,000 pounds of clothes daily from the thousands of metal bins that dot the parking lots of malls, churches, and schools. The cargo, items that people have discarded from their closets, is retrieved from 11 states on the East Coast.

Helpsy gets most of its sales inventory from consumer donations, but it also buys unsold inventory from large thrift stores. The change of seasons is the busiest time for the company. It’s when consumers, with bags of clothes fresh from the closet purge, will toss their once-loved merchandise into a bin ushering it into its new life. The same thrifts that sell clothing to Helpsy will often buy stock they know will sell in their stores.

Once the clothing arrives at the warehouse, three dozen sorters will use digital scanners to help classify 20,000 items a day, by brand and category (athleisure to prom dresses), to determine where the item will go to extend its life and keep it out of landfills.

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Helpsy, a for-profit, privately held company, made $26 million in revenue in 2022 from donated clothes and new wholesale clothing it buys from brands and retailers who have to off-load their overstock, e-commerce returns. Some brands also sell them their styles that may not pass the quality control test like the thousands of July Fourth swim trunks from Chubbies in a shade of red that the company decided not to sell.

Once it’s cataloged, all of the clothing collected by Helpsy is resold at stores like Plato’s Closet, Uptown Cheapskate, and Beacon’s Closet. Helpsy also resells to smaller vintage stores (over a dozen in our area, including the non-profit The Wardrobe), and small resellers who then peddle their merchandise on peer-to-peer selling marketplaces like Poshmark, Depop, and Mercari.

Helpsy can swap merchandise or fill shelves with brands that are known sellers for their clients. Best-selling brands are Adidas, Nike, Everlane, the North Face, Zara, and Madewell. It sends its higher-end merchandise to luxury resale company the RealReal on consignment.

“We supply online individual resellers with brands to scale up their businesses and thrift stores with brands they can sell,” said Dan Green, cofounder and CEO of Helpsy. “For thrift stores, they either have too much inventory or not the right kind.”

A $40 billion resale market

The recommerce market, in which retailers resell previously owned products through physical and online channels, is outpacing regular retail. Over the last five years, recommerce revenues have grown more than 20 times faster than overall apparel revenues, according to a study by consulting firm Deloitte. One reason: people are buying more clothes than ever and wearing each item less.

Recommerce sales in the United States reached $38.6 billion in 2022, according to GlobalData, and could climb to $43.5 billion in 2023. While wearing secondhand clothing has become very popular with environmentally minded Gen Z and millennial shoppers, the volume of fast fashion produced annually keeps Helpsy’s bins overflowing.

Helpsy is one of about 100 larger collectors in the U.S. The big players include nonprofits like Goodwill and Salvation Army, and for-profits like Value Village, said Steve Rees, president of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART). Helpsy is the only clothing collector in the country that is a B corporation, which means it is assessed for social and environmental performance and reaudited every three years.

According to SMART, textile recyclers reuse and recycle 5 billion pounds of textiles globally each year (this figure includes bed linens and towels). Textiles are the fastest-growing waste stream in landfills. On average, each consumer throws away more than 100 pounds of textiles a year (up from 44 pounds a year in 1999), and 84% ends up in landfills or is incinerated. There, it decomposes and releases greenhouse gasses or leaches dyes and other harmful chemicals into the ground and local water supplies.

Last year, Helpsy kept 35 million pounds out of landfills. It said 95% of what is collected is salvageable; 75% is sold as clothing and used again, while 25% becomes furniture insulation or wiping cloths.

“Reusing it is the best ecological way to extend the life of a piece of clothing,” said Helpsy COO David Milliner. “The more times clothing can be reused, the less virgin material that will be used, and that saves water and other resources.”

Helpsy’s high-tech sorting

In 2021, Helpsy brought the sorting function in-house, and their IT team built proprietary technology to make the process more data-centric. The next year, Helpsy sorted and graded 5 million pieces of clothing and shoes in a more detailed process that allows the company to share with wholesale buyers how much of a particular brand or item is available.

For most of the recommerce industry, the sorting process “is still not fully automated,” Rees said. “Maybe AI down the road will help, but for now, every piece is touched and requires a human to sort.”

At Helpsy, a sorter enters the brand name into a tablet and then reviews the item for its condition, entering that into the system. A barcode for each item is created assigning it a value and that information gets entered into the database and includes the material composition for each piece, valuable information for recycling. The system recognizes 10,000 brands and counting. “Then we can provide that data back to brands and our customers,” said Jessica Rennard, chief merchandising officer. Helpsy also shares the numbers with brands who track their environmental impact, as well as to municipalities that report local sustainability efforts to state and federal agencies.

How Helpsy got started

Founders Milliner, Dan Green, and Alex Husted, childhood friends from suburban Philadelphia, started Helpsy seven years ago. They bought three clothing collection businesses in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts and then added six more to their portfolio. They now have 140 full-time employees, all of whom are offered stock options in the company.

Husted, chief information officer, said they were looking for a business that could make a social and environmental impact while also being profitable.

“We stumbled upon this clothing-collection business in New Jersey and it served the community and the environment and had unlimited room for growth,” he said.

The company now sells curated bulk boxes to resellers, which can range from five items to full pallets (which can be close to 600 to 800 units). It promotes these boxes on TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. Rennard works with 11 mall and athletic wear brand vice presidents and C-suite execs to help with their inventory options by buying merchandise that didn’t sell or was returned. The number of partners is growing.

Inventory gluts are a headache for brands and retailers, but Husted said ecommerce returns are a growing part of the business, accounting for about 10% of their revenue (90% comes from clothing donations and clothing drives).

“When something goes back to the retailer, there is a lot of effort that goes into inspecting it and reshelving it. Consumers buy multiple sizes and send ones that don’t fit back,” he said. “It is hard for them to resell. Returns are now coming directly to us. I can see that business growing.”

Clothing drives also generate substantial inventory for the company. It will do 500 this year with organizations like DARE, AMVETS of NJ, Big Brothers/Sisters, churches, YMCAs, and Girl Scouts as well as municipalities that need solutions for their textile waste to keep it out of landfills. It pays by the pound for that inventory. The company also works with universities and colleges on end-of-year cleanouts. Helpsy collected 40,000 pounds of clothing from Princeton University last year, according to Matt Brinn in the college’s Office of Sustainability.

“For municipalities, clothes are worth more than plastic and glass and create more greenhouse gas emissions,” Green explained. Helpsy was selected to be the city of Boston’s official textile recycler in February of 2020 and would like to expand in other major cities.

