FesslerUSA: A Sustainable Vision Embraced

October 20, 2010

By: Kilara Little, Walter Wilhelm Associates

Click on this Photo Gallery link to see photos of FesslerUSA

The American Apparel Producers Network (AAPN) is actually a misnomer. It isn’t just American and it isn’t just apparel manufacturers (although its roots were American apparel contractors), instead the reach of its members is broad and deep from suppliers that produce every component that goes into clothing to the companies that make the final product and members that then ship it to the destinations. As Mike Todaro, Managing Director of the AAPN often points out, the AAPN is actually a supply chain that represents every single component and production step involved in getting a garment designed, developed, made and shipped, from the field or the synthetic materials manufacturer to the consumer.

At its annual meeting, held in Miami Beach a few months ago, the AAPN explored the theme of Sustainability in the apparel supply chain. The response from the members and guests was amazement as members shared what they are doing to reverse some of the environmental abuses of the past and, in many cases, creating a better, safer, work environment for their employees. This is the first in a series of articles that outlines the steps some AAPN members have taken to make their world a better, more sustainable, place for the current and future generations.

FesslerUSA: Background
FesslerUSA started life in 1900 when the current owner’s grandfather got his start Walter Meckknitting undershirts for the US military in the Meck Knitting facilities. Meck Knitting was sold to H.H. Fessler Knitting Co. Inc, in the 1960’s but in 1994 the current generation of the Meck siblings, reacquired Meck Knitting, and H.H.Fessler Knitting Co., Inc., with the goal of continuing to manufacture in the United States. Even though many knitters and apparel manufacturers had moved offshore or closed their doors, unable to compete against low price imports. Today, Walter and Bonnie, along with their son Brian, operate FesslerUSA , which currently employs about 150 people. Bonnie, Chief Operating Officer, who also has the role of Chief Sustainability Officer feels the FesslerUSA employees, over a third of whom have been with the company for over 10 years, are their greatest assets. Consequently, while the company has a comprehensive sustainability program, which includes many initiatives to contribute to improved environmental conditions, caring for its people is the company’s #1 goal. This sentiment is independently verified by Walter Meck - referred to as “The Grand Poo-bah”, as posted on his office door. While the company takes itself very seriously, they also have a calm familiarity with one another and a good sense of humor.

The classic A-shirt style and ribbed fabric sold as undershirts to the US Army by Meck Knitting is still being produced in modern times by FesslerUSA. Except today it is more likely to be worn by a trend focused client in fashion colors, rather than by a soldier shipping out. And, of course, the construction is more of a performance rib in a super soft cotton modal blend. Starting with yarn in one end of the building and finishing with packaged goods in the other end, FesslerUSA has demonstrated flexibility in manufacturing and partnering with their brand and retail clients to react quickly to opportunities in the market. Working with other companies in the area they provide a vertical one-stop shop for knitting, fabric or garment dyeing plus roller and screen-printing services. FesslerUSA also offers custom knit fabric design as well as a library of over 300 unique fabrics, product development and design support services as well as assistance for their clients in developing the ideal blended sourcing strategy to maximize their returns and minimize risks.

Sustainability in Manufacturing
Since reacquiring the company in 1994, the Meck family has constantly sought to improve flexibility in manufacturing in order to improve its competitive position against imports. Efficiency and flexibility have certainly become part of the Sustainability equation. The company’s manufacturing operations used to be in five locations but they consolidated into their current 152,000 square foot space in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania in 2007. The consolidated facility permits them to operate more efficiently and has eliminated transportation costs between facilities, contributing to environmental sustainability.

Second only to the company’s commitment to their employees is their long-term commitment to relationships with their partners (aka “suppliers” in some less forward thinking operations), many of whom are AAPN members. Good supply chain partners are essential to the high quality of their products and this simultaneously serves to reduce the carbon footprint of the products since many of the partners still manufacture in the US.

