As brands and retailers, caught in a global supply chain squeeze, scrutinize their supply chains and explore new strategies based on onshoring and nearshoring, North Carolina textile companies like Contempora Fabrics are beginning to see rising demand for sustainable, American-made textiles.
Based in Lumberton, N.C., Contempora is a manufacturer of circular knits specializing in both coarse and fine gauge knits predominantly for the fashion apparel, performance sportswear and workwear markets.
Contempora was founded in 1972 by Lacy C. Nance to produce fine gauge interlock and single knit fabrics. In 1984, 40 percent of the company was purchased through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) and the company became 100 percent ESOP in 1988.
Today, Contempora Fabrics operates 175 machines in a 150,000 square foot facility on 29 acres and is known for a versatile product mix and capacity to manufacture approximately 2 million pounds of fabric each month.
On a weekly basis, Contempora produces 450,000 pounds of fabric, 80 percent of which is polyester and 20 percent of which is cotton blend.
Its knit fabric production is heavily concentrated in the team sports and performance markets and is used in a wide variety of products, ranging from jersey knit T-shirts to mesh fabrics in uniforms used in the MLB and NBA, to heavy weight fleeces.
Contempora works with several well-known performance gear, workwear and apparel companies.
Contempora President Ron Roach says apparel accounts for 90 percent of the company’s polyester knit fabric business, but he says the company is expanding its business into new markets, including industrial and automotive and potentially furniture.
As the company continues to deepen its product offerings, the demand for American-made, environmentally friendly fibers, yarns, fabrics and apparel continues to rise.
Sustainability is in Contempora’s DNA
Contempora has reached an impressive sustainable milestone. To date, the company has prevented 63 million plastic bottles from going to landfills by purchasing and using recycled fibers from Unifi Inc.’s REPREVE® brand, says Hannah Rich, product development engineer at Contempora.
She says that customers are seeking to switch more from virgin polyester yarns to recycled yarns though the cost differential is still a barrier.
Of the 450,000 pounds produced each week, 50,000 pounds contains recycled poly yarns and 200,000 pounds uses 100 percent virgin poly.
Recycled poly is 15-20 percent more expensive than virgin polyester, she notes.
In addition to rising customer demand for recycled products, Contempora has invested in reducing its own environmental footprint, says Contempora President Ron Roach.
“We’ve spent the last 10 years updating all of our lighting systems so that they use less wattage and we have spent a tremendous amount of money in the last five to six years on new equipment that uses less electricity,” stresses.
For the year to date, Contempora has recycled over 123,000 pounds of cardboard, more than 257,000 pounds of cardboard yarn cones and over 13,000 pounds of plastic, for a total of over 394,000 pounds, or 197,000 tons.
“The incredible advantage of using a sustainable product line is that it is all very traceable. We can verify everything. We can trace our product all the way back to the beginning to ensure that it was produced in the sustainable way we are claiming,” he says.
Roach says he hopes brands and retailers appreciate the investment in sustainable practices as well as the resiliency of the supply chain in the face of a major shock like that of the COVID-19 pandemic and shift more sourcing to the United States and the Western Hemisphere, the textile industry’s largest export market.
“We are definitely hoping that retailer and brands are coming to the conclusion that most of us have known for a long time—the cheapest price is not necessarily the best cost in the long run,” Roach notes.
“With the severe shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) that we saw during the onset of the COVID pandemic, we learned how our dependence on Asia really hurt this country. The U.S. textile industry’s response was heart felt and really demonstrated our industry’s ability to come together and help solve the PPE shortages.”
Business for U.S. knit suppliers has been strong, Roach notes, despite the fact that most of the apparel manufacturing base moved offshore decades ago.
But there has been an upheaval in the global supply chain that companies are watching closely.
A confluence of events, including the supply chain crisis associated with the pandemic, Section 301 tariffs imposed on finished apparel and textile imports from China and a U.S. ban on cotton and cotton products from the Xinjiang region of China linked to the use of forced labor of Uyghur minorities, has led to a shift in global sourcing.
While Roach notes that he has not seen a rush to onshore on the part of retailers and brands, he says there have been numerous conversations “about putting up facilities in the U.S. and we are anxious to see where that goes.”
He pointed to a new program that Contempora is staring with a major apparel brand that will be made strictly in the U.S.
Additionally, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, continues to explore U.S. suppliers and recently participated in the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network (AAPN) Carolina Mill Tour in October. Contempora was one of the four stops, a reported by eTextileCommunications.
This year, Walmart announced a $350 billion Made in USA Lighthouse initiative aimed at strengthening its commitment to U.S. jobs and communities. The 10-year project aims to help identify and overcome top-down barriers to U.S. production.
“I am very encouraged by the Walmart Carolina tour It went well and we are anxious to see where it goes,” Roach notes. “I think it is a very good sign when you have the largest retailer in the country look at making a commitment and I hope that others will also take that same look.”
Roach says that he expects the Western hemisphere to be a “big, big play” in the coming months.
Central America is Contempora’s largest export market, accounting for 80 percent of the company’s exports.
According to recent trade data, the Western Hemisphere marked a dramatic rebound in the first half of 2021, driving a 50 percent surge in U.S. apparel imports, as global sourcing shifts and pressure on China forced retailers and brands to continue diversifying and consider nearshoring more production to take advantage of the benefits of our free trade agreements (FTAs) in the region.
For the year to date through September, apparel imports from the Western Hemisphere (largely comprised of U.S. textile components) jumped 43 percent to $10.3 billion compared with the year-ago period, according to new data from the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA).
Roach notes that he expects to see the Western Hemisphere gain the most from sourcing shifts by retailers and brands, a key reason why he says maintaining strong textile rules in the U.S. free trade agreement with Central America is critical.
“I know there is a lot of talk about reopening CAFTA-DR (the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement) but that would be a complete disaster,” he adds. “The yarn forward rule has helped maintain business and a strong coproduction chain with Central America, and the administration supports the status quo and is not looking to reopening it, based on reports from a recent roundtable.”
Labor Shortage Challenge
As is the case with all industry sectors across the U.S., the textile industry has been struggling with severe labor shortages that have idled some capacity and led to lost business opportunities.
But the business is there, Roach stresses.
“In today’s world, everyone is busy, whether on the yarn side, the fabric mill side or the apparel side,” Roach says. “The biggest problem we are all having up and down the supply chain are these labor shortages.”
He notes it affects the entire domestic supply chain from getting raw materials for production to shipping fabrics to dye houses.
“The key is trying to tap into what today’s workers are looking for,” Roach notes. “I don’t think we will ever go back to the days before pre-COVID. We have to work together to figure out what happened and then find ways to address this. The person who figures that out will be the winner.”
Roach is trying one new strategy. In addition to taking the usual steps to hire and retain workers, he says he has applied to the HB-2 Visa program and is trying to hire 20-30 workers from El Salvador on 10-month work visas, though the process has taken longer than he anticipated.
“There is enough business in the U.S. We just have to figure out how to get enough employees to run it,” Roach notes.