The business’s biggest hurdle is apathy — the sheer inconvenience of donating versus throwing clothing in the trash. To make it easier, the company now has curbside collection in Boston, and in Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties locally. It will expand to Delaware County soon.

“It is a behavioral mindset,” Green said.

Husted visits consignment and thrift stores regularly to see what is selling or isn’t. “The eye candy is the Louis Vuitton bag or the Dolce & Gabbana sweater and they make great margins on those kinds of pieces, but Lululemon moves faster and brings in cash faster,” he said, adding that reselling is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We see ourselves as selling the picks and shovels to the gold miners. We provide the tools and materials for resellers to succeed.”

The Philly art museum has elevated its shops, linking them more than ever to the galleries, the community and the world

The new director of retail has opened two stores inside the museum, is now selling the work of 90 local artists and revamped the web site to sell around the world.

BY Kathleen Nicholson Webber
FOR THE INQUIRER

When celebrated architect Frank Gehry created the long-awaited CORE project addition to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he carved out two spaces for retail stores just outside the galleries he envisioned. His prominent design underscores the importance of retail to the museum. Each store was to be a thoughtful reflection of the galleries it flanks.

Filling those stores was the job of Christine Kostyrka, who had just been appointed director of retail in 2019, and her buying and merchandising team. They were tasked with designing and outfitting the two new stores and felt the weight of the responsibility of measuring up to the architect’s work. The Design store aimed to celebrate modern and contemporary design and feature global and local jewelry, home décor, and apparel, while the early-American gallery store had to embody a craft feel, featuring papercuts, pottery, rugs, glass and quilted textiles.

The result is two newly merchandised brick-and-mortar shops that opened in May 2021, featuring the work of more than 90 local artists, along with a revamped main store, and an overhauled website that has enjoyed a dramatic rise in sales and set a new paradigm for retail at the museum. The stores are bringing a new infusion of money at a time when the museum is grappling with the impact of the pandemic.

“A retail store at a museum should be better than a regular retail store; your expectations should be higher because you’re in a museum,” Kostyrka said. “It should be the idea of learning something new and finding something you’ve never seen before.”Advertisement

» READ MORE: Shop here at the Museum

Kostyrka became just the third retail director there in 30 years. She was granted carte blanche to create a more elevated shopping experience. She approached these new shops like a start-up, employing the innovative, forward-thinking skills she sharpened during her 30-year retail career at top lifestyle brands such as Urban Outfitters.

“For whatever reason, I’ve joined companies just as they were transforming into something else,” Kostyrka said. “I would much rather work on that idea of building something from the ground up than walking into an established business.”

Revenue at museums comes from donors and endowments, memberships, and admissions, and often overlooked is the contribution of retail operations. According to the Museum Store Association, museums make from about 5% to 25% of annual cash flow from their stores. Some museums hire buying offices or retail experts such as Kostyrka and her team to handle purchasing in a more systematic fashion. In 2019, retail operation sales at the Philadelphia museum tallied $3.06 million and accounted for about 4.75% of total operating revenue and support, according to an audit of the institution’s finances.Advertisement

“Every museum has to decide whether or not they want to invest in retail,” said Alia Gray, sales director at Aesthetic Movement, a New York-based global buying office that sells to museum stores including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New York and San Francisco Museums of Modern Art. “They have to understand it is an investment and it is something that draws eyes and ears and profit to museums in a way that can be done with integrity.”

Books are displayed in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has three shops, the Main Store, the American Gallery Store and the Design Store.
Books are displayed in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The museum has three shops, the Main Store, the American Gallery Store and the Design Store.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Kostyrka is well-suited for her role; as much at home in her duties focused on commerce as those that demand a trained eye for art. The native New Yorker spent her youth roaming the Metropolitan Museum of Art, studied painting at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and even taught art briefly. Feeling the pinch of the scarcity of jobs in the arts, Kostyrka changed directions and opened a home goods store on Long Island with no previous retail experience while in her 20s. That led to her three-decade run at such brands as Martha Stewart and Urban Outfitters, where she was the head of the $90 million home category.

At the Philadelphia museum, she would have to draw on all her experience. Not only was Kostyrka undertaking a crucial portion of what amounted to Gehry’s reinvigoration of the main museum building, built in 1928. But she also would have to do all that in the middle of a global economic meltdown.Advertisement

Soon after her arrival, the pandemic struck, shuttering the museum and drying up the foot traffic that its stores depended on. The revamped original store was open just six months when COVID-19 shut the museum down while the new stores were still under construction. Retail sales operations tumbled 40% in 2020 from the previous year to $1.8 million, according to the museum audit.

The Philly Moon Tarot T-Shirt by James Boyle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Philly Moon Tarot T-Shirt by James Boyle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Other U.S. museums took a similar hit. A 2021 study on COVID’s impact by the American Alliance of Museums found that three-quarters of museums reported, on average, a 40% drop in operating income in 2020. Museums were closed to the public an average of 28 weeks out of the year due to the health crisis, according to the study. The pandemic shuttered the Philadelphia Museum of Art for eight months in 2020. While 2021 sales figures are still being tallied, foot traffic is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, according to a museum spokesperson.

“After the pandemic, the stores were the last thing on everyone’s budget list,” Gray said of museums broadly.Advertisement

The pre-pandemic museum store formula was to rely on visitors and blockbuster shows to sell exhibit books and products. It could be profitable if you had blockbuster exhibits and hordes of visitors.

With the museum doors closed, Kostyrka and her team of three buyers, a merchandise manager, visual merchandiser, and operations manager pivoted to expanding the lackluster website, beefing up the selection from 300 products to 1,500 items and signing a contract for a new web platform.

The merchandising team had little experience with ecommerce but Kostyrka did. “We didn’t have a great product. There was no point of view and the photography wasn’t great,” Kostyrka said.

They worked with a graphic designer to create web pages that made it easier to shop and created product categories aimed at broadening the customer base. The site began drawing customers from all over the world. Web sales soared, increasing by 75% in 2020 from 2019, Kostyrka said, declining to share specific revenues.Advertisement

To create buzz about products, Kostyrka started Instagram and Facebook pages for the stores. “We have recently started experimenting with video via IG [Instagram] Reels and TikTok and the response has been great,” she said. “So much of what we sell has a story, and that story adds value so must be told visually and in an easily digestible, compelling way.”

Kostyrka said it was important that she be as careful in the curation of her offerings as the rest of the museum. Half of the shelves of the main store were previously stocked with books that sometimes sat for years, gathering dust. Now a carefully selected assortment of hard-to-find books from European and small, independent publishers makes up a quarter of inventory.

