In Haiti, Making Social Sustainability Essential to Apparel Factory Life

5/12/2014
Threads 4 Thought, Boxercraft, Arcade Fire and OSP Group are just a few of the customers placing production with Industrial Revolution II (IRII), and if you asked them why they chose the Port-au-Prince, Haiti-based apparel factory, they'd surely point to its high quality knit tops and bottoms, competitive pricing and proximity to North American markets, but there's another reason these companies are drawn to IRII: because of its social mission.

IRII was born in part out of frustration with the failure of traditional aid programs to deliver relief following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, says co-founder and CEO Rob Broggi, but the seeds of it had been planted five years previously, when CEO of Diesel Canada Joey Adler ? already working in Haiti with the non-profit organization ONEXONE — was traveling in Africa and realized that philanthropy alone was not sustainable as a means of moving the continent forward. A visit to a fully automated, state-of-the-art, vertical apparel factory in Rwanda gave her the idea for IRII.  "Basically, I realized that … we were the industry that put tens of millions of people to work in the poorest areas of the world," says Adler. "We were not really being called to action. If we simply saw the opportunity ... to invest back [into those regions] where we derived so much value … in sustainable, human ways that promote dignity — well, that was the epiphany."

In the vein of companies such as TOMS ? which gives away one pair of shoes to those in need for every pair it sells — IRII is focusing on changing the approach to profitability by making social advancement as much a focus of its business as delivering high quality products and services. That "2" in the name? "It signifies … a revolution where the benefits of such a large and profitable industry accrue to all participants in the sector's success, not just a few at the top of the chain," he says.

To that end, IRII provides extensive training for unemployed Haitians to gain a variety of sewing skills so that they can become valuable and productive employees at the 35-000-square-foot factory, which is stocked with top-of-the-line sewing equipment and even a cutting-edge digital garment printer from Kormit Digital. Workers ? most of whom have never before had formal employment —are paid above minimum wage, with the ability to earn significantly more based on productivity and quality goals. The factory, which has the capacity to produce up to 5 million units annually, is modern and safe, says Broggi, with an on-site clinic that staffs a full-time doctor. "We believe our factory sets a new standard, and we hope our leading example will raise the bar for working conditions across the industry," he adds.

Everyone involved in IRII ? which is backed by investors including Adler; Richard Coles, an apparel manufacturer with multiple factories in the Caribbean; actor Matt Damon; and fashion icon Donna Karan — was involved in humanitarian and philanthropic work in Haiti prior to starting the garment factory, says Broggi.

"We all felt that we could approach the funding of important social and environmental projects by creating a competitive and thriving business which would invest a significant percent of its profits into these community programs, investing back into the place from where we are deriving economic benefits." IRII's mission is to donate 50 percent of profits to its workers, their families and the local community. While not yet profitable ? the factory just opened in September — program partners are already lined up in the areas of healthcare, education and vocational training.

IRII's goal is to grow to six times its current size, attracting a cluster of associated businesses to the region, and from there expanding into vertically related new businesses, such as textile mills. With that goal in mind, it has invested in architectural and engineering plans for a greenfield factory in Croix-de-Bouquets, Haiti, which will be LEED-certified and will use solar and wind power to achieve full energy independence. Ultimately, IRII hopes to serve as the center of economic growth within Haiti, developing a clothing line to be sold directly to the public, as well as "franchising" the business model to other geographic regions.

"For us, this project comes from our soul. It is a profound passion and so important for us. … We are trying to change an industry with love, not by highlighting the negatives but rather promoting [its] great potential," says Adler. "The only way we can change the world and rid it of abject poverty is to put people to work."


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