Buhler Quality Yarns, a Swiss owned company with a US headquarters and manufacturing facilities in Jefferson, GA, is a long-term partner of FesslerUSA. The company spins Supima® cotton yarn known for its softness, much of which is made from cotton grown in California. FesslerUSA also knits fabric with organic cotton, polyester, Modal®, Micro Tencel®, Cashmere Tencel®, Supima Micro Tencel®, and rayon from bamboo yarns.

A truly local partner, Norman Shatz Co USA, is a Pennsylvania based supplier of labels and trims. Asheboro Elastics provides elastics. RadiciSpandex supplies all of the spandex yarn used by FesslerUSA. Avery Dennison, a company with facilities across the US, as well as globally, is a provider of many of the branded labels that FesslerUSA sews into products. Antex Knitting and Swisstex Direct in LA provide some of the fabrics that FesslerUSA doesn’t produce. Testing and performance verification for their fabrics and finished garments has been provided by Bureau Veritas in their Taunton, MA labs. Charles Gilbert Associates, Cotton Incorporated and TC2 have provided consulting expertise.

Many of these suppliers of textile products are global companies. Some were founded in the US, and some opened operations in the US based on demand from their customers. All are providing jobs to “locals” and are essential players in the supply chain and through their “cluster” they help to reduce the carbon footprint of the products manufactured. They collaborate and cooperate because it is good business and they try to be good citizens in being “kind to the world.”

These are just some of the partners that help to make FesslerUSA such a unique and eco-friendly business.

Facility Sustainability
When FesslerUSA consolidated operations, they moved into an older building that previously manufactured magic markers. Pre-renovation, the building was anything but the bright and “magical” place you imagined those markers being made in as a child. Intelligent and efficient renovation strategies, such as dropping energy efficient light fixtures in a windowless hallway and application of highly reflective non-VOC paint half way up the walls (by employee volunteers over a weekend) to meet the level to which the lights were lowered, resulted in a more efficient and well lit hallway. Motion lights turn on when triggered, but even in the “dark” the walls reflect a lot of ambient light. By using non-VOC paint, the hallway required far less ventilation to dry the paint, and no respirators were needed during its application.

Speaking of breathing, it’s an incredibly easy thing to do in FesslerUSA’s knitting rooms. With good temperature and moisture control there is very little airborne fiber. The investment in a couple of Alandale air cleaners and consistent vacuuming leaves little fiber in the air, on lamps or clinging to machinery. More importantly, workers don’t need to wear uncomfortable and stuffy face masks or respirators, making their work days much more pleasant than in many other knitting facilities. Yarn is stored at one end of the knitting area, within easy reach of the machinery. They keep some inventory in stock, but like everyone in the industry are closely watching cotton prices and keeping track of the longer lead times for yarn that have resulted from a mix of “wait and see” tactics from retailers, lean inventories across the supply chain, and speculation in global markets.

To further drive efficiency and lower costs FesslerUSA installed a new HVAC system throughout the building. Part of the justification for this large, and less obvious investment, was to replace the high energy usage and heat exhaustion of the old system. The new system controls the climate more effectively and does it using less energy than the old one. They opted for a distribution system made from plastic tubing with cut out holes over the traditional steel duct work. The duct in the new system distributes air along the full length, versus just in certain output areas. The savings in material cost allows more ductwork to be run into the middle of the large spaces, to more evenly supply conditioned air. The former system was only able to address the perimeter of the large spaces.

FesslerUSA invested in new lighting fixtures that utilize T-5 bulbs throughout the facility. By placing new, more efficient light fixtures in areas, such as over workstations and thoroughfares, quality of light is improved. By using motion sensors, the use of energy is further reduced.
FesslerUSA has been working for 3 years to install a large solar system on its roof which will eventually provide the majority of their electrical power. The funding is in place, but plans were put on hold during the recent recession.

By providing unique and value-add services, FesslerUSA keeps evolving and improving, and is setting the stage for the next generations of Mecks. Too many manufacturing companies are unconcerned about their impacts on the planet, both environmentally and socially. This is obviously not true of FesslerUSA where a lot of thoughtful planning has gone into every aspect of improving their operating efficiency and in simultaneously improving their product’s carbon footprint and the environment for their employees and their “neighbors.”

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