Buyer Choti Weiler discovered new publishers abroad, as well as local independent imprints such as Beehive Books in the city. Each store in the museum now has its own selection of culturally relevant books on such subjects as female designers and African American artists. Kostyrka worked with the museum’s education department to carry books from visiting authors. The result was that books have since become the retail operation’s top-selling category.

The art museum celebrates local artists

The pandemic stirred up more challenges than just diminished foot traffic. The museum wasn’t immune to the tangled supply chains that threatened other retail operations. Kostyrka increased her reliance on local artists and vendors, a move she had intended to make before the pandemic.

“Local has meant we have more opportunities for collaborations and custom designs,” she said. It also means a quick turnaround and fewer supply chain issues.

Local artists now account for 25% of the products in the total retail mix, Kostyrka estimated. She cites the example of Kristen Buck, an artist who makes pie plates, mugs and bowls with a mystical vibe.

Buck said Kostyrka discovered her work at a crafters market and invited her to the museum to talk about collaborating. “It is an amazing privilege to be in these stores, the ultimate compliment,” Buck said. The museum has sold dozens of her pieces and she said that allows her to support herself with her work.

“Many of the local Philly makers grew up going to this museum; it’s like their home,” Kostyrka said. “To be able to partner with them in that way and support them in that way has been a gift.”

The curators appreciated how the galleries and shops are tied together. “Christine and [merchandise manager] David Lincoln looked hard at the collection, talked to us about the installation plan, and made a big effort to find local artists making work that responded creatively to the objects in the galleries, from wood and glass and ceramics to textiles and painted objects,” said Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American Art. “It is also great to support our local artists, and brings a unique Philadelphia flavor to our visitors.”

Pencils on display in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Pencils on display in the main store at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Drawing with the Diana pencil

Kostyrka has products that cost less than $5 and some that are $5,000. A bestseller resulted through a partnership with Blackwing pencils, a highly collectible brand and popular with art students who sketch when visiting the galleries. Blackwing worked with Lincoln to create an all-gold Diana pencil, embossed with an arrow, in honor of the Diana sculpture in the Great Stair Hall at the museum. A box of 12 costs $35.

Since launching the product in late 2019, the museum has sold close to 3,000 units, mostly to collectors in Japan, Korea, Australia and the U.K.

Analytics have shown that half of online purchases are made using a phone, so Kostyrka plans to launch a test of text message marketing this spring. She and her staff began using Lucky Orange, a heat mapping tool in April 2020 that gives a glimpse of what customers are searching for on the website in real time and includes functions that allows museum staff to assist with purchases in real time.

Kostyrka spends a lot of time on that app, answering questions to better understand the online customer. “COVID has shown us the necessity, not only from a retail perspective, but just from a content perspective, of chatting and engaging with potential visitors when they can’t come through the doors,” she said. “[Digital] is not an area where I think a lot of museums have invested money, but I think a lot of that is changing.”

This spring, Kostyrka aims to stage a pop-up market, inviting local artisans to sell at the museum. Like any start-up, Kostyrka plans to be nimble and reexamine her needs and new opportunities. One idea is to look at licensing opportunities to use their imagery on such lifestyle products as fashion or home items. “It gives us better margin, and unique products you can’t find anywhere else, which helps us turn the page from the expected to surprise and delight.”

So far, the administration is encouraged. The retail operations team prioritized telling Philadelphia stories, appealing to diverse audiences, insisting on ethical and sustainable manufacturing and responsible packaging, said Leslie Anne Miller, chair of the museum’s board.

“One of our stores celebrates our new galleries for early American art, and each time I go through, I smile knowing that everything it offers opens a little window on history and the collection,” Miller said. “That the store achieves this with style, humor, sophistication, and a love of the museum speaks to all we’ve been trying to achieve in the retail experience.”Published Jan. 23, 2022

Clothing Resellers are Buried in Your Stuff

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Clothing Resellers Are Buried in Your Stuff

January 30, 2024

Consumers are churning through clothing so fast, the clothing collection and resale business can hardly keep up.
By Kathleen Webber

In Eatontown, NJ, not far from the shore, a steady stream of trucks hauls in 33,000 pounds of used clothing a day to the Helpsy warehouse. There it is weighed, sorted, categorized, and recirculated to be sold at thrift stores, vintage shops, or on resale sites where shoppers can get their hands on everything from Everlane jeans to Aritzia dresses to Marc by Marc Jacobs blouses. Companywide, Helpsy, collects 96,000 pounds of clothes a day from thousands of metal bins in 10 states on the East Coast that dot parking lots of malls, churches, schools, and mom-and-pop strip malls.

Consumers provide Helpsy with most of their sales inventory. The change of seasons is the busiest. It is then when consumers, armed with bags of clothes fresh from the closet purge, will toss their once-loved merchandise into a bin ushering it into its new life.

Helpsy sorter inspecting clothes for brand and damage using proprietary sorting app.
Photos courtesy of Helpsy, Eatontown NJ.
A closeup of Helpsy’s sorting app.  The app is continuously updated and iterated by Helpsy’s tech team.

At the Helpsy warehouse, bales of clothing are stacked carefully like Jenga blocks up to the ceiling. Two dozen sorters will use digital scanners to help classify 12,000 items a day, by brand and category, to determine what new sales path the item will go to extend its life and keep it out of landfills.

Helpsy, a for-profit, privately held company, collects 66 pounds of clothing a minute and made $26 million in revenue in 2022 from used clothes and new wholesale clothing they buy from brands and retailers who need help with overstock, e-commerce returns, and styles that may not pass the quality control test like the thousands of Fourth of July swim trunks from Chubbies in a shade of red that did not pass muster with design. All of this clothing and shoes are resold via 6,000 resellers, including stores like Plato’s Closet, Uptown Cheapskates, and Beacon’s Closet, smaller vintage stores or on peer-to-peer selling marketplaces like Poshmark, eBay, Depop, and Mercari.
“We supply online individual resellers with brands to scale up their businesses and thrift stores with brands they can sell,” says Dan Green, co-founder and CEO of Helpsy. “For thrift stores, they either have too much inventory or not the right kind.” Helpsy can help swap out merchandise or fill up shelves with brands that are known sellers for them.

Helpsy’s three co-founders from left to right: Alex Husted,
Dan Green, and Dave Milliner.
Co-founders and management. From left to right, top row:
Alex Husted, Gina, Carmen, Nicole, Sandy, Madison, Bridgette,
Victor, Dan, and Lisa. Front left to right, bottom row: Dave Milliner, Devan, Jessica, and Karen

The Changing Market
The recommerce market, reselling previously owned products (including overstocks and retail returns) through physical and online channels, is a sector of retail that is outpacing regular retail. Over the past five years, recommerce revenues have grown 20-plus times faster than overall apparel revenues according to a study by consulting firm Deloitte. One reason this industry is booming: people are buying more clothes than ever and wearing each item less. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the average piece of clothing is worn 36 percent fewer times now than it was 15 years ago.

