Printful, Custom Ink, and other major print manufacturers all utilize Next Level Apparel. Country music artists and at least one major competitor in my industry named Grunt Style also utilize this supplier as a source of blanks sold to you the end consumer. In fact, if you purchased products for your kids school or church’s spirit gear you may have bought products made by Next Level Apparel. In this industry, the demand for economic blank goods is in the hundreds of millions of units and billions of dollars annually. As a responsible Veteran Owned and Operated brand, I feel trust is earned and set out to validate that my suppliers did not utilize banned cotton that originated from Xinjiang, China. . Never in my wildest dreams would I think that Next Level Apparel’s shirts that had a label stating Made in Nicaragua would have cotton isotopes consistent with the Xinjiang region of China where it is presumed that the cotton was picked by Uyghur Muslims imprisoned for the mere fact they were born Muslims. But this is what happened.
When I reached out to Randy Hales, Next Level Apparel’s CEO, the response came from Next Level Apparel’s lawyers and was extremely hostile and threatening. As a small service disabled veteran company, I found myself at the intersection of doing the harder right over the easier wrong and relied on the advice of my fellow veterans and entrepreneurs which happened to be against that of legal counsel. Over the past 6 months Nine Line has returned hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product to Next Level and incurred great financial losses associated with doing the right thing but hoped it would set an example for others to follow. At the very least I would think the veteran community would rally around this issue and encourage other companies like Grunt Style to ask their suppliers to validate no more slave cotton was in their existing inventory.
Yet this has not happened and instead the distributors, print houses, and brands that use Next Level Apparel have largely taken no action. Randy Hales has recently told ASI and PPAI that his company is committed to a zero tolerance policy but the actual policy essentially states they “may” terminate relationships with suppliers who have failed Isotopic testing – not that they actually will. They have NOT identified who the supplier was and the only supplier that I saw listed in US Custom importation documentation is YS Garments. Unfortunately YS Garments is Doing Business As Next Level Apparel which leads me to believe they own in part or in full the manufacturing facilities in Nicaragua.
In speaking with individuals in this industry, it is rumored that Next Level has terminated the relationship with it’s supplier but Next Level has still never disclosed:
What was the supplier's name?
This would be helpful to understand who the US Government should add to the banned import list and would help prevent other manufacturers from using the supplier.
What tests have been conducted on the tens of millions of units currently being sold through distributors like Sanmar and S&S Activewear?
My company conducted two random samplings from distributors and both the first and second tests were of different products imported into the US by Next Level in different months. Both tested as being consistent with the Xinjiang region of China. I am not a statistician, but the likelihood that they were the only products consistent with this region out of tens of millions or shirts not tested is extremely low. Next Level claims to have tested its own inventory and fixed the problem but has not disclosed any details of the testing that was done. Of equal importance, I have not heard that Next Level is doing anything to test its products that have already been sold to distributors like the ones that I tested. To be sure, Sanmar or S&S activewear could easily utilize the services of Next Level’s strategic testing partner Oritain. If this has occurred, why not publish the results of a larger sample size and let their customers know the results?
As a member of the veteran community I spent the weekend paying respect to those who are no longer with us this Memorial Day. Over the decade I spent in the most god awful and inhospitable environments I built a bond with the members of my community. We all understood the likelihood of paying the ultimate sacrifice to defend our freedoms. We also understood that the responsibility to continue to honor those heroes does not start and stop over this long weekend. As a Veteran Founded brand we honor those who sacrificed their lives by living an honorable life and setting the example for our children to follow. I could not look at myself in the mirror knowing I am profiting from modern day slavery and have a hard time understanding why a brand like Grunt Style has not demanded more validation for a product that seems to go against the core values our service members laid down their lives to protect.
Actions speak louder than words and the next steps taken by the companies in our industry will set the tone for others to follow. I will always advocate for the harder right and hope the myopic focus on profit does not blind CEOs like those of Grunt Style or Printful to stick their head in the sand and believe what a supplier tells them without seeing the proof. Trust is earned through validation of stated facts. If you refuse to trust but verify, you are part of the problem and the slave trade will continue to prosper.