Sunday, March 25, 2012

Enivironmentally friendly North Carolina apparel company staffs factory with blind employees

From The NY Times. In the picture, Anastasia Powell sewed T-shirts at Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind in North Carolina.

When Chris Yura, chief executive of the apparel company SustainU, was looking for a factory to produce 24,000 T-shirts, it was important that it be within 200 miles of where the fabric was made.

SustainU, based in Morgantown, W.Va., uses all-recycled materials to make clothing for colleges and universities. As its name indicates, it is committed to “social, economic and environmental sustainability,” Mr. Yura says. Lighter transportation demands would mean more environmental benefits and a faster turnaround time, not to mention reduced shipping costs.

The company found a factory in Winston-Salem, N.C., that seemed a logical choice. But it was no ordinary factory. Owned and operated by Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind, the factory has a work force that is blind or otherwise visually impaired.

To many, this may have been a deterrent, or at least raised doubts. “Even though you have the Americans With Disabilities Act, it’s still a challenge because people who are not familiar with the blind have misperceptions about what they can or can’t do, and it affects their decision to give people a chance,” said Kevin A. Lynch, chief executive of the nonprofit National Industries for the Blind.

The unemployment rate for blind adults of working age is nearly 70 percent — a number that has been stagnant for 30 years, Mr. Lynch said.

There may be a notion that hiring blind workers — or any disabled worker, for that matter — means spending more time, money and resources on training and equipment. But Mr. Yura said he found that there ultimately was no difference in either cost or quality between working with the Winston-Salem agency, an affiliate of the national group, and any other domestic manufacturer.

When blind people contact the agency, they often have very little work experience. They are trained to complete specific tasks and are set up with adaptive equipment to help them do their jobs. If they are making eyeglass lenses, for example, audio alerts let them know when the lenses have spent enough time in a fining, or polishing, machine. Or if they are assembling parachutes, tactile measurement guides, in the form of long wooden rails, help make sure that the lengths of ropes are all equal.

The training offers practical skills and an opportunity for upward mobility through certification classes. Workers with no experience receive minimum wage, while those with some experience are paid in line with workers doing similar jobs at other area factories, said Jeanne Wilkinson, vice president for business strategies at the Winston-Salem agency.

Anastasia Powell, a mother of three daughters who has been with the agency seven years, works in the factory’s T-shirt unit. Her job is to sew together shoulder seams. She received four months of training, and her sewing machine is specifically designed for her. A four- to six-inch metal strip is attached to the machine’s foot — where the needle contacts the fabric — to help line up the material.

“I gather my material at the corner, under my foot— the foot secures the material — and line up the guide,” Ms. Powell said. “The guide helps me make sure the seam is straight, and helps me cut off an accurate amount of material. After that, I complete the process on the second side of the shirt and send it over to the next operation.”

Ms. Powell, who has been completely blind since the age of 21, called the alteration to her machine “very minor.”

“The only difference between me and a sighted person is just that four- to six-inch strip of metal,” she said. “Nothing else had to be added.”

THE federal government has long known about the effectiveness of a blind work force. The National Industries for the Blind was established in 1938 as a result of a law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that required federal agencies to buy supplies made by blind workers.

Ever since, the group and its agencies have been making products as varied as brooms and mattresses for the government and military. (In addition to clothing, the Winston-Salem agency produces eyeglasses for veterans and parachutes for soldiers in Afghanistan.)

But with the gradual withdrawal of American forces from war zones and the overall downsizing of the military, the national group hoped to do more business with private-sector companies in the future, Mr. Lynch said.

“I think there’s a growing interest out there in the general public for social responsibility, and I think that’s translating over to corporate responsibility,” he said. “There is also a real interest for things made in America.”

Showing that high-quality products can be made in America by people who are blind is a major selling point, he said.

Mr. Yura, who is already lining up another job with the Winston-Salem agency, is happy to endorse this message. And as for how those 24,000 T-shirts turned out? “You would never know whether the person who made the garment had full vision capability or not. It all looks the same. It’s the same product at the end of the day.”