Recommerce sales reached $22 billion in 2022 according to a report by Global Data. They estimate that recommerce worldwide will climb to $51 billion in 2023. While wearing secondhand clothing has become mainstream, especially with environmentally-minded Gen Z and Millennial shoppers, the amount of fast fashion being produced annually keeps Helpy’s bins overflowing.
Upstairs at the facility, giant cardboard bins hold sorted, used merchandise from brands like Outdoor Voices, Eileen Fisher, Chico’s, Aritzia, J. Jill, and Banana Republic among others. When one of their stores or resellers calls to ask for a particular brand, they can fill their order.

Since its start in 2016, Helpsy has added warehouses in New York and Massachusetts. In the $3 billion U.S. industry, Helpsy is one of about 100 larger collectors (the industry also has thousands of smaller ones). The big players include non-profits like Goodwill and Salvation Army, which also have brick-and-mortar operations and vertical integration and for-profits like Value Village, says Steve Rees, president of SMART (the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association). Helpsy is the only B corporation clothing collector. B corps are assessed for social and environmental performance and are re-audited every three years. Helpsy has been certified since 2018.

According to SMART, textile recyclers reuse and recycle 5 billion pounds of textiles each year (this figure includes bed linens and towels). Of the organization’s 150 members, half are domestic companies and half are international. Textiles are the fastest-growing waste stream in landfills. On average, each consumer throws away more than 100 pounds of textiles a year (up from the 1999 figure of 44 pounds a year) and 84 percent ends up in landfills (this figure also includes things like bed linens and towels) or is incinerated. There, it decomposes and releases greenhouse gasses or leaches dyes and other harmful chemicals into the ground and local water supplies.

Working to Transform Waste
Last year, Helpsy kept 35 million pounds out of landfills. They say 95 percent of what is collected is salvageable; 50 percent is sold as clothing and used again as such, while 45 percent becomes things like furniture insulation, or wiping cloths. “Re-using it is the best ecological way to extend the life of a piece of clothing,” says David Milliner, COO at the company. “The more times clothing can be reused, the less virgin material will be used, and that saves water and other resources,” he adds.

The production of clothing makes up 10 percent of global carbon emissions, pollutes rivers and streams with dyes and finishes, and uses fossil fuels in the making of synthetics, which makes up the majority of the clothing we wear. Additionally, up to 35 percent of all microplastics released into the environment can be traced back to textiles.

Up until 2021, Helpsy had outsourced its sorting, but when Covid shut down sorting facilities, the trade of used clothing plummeted, virtually cutting it in half. “If we wanted to expand and make a profit, we needed to sort the clothing ourselves,” says Milliner. So, they brought that function in-house.

Their IT team built the QuickScan sort technology. A sorter enters the brand name into a tablet and then reviews the item for wear and tear and enters that information into the system. A barcode for each item is created assigning it a value and that information gets entered into their data warehouse. A re-seller store will call them and ask for specific brands of clothing or accessory categories. There is an algorithm with an assigned value to a Talbot’s skirt with a broken zipper versus a Banana Republic piece that is in perfect condition.

“Some companies rely on people to decide the value of the clothing,” says Milliner. “What happens when those experts leave the company? We wanted to build technology so that it got it into the best sales channel,” he adds. Last year they sorted and graded 5 million pieces of clothing and shoes by brand and categories (prom dresses or athleisure) to determine the best sales channel for them. Sorters are incentivized to sort as much as they can a day. “Many collectors are working on the process for better sorting,” says Rees. “The process is still not fully automated. Maybe AI down the road will help, but for now, every piece is touched and requires a human to sort.”

To date, Helpsy’s scanning system recognizes 10,000 brands but sorters encounter 200 per day not in the database. They have data that moves through their ecosystem from the bin to the sort to the proper resale channel. “Then we can provide that data back to brands and our customers,” says Jessica Rennard, Chief Merchandising Officer. “Brands can learn things like what types of styles are being donated of theirs and what is selling and use that in their research and development.” They also provide data to the Corporate Social Responsibility teams and the municipalities on how much they are collecting for their reporting.

Helpsy has also started working on extending its sorting technology to encompass fabric type detection and categorization. Green noted, “This is an important step in really being a complete solution for textiles of all types and qualities. Just like recyclers of other materials, we are working to transform waste into useful products as close to the source as possible.” Their team is engaged with a number of partners developing technologies to transform the unwearable clothing that does not have another productive use into new fibers again.

Walter, Helpsy’s warehouse manager of Eatontown, NJ operation, moving a bale of clothing.

Starting the Business
Founders Dan Green, David Milliner, and Alex Husted, childhood friends from suburban Philadelphia, started Helpsy seven years ago after an ed-tech start-up they had failed in 2000. They went back to their jobs in finance and tech, but bought three clothing collection businesses in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts and then added six more to their portfolio. “We wanted to do a triple bottom line business and looked at niches that were ignored,” says Husted, Chief Information Officer. “We stumbled upon this clothing collection business in New Jersey and it served the community and the environment and had unlimited room for growth.”

Husted visits consignment and thrift stores regularly to see what is selling or is not. “The eye candy is the Louis Vuitton bag, or the Dolce and Gabbana sweater, and they make great margins on those kinds of pieces, but lululemon moves faster and brings in cash faster. Some of their best-selling brands for resale are Adidas, Nike, Everlane, The North Face, Zara, and Madewell. They send their higher end/luxury merchandise from their sort to The Real Real on consignment.

Husted says many of their individual re-sellers who buy from them have quit their day jobs to do this full-time. “Many specialize in a category like athletic wear and will only buy and sell that. So instead of them spending time sifting through church sales and Goodwill bins, they come to us for specific brands or categories,” Husted says of this time-saving step. “Re-selling is growing by leaps and bounds, and we see ourselves as selling the picks and shovels to the gold miners. We provide the tools and materials for them to
succeed.”

Controlling the Process
Helpsy Source is a new channel of the company that started 16 months ago where the company sells curated boxes to resellers. The company promotes these bulk boxes on Tiktok, Instagram, IG Live, and Facebook. Rennard oversees all sorted products putting them back into circulation. She works with a growing list of brands and retailers, many of whom hear about the company by word of mouth and who need a plan for what to do with e-commerce and out-of-season returns, overstock, and damages. “We keep their end-of-life product in circulation and out of the landfill and address their concerns as it relates to brand equity; we are able to control the merchandise within our own supply chain to ensure over saturation does not happen.”

Inventory gluts are a headache for brands and retailers. “The warehouse guys say I have 500 pallets of merchandise we need to get rid of. The finance guys say we need the income from those pallets,” Green says. Those pallets will be bought by the small consignment shop owner to a thrift chain to individual sellers looking for a part-time income. Box sizes vary anywhere from 40 items to full pallets which can be close to 600 to 800 units.
Husted says e-commerce returns have become a growing part of the business for them, accounting for about 10 percent of their revenue (90 percent still comes from collected clothing). “When something goes back to the retailer, there is a lot of effort that goes into inspecting it and reshelving it. Consumers buy multiple sizes and send ones that don’t fit back,” he explains. “It is hard for them to re-sell. It takes up space. Returns are now coming directly to us. I can see that business growing.”

When Helpsy works with brands, they will say where they want their clothing sold or not sold. “It is idiosyncratic from brand to brand what they think is a risk to their reputation,” says Green. “Some don’t want their brand in thrift stores, some don’t want their brand on Poshmark or eBay, and others don’t want their product in a market in Ghana if it can’t be sold in the U.S. “

Clothing drives also generate substantial inventory for the company. They will do 400 this year with DARE, AMVETS of NJ, Big Brothers/Sisters, churches, YMCAs, Girl Scouts and hundreds of other nonprofits as well as municipalities who need solutions for their textile waste. “For municipalities, clothes are worth more than plastic and glass and create more greenhouse gas emissions,” Green explains. They would like to work with more in the future.

Working with Cities
In November 2022, Massachusetts banned the dumping of textiles in landfills. With landfills in states across the U.S. filling up, there may be more state textile bans in the future. Helpsy is the sole collector for the city of Boston where they started curbside clothing collection in 2020. They have bins throughout the city and at public schools. The schools are paid by the pound for what they collect. The company shares a monthly report with the city on what they are collecting, says Kristen Shelley, who is in charge of Zero Waste Contracts for Boston Public Works.

The business is not without its challenges. The biggest hurdle is apathy—the sheer inconvenience of donating versus throwing clothing in the trash. “It is a behavioral mindset,” Green explains. The company has begun curbside collection in select cities across the East Coast, most recently in three counties around Philadelphia, PA. They also work with universities and colleges. For instance, Princeton University in New Jersey has collection bins in or near their dorms and does end-of-year cleanouts collecting 40,000 pounds of clothing last year that went straight to Helpsy according to Matt Brinn, of their Office of Sustainability.

Rennard works with mall and athletic wear brand VPs and C-Suite execs to help them navigate their inventory options. “Because we are a B Corp, we are transparent,” says Rennard. “They know what we do with their product. We ensure it doesn’t end up somewhere they don’t want it to end up.” Rennard and her team send out 160 mystery boxes a day of new and used merchandise to resellers. She calls them an important vehicle to circularity. “They (the resellers) push the inventory to the end consumer.” While she is encouraged by the number of people who want to shop at thrift stores and donate clothing, “fast fashion keeps getting faster,” says Rennard.

Rees says there are more players internationally and more recently China has taken an interest in the industry. SMART decided to hold its first international conference in Dubai this past year to share best practices and innovation. Their domestic conference in Houston will explore the use of AI technology in recycling, Rees says. “As long as the population is growing, the business will keep increasing,” says Rees. | WA.

Kathleen Webber is a freelance writer and academic who teaches journalism at The College of New Jersey. She worked in retail and brand product development before writing about the New York fashion industry for many years. Her research and writing focus on sustainability in the global fashion industry, retail innovation and the circular economy. Her bylines have appeared in Women’s Wear Daily, The Philadelphia Inquirer, sustainablebrands.com, Sierra magazine, and ecowatch.com. A version of this story previously ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on October 12, 2023. Kathleen can be reached at webber@tcnj.edu.

For more information about Helpsy, call (800) 244-6350 or e-mail info@helpsy.co.

Resources
www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/fashion/overview
https://recommercereport.com
www.bcorporation.net/en-us/certification/
https://helpsysource.com

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Boathouse Sports — a true life apparel maker in Philly — has ambitious plans to grow

Former Olympic rower John Strotbeck dreams of employing thousands of people at his sports apparel factory in North Philadelphia. His firm is also opening five physical stores.

by Kathleen Nicholson Webber for the Inquirer
Dec 27, 2021

Workers sew garments at the Boathouse Sports plant floor on Hunting Park Avenue in Philadelphia. Boathouse is trying to reinvent itself with new products.
Workers sew garments at the Boathouse Sports plant floor on Hunting Park Avenue in Philadelphia. Boathouse is trying to reinvent itself with new products.JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

John Strotbeck estimates he’s outfitted millions of athletes through Philadelphia-based Boathouse Sports, selling a million units of outerwear and athletic gear to professional, college, and high school athletes annually for the last 20 years.

Now he is betting that some of those athletes, now in their 30s to 50s, will buy Boathouse apparel for nostalgia reasons, reminding them of the “best years of their lives.”

The pandemic torpedoed Boathouse’s business in 2020, as it did to many others. Between the state restrictions placed on nonessential businesses and the halt to team sports for longer than expected, Boathouse could no longer rely on its typical customers.

“COVID cost us 50% of our business over the course of about 18 months,” said Strotbeck, whose company adapted in part by making tens of thousands of masks for doctors, nurses, and Wawa workers.

And while business has now almost entirely recovered, Strotbeck saw big changes in consumer behavior and preferences and felt the firm had to diversify its sales and marketing channels.

The plan: continue outfitting teams but pivot to more consumer channels. Strotbeck recognized he needed help building a consumer brand from the company he launched in 1985, between his appearances for the U.S. Olympic rowing team at the 1984 and 1988 Games.

“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” Strotbeck said. So, 13 months ago, he hired a CEO, Cindy DiPietrantonio, former chief operating officer of Sidney Kimmel’s Jones Apparel Group who managed seven acquisitions for the $4.5 billion company and a multitude of labels like Stuart Weitzman, Nine West, and Jones New York. She also led jewelry brand Alex and Ani.

The ambitious 90-day plan that DiPietrantonio started with had to be tossed out when COVID-19 lingered. The firm’s labor force fell off drastically, Strotbeck was sidelined with the virus, and a malware attack had the new CEO scribbling financials on the back of a napkin.

Big changes are coming

It took some time to steady the ship, but now its e-commerce consumer business is ramping up, currently 10% of sales — representing a 34% rise over last year. The company has set a goal of 30% for online’s share of total sales for next year.

Cindy DiPietrantonio, CEO at Boathouse Sports, poses for a portrait at its headquarters in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, 2020.
Cindy DiPietrantonio, CEO at Boathouse Sports, poses for a portrait at its headquarters in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, 2020.DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

And it is investing in brick-and-mortar stores — this fall in Nantucket, Mass., and in the spring, five additional stores in other tony waterfront towns like Annapolis, Md.

“Our goal is to make it more accessible by selling in key retailers, Boathouse branded pop-ups as well as Boathouse.com and through collaborations,” DiPietrantonio said.

Nantucket was a natural because the firm has a strong customer base in Boston, a big rowing town. Boathouse sold to Nantucket’s TownPool, whose owner wore the product as a prep school and college athlete. And when inventory thinned there, it got a lift in sales on the website in the Boston area.

The CEO also beefed up her team and hired a director of e-commerce and marketing, directors of operations and finance, and merchandising and design associates. The firm uses an agency to help with search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising while in-house employees handle other digital marketing and social media.

DiPietrantonio also spent lots of time listening to consumers and learning the brand’s DNA.

“Our consumers have an emotional attachment to what they wore in high school or prep school, so we’ve made a few tweaks to styles and we have branded it with Boathouse,” she said.

Top sellers

There’s a new version of Strotbeck’s first rowing jacket, the Gore-tex Stevenson jacket ($108-$264), a refashioned long swim parka that just hit the site ($198), and in 2022, the restyled retro Coaches Only jacket ($168).

Top sellers include the “trou” compression (rowing shorts, $38 to $88) that customers wear to run, bike, or row in, the journey short ($52), and pants ($68), its version of a jogger.

Last spring the firm launched the Tailwind hoodie ($78-$88) and sold more than 1,000 units by repeatedly tweaking the product with new colors and patterns.

Founder John Strotbeck helped package an order of face masks for shipping at the Boathouse Sports factory in North Philadelphia on April 14, 2020. The company, which normally manufactures custom sports apparel, switched to making personal protective equipment during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic.
Founder John Strotbeck helped package an order of face masks for shipping at the Boathouse Sports factory in North Philadelphia on April 14, 2020. The company, which normally manufactures custom sports apparel, switched to making personal protective equipment during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

DiPietrantonio has worked with the design team to introduce new prints using a technology that Strotbeck invested in almost 15 years ago to compete with shoe brands called sublimation. It’s the process by which a digital image is fused to the performance fabric using a heat transfer process and expensive equipment.

The company added sublimation in 2007 to fend off the shoe brands like Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas that ate away at its college team business. It was a relatively unknown process but now accounts for 70% of uniforms. Strotbeck estimates he has invested $1 million in equipment alone to be able to customize apparel.

» READ MORE: This Norristown sports gear maker took a ‘Just Do It!’ attitude and whipped Nike in court

While the athletic apparel sector is wildly competitive, DiPietrantonio said there is room for more players. “Our competition is not the shoe brands and it’s not Lululemon, Athleta, or Outdoor Voices. I think there’s white space between those two categories for a quality, authentic outerwear and accessories brand. And that’s really where we fit.”

There are two groups the brand resonates with: the former athletes who wore Boathouse, and the 15- to 25-year-olds seeking an alternative to the large brands.

“They’re looking for companies that represent more than just making a buck,” said Strotbeck. “We make everything in the USA. That’s important to people. It should be. It’s more important now post-COVID than it was pre-, being a socially responsible company.”

DiPietrantonio said the firm pays at least $12 an hour for sewers — a rise from $10 pre-pandemic — along with health insurance and a 401(k). “We gave out [pay] increases in 2021 and will in 2022,” she said. “My goal is not to be competitive but to have some of the best wages in the industry.”

While many companies are dealing with far-off supply problems, Boathouse’s pain points have been closer to home: finding enough local factory workers and navigating the domestic trucker shortage.

Still, the firm has been lucky. “Where most companies are dealing with 14 to 19 weeks from order to customer delivery, we are dealing with five to seven,” DiPietrantonio said.

Pre-COVD Boathouse had 225 employees, 170 at the factory alone. After the pandemic drained the workforce, the firm now totals 170 and 80 at the factory.

“We are finding it very difficult to get people to come back or just hire new people,” Strotbeck said, despite the safety precautions in place.

The company is offering finder’s fees for new hires and training for new factory employees. Boathouse has had to find local factories to outsource work to fill orders or turn them down.

“This is a national issue; it might be an international issue,” he said.

Its current 100,000-square-foot facility was intentionally chosen where he could find apparel craftspeople. Boathouse was courted by officials in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Kentucky to move there in the late 1990s when the firm had outgrown its 20,000-square-foot Wissahickon Industrial Center facility.

“We made an educated guess that, while pay was lower in the South, it would be hard to find workers in a few years as the auto industry and data processing were investing heavily in the regions. We decided to stay in Philly.”

He took out a map and put pins on where all his employees lived. The company opened its Hunting Park Avenue facility in 2000, hoping eventually to quadruple the production capacity.

That hasn’t yet happened. But “I have this dream. I’d love to employ thousands of people in Philadelphia, and I think that is achievable.”

“I know product and she knows brands, consumers, and how to grow a business, particularly in the retail side,” said the founder, deferring to his new CEO. “ She’s definitely going to take us to very big places.”

A Brooklyn nonprofit comes to Philly to recycle clothing waste across the Mid-Atlantic

Fabscrap hopes to sign up 20 to 25 brands to recycle textile waste in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and southern New Jersey areas over the next year.

Camille Tagle, co-founder and creative director, and Jessica Schreiber, founder and CEO, posed for a portrait at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia, on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company.. … Read more

MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Fabscrap hopes to sign up 20 to 25 brands to recycle textile waste in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and southern New Jersey areas over the next year.

by Kathleen Nicholson Webber, For The InquirerPublished Nov. 15, 2021

In fashion, the design room is the laboratory where each new season begins — and where the waste stream starts, too.

Designers, seamstresses, pattern-makers and cutters hover around the dress form, cutting, pinning and draping a style that can eventually end up on a clothing line.

But once that sampling process is done, all around that mannequin are piles of cutting waste, leftover sample yardage, swatches of various colors, and mutilated samples that are of no use to the design house. This waste is generated every season and the responsible disposal of it is an enormous problem for the industry, one that has a multitude of environmental repercussions.

Fabscrap, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, is addressing it by opening a Mid-Atlantic hub in Philadelphia in the artist-and-designer-filled Bok building on Nov. 15, World Recycling Day.ADVERTISEMENT

Fabscrap hopes to sign up 20 to 25 brands for service in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and South Jersey areas in the next year. Companies send the group more each year “because they are happy to find a responsible good outlet for all their design materials,” said Jessica Schreiber, Fabscrap’s CEO. “They start with fabric, but then we’ll receive buttons, leathers, yarn, ribbon, etc.”

Volunteers sort through textiles at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Fabscrap’s fashion roots

In 2016, Fabscrap, opened in Brooklyn to work with fashion, interior design, and entertainment companies, collecting their unwanted fabrics to recycle and save from landfills. It has worked with 550 brands and, for a small fee, picks up an average of 6,000 pounds of textiles a week from customers. It sorts and decides what can be reused, recycled or sold. The group will soon reach its one millionth pound spared from a landfill.

This facility will work with local recycling company Retrievr, a residential textile collection company, to collect waste here. The former Bok school’s 6,800-square-foot cafeteria now will house 16 fabric-sorting stations, a fabric resale shop and an area to showcase the work of one designer a month who uses recycled materials in clothes.ADVERTISEMENT

This month’s designer is the sustainable clothing store Grant Blvd.

Volunteers, totaling 7,000 so far in New York, are compensated with five pounds of free fabric per three-hour session and will sort the fabric by fiber for resale. Some smaller scraps are sold to companies that shred it for use as insulation or fabric stuffing.

» READ MORE: Text ‘Pick-Up’: Towns are partnering with an app to recycle residents’ electronics and clothes

Urban Outfitters eager to recycle

Fabscrap received a working capital grant from Philly-based fashion company Urban Outfitters Inc. to secure the new facility and provide general operating funds for the first two years here.

Fabscrap first began working with Urban in 2019 as Allie Noll, the firm’s manager of global sustainability and sourcing operations, searched for a company to recycle its waste from the sampling process. In 2019, she was connected with Fabscrap and shipped 246 pounds of cutting waste to the New York facility. In 2020, Fabscrap recycled more than 1,100 pounds for the Philly-based company. That’s when the partnership talks began.ADVERTISEMENT

“It happened pretty mutually,“ said Fabscrap’s Schreiber. “We were looking to grow and needed support,” while Urban wanted to explore a deeper commitment to sustainability.

The Anthropologie store at 18th and Walnut in Center City is photographed on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Urban is helping the Brooklyn-based Fabscrap grow in Philadelphia.HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

“Urban suggested Philadelphia and we already had great connections with organizations, institutions, and programs in Philadelphia so it seemed like the right next step,” she said. To date, the company has signed on Urban and its brands; Wolhide, Lillies and Loaves, and Cupid Intimates and just finished service agreements with eight other companies in the area.

“We’re expecting about 3,000 to 5,000 pounds per month, and then growing after that as we meet more of the industry here, as well as companies in Baltimore, DC, and southern New Jersey,” she said.ADVERTISEMENT

Globally, 53 million tons of textiles are used to create clothing each year and about 12% of that is wasted during design and production, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to create a circular economy that eliminates waste and pollution.

The scale of the problem in Philadelphia is harder to quantify. While the Office of Sustainability has figures for residential textile waste (linens, clothing and towels tossed by households), it has none for commercial waste because businesses contract with their own private haulers, which aren’t required to report those figures to the city.

Nordstrom helps assemble the data

“The main thing that we are hearing is that it’s precisely because commercial textile waste is not measured or tracked that Fabscrap services are so needed,” Schreiber said. At its offices, each bag collected is weighed, sorted by company and fiber, and kept in a database. Each company can see how much it has recycled in a year, a useful metric for sustainability reports.

Nordstrom has also partnered with Fabscrap with a grant to fund the Fabscrap Partner Portal, which allows every customer access to its diversion and environmental impact data, increasing supply chain visibility, and improving decisions throughout the supply chain.ADVERTISEMENT

Residential textile waste is 6% to 6.5% of the total waste stream here. To calculate those figures, the city does a waste characterization study by picking through samplings of trash over several months and weighing it by category.

Bins of fabric scraps for sale at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company.MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Helena Rudoff, waste reduction lead in the city’s Office of Sustainability, estimates that residential and commercial textiles together could be 10% to 15% of the total waste stream.

“Right now, if you are a design house or another business and only being serviced by the Streets Department, your textiles aren’t being recycled.”

» READ MORE: Fast-fashion heiress asks shoppers to buy less in green push

Philadelphia trash goes to landfills, such as the 250-acre Waste Management facility in Fairless Hills, Bucks County or to be burned at the Covanta facility in Chester. The Waste Management site, opened in 2016, is already close to 50% full and it is hard to know how long it will take to become filled.

“Their work not only conserves landfill space but also gives new value to the energy and raw materials that went into producing these textiles,” said Waste Management’s John Hambrose, referring to Fabscrap’s work.

The number of stakeholders interested in re-thinking waste here is growing each month. “The issue with waste is, we eventually run out of places to put it, ” said the city’s Rudoff. “Textiles are high-value waste, meaning the value of the material if you recycle it is higher than if it goes to a landfill.”

She works with such groups as Circular Philadelphia, which opened in June, and hopes eventually to work on the policy side of the problem. In New York, by law, if a fashion house generates more than 10% of its waste in textiles, it has to be recycled.

Samantha Wittchen, director of programs and operations at Circular Philadelphia, is working on a Textile Recycling Task force, along with Rachel Mednick of All Together Now PA.

Wittchen would like to attract a large-scale textile recycling facility to open in the Philadelphia region. Right now, the closest ones are in North Carolina. Better data can help them effect policy changes locally similar to what New York City has in place and would be even more powerful if statewide data could be captured.

“Are there opportunities at the state level to ban putting textiles in a landfill?” said Wittchen.

Kabira Stokes, CEO of Retrievr, said her broader vision for her group and for the city, is also to set up a full circular textile recycling plant somewhere in Pennsylvania. “It’s the only way we will be able to certify that the responsible outcomes are happening with what people are giving us.”

Volunteer Marsha Sickles, from West Philly, sorts through fabric scraps at the new Fabscrap location in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia, on November 15, 2021. Fabscrap is a textile reuse and recycling company. Sickles has volunteered at the Brooklyn location and is a designer who makes hats, bags and other accessories.. … Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

For Schreiber and her co-founder and creative director, Camille Tagle, the mission for Fabscrap has always included education, especially at the university level.

For five years, Tagle has worked with Drexel University senior fashion design majors in a capstone project that has her selecting and donating fabric for them to create a design using zero waste design practices. “Those students have gone on and worked in the industry and they get their companies to work with Fabscrap or to focus on more sustainable practices,” Tagle said.

Ed Gribbin is helping to create Made in America PPE for hospital systems in the US.

High Demand for Medical Gowns Could Boost the Made in Americas movement; A Philly-area supply chain expert explains.

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Open back, tie at the neck, tie at the waist, perforated (for easy tear off), slit cuff, thumb loop cuff, elastic cuff, disposable, reusable: Ed Gribbin can tell you that there is nothing simple about a medical gown.

His Merion Station office has three dozen medical gowns of every style, each serving a different purpose and each requiring a different performance textile, thread, expertise and equipment to make. Gribbin runs his own supply chain strategy consultancy in a field that skyrocketed to prominence with the coronavirus pandemic as hospitals and governments have competed for gowns, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) vital to safe testing and treatment.

And as the pandemic wears on, his industry is seeing demand not only for more products, but also for goods made in North, Central and South America.

Coronavirus Coverage

“Talking to hospitals, chief medical officers and purchasing chiefs at government agencies, there is a huge distrust of importing product from China,” Gribbin said.“Add that to the current trade tensions we have with China and the fact that at any given moment the administration could pull the plug and say the border is shut and we aren’t bringing anything in, everyone is a little skittish. We don’t want to be as reliant on China for production as we have in the past. The fact of the matter is we want to build a permanent supply chain here.”

In January, when few Americans had even heard of the coronavirus, Gribbin became president of the Americas Apparel Producers Network, with members across the globe encompassing the 30 links of the apparel supply chain “from the dirt to the shirt,” as he puts it.

Science-based coverage sent each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night to your inbox.

At the start of the pandemic, the group set up a site where suppliers could post their capacity to make critical PPE. Within 15 minutes of going live, it was flooded with posts from 1,000 companies offering capabilities, advice and tools, said Mike Todaro, managing director of AAPN.

“The postings were surprising. Fifty percent who had cut-and-sew capabilities were not in apparel. One was a parachute maker, and awning, tent and umbrella makers. They were people with ingenuity, reinventing their businesses to keep their lights on and help make PPE,” Gribbin said.

Ed Gribbin, who runs an apparel consultancy firm and is president of the Americas Apparel Producers Network, wears a washable face mask at his home in Merion Station. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gribbin is now focused on coordinating the manufacturing of isolation gowns and face masks.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer Ed Gribbin, who runs an apparel consultancy firm and is president of the Americas Apparel Producers Network, wears a washable face mask at his home in Merion Station. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gribbin is now focused on coordinating the manufacturing of isolation gowns and face masks.

He had the Herculean task of categorizing those posts and building spreadsheets playing matchmaker to connect fabric mills with cut-and-sew operations to coordinate the production of critical medical supplies for hospital systems and FEMA. When Emory University asked Todaro for 90,000 gowns by June, he and Gribbin coordinated the effort. More than two dozen network members pitched in, among them Philadelphia’s Boathouse Sports.

Before March, more than 90 percent of gowns were made in and around China, which went into lockdown because of the virus. Supply chains were shut down, and hospitals had nowhere near the inventory that they needed.

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“The demand for gowns in medical and nonmedical applications on a month-to-month basis is running 10 times what it was a year ago in July because so many people are using them that never used them before,” Gribbin said.

» READ MORE: Medical PPE is still so scarce after months of COVID-19, volunteers keep hunting for lifesaving supplies

Doctor’s offices, dental and ophthalmologist practices, police departments and rescue workers all need gowns, often for the first time. And hospitals need many more gowns than ever.

“We just learned that FEMA wants 263 million gowns in the next six months when their original estimate had been 110 million,” Gribbin said.

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Gribbin thinks he can work with three facilities in California, Cambodia and Colombia to start on that order with 20 million gowns.

But even as supply chains from China reopen, he said, it’s clear that demand for products made in North and South America is high.

Made in the Americas is preferred. “There is a huge distrust of importing product from China,” Gribbin said. “Add that to the current trade tensions we have with China and the fact that at any given moment the administration could pull the plug and say the border is shut.”

“Everyone is a little skittish. We don’t want to be as reliant on China for production as we have in the past,” he said. “We want to build a permanent supply chain here.”

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» READ MORE: A PPE fee at the dentist? New requirements could raise prices for patients.

Last month, the Trump administration made a change that could boost that effort. It moved gown purchasing from FEMA to the Defense Logistics Agency, which is part of the Department of Defense and gives preference to certain domestic products under what is known as the Berry Amendment.

“There is a lot of talk in Congress now, with bipartisan support, for extending the Berry Amendment to include critical medical supplies so they would have to be sourced in the U.S.,” Gribbin said. “It will not affect hospital systems, but it would affect the federal government and the way they buy and possibly state governments in buying PPE.”

As it is, the Department of Defense realized the United States does not have the capacity to produce 263 million gowns domestically, Gribbin said. Because of that, it broke the procurement into three tranches: anyone who could submit an American solution will get considered first, anyone from a country where the U.S. has a trade agreement is next, and then comes anywhere else such as China.

But there’s much more to Gribbin’s task even than sourcing an enormous number of gowns. He must also get the right kind of gowns, ranging from those that are simply resistant to liquid, all the way to gowns with a laminate polyethylene coating impervious to even viral matter. The highest-grade gowns have to be FDA approved.

Then there are disposable vs. reusable gowns. When Gribbin worked in the uniform industry in the 1980s and ’90s, the majority of gowns were reusable, and hospitals had laundry services. Then disposable gowns became popular for their convenience and cost — about $1 to make. But they get used once and go to a landfill along with medical waste. “Hospitals are now starting to ask for washable gowns, which will last longer and are better for the environment,” he said.

» READ MORE: The factory that makes the Phillies’ uniforms reopened to make free masks and gowns to fight coronavirus

Demand for gowns shows no sign of slacking off, given enhanced safety protocols and uncertainty over the virus.

“We think there will be long-term work with state agencies, health-care systems who will all want domestic product. I believe 20% to 30% of medical product will be made in the USA or in this hemisphere. Just last week, the Air Force was on one group call requesting white papers from any interested party on what a government investment might look like in expanding domestic capacity to make more critical health-care supplies with the government as a financial partner with industry to make that happen.”

Some AAPN members are getting back to what they made before they switched to PPE and others are surfing the discussion board, still looking for opportunities in this tumultuous time. Gribbin takes pride in the network’s response. “The level of generosity, the sharing of information and resources, even with competitors, just made me feel really good about being in the industry.”