Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

North Carolina company relies on an extensive Made in America supply chain to make its products.

During his career as a professional race car driver, Joe Fox always found the need for speed. Premium acceleration was left to the mechanics and engineers who provided the cars for his motor sports endeavors.

Now, as founder, CEO and president of the Dirtball clothing line, Fox still seeks the need for speed — but only now he wants to get his products to market as quickly as possible. To do so, he relies on a large supply chain of American manufacturers located in close proximity to Dirtball’s home base of Hickory, N.C.

Fox does not manufacture his 100 percent American-made Dirtball line of clothing. He sources Dirtball products from about 27 different factories throughout the United States, the majority of which are located in Southeastern United States.

Dirtball operates with a staff of only four people, but its manufacturing orders to other apparel manufacturers creates and sustains jobs at these links in his supply chain. He only contracts with companies that produce eco-friendly, Made in America garments.

“A lot of these big companies say it’s too expensive to make it in America. That's a crock." Joe Fox, Dirtball founder, CEO and president

That supply chain is Dirtball’s lifeline.

“When I started this business in 2009, I didn’t know the difference between a knit and a woven,” said Fox. “But for the last eight years, I’ve been able to find the mills, manufacturers and suppliers that specialize in certain items. I try to keep everybody in their wheelhouse rather than me trying to manufacture all these different items of clothing myself.

“For example, we might buy our yarn from a company in Lumberton (North Carolina), fabrics from a company in Lincolnton (North Carolina) and then get it finished in Andrews, South Carolina or Kentucky. Everybody specializes, so we’ll send jeans to one mill, chinos to another mill, polos to another mill, T-shirts to a different guy and police jackets to another different guy. We’re not manufacturing, but we keep people working and keep it American-made and eco-friendly. This allows us quicker time to market and we don’t have to worry about one particular cut and sew going belly up and hurting our whole company. It allows us to have proper quality of product and a variety of product we can quickly market to consumers.”

A large part of Dirtball's eco-friendly commitment comes from the use of recycled water bottles that make up a portion of many of the garments he sells. Recycled water bottles are ground into a flake material and then melted into a pellet. The pellets are then melted again in a large vat. The liquid is then pushed through a machine that resembles a large spaghetti strainer where it transforms into polyester fiber that can be used in textile manufacturing.

“It used to be where you would use a recycled poly fiber for tote bins or carpet, but they kept refining it and refining it and figured out how to get it thin enough to where they can now spin it into a yarn that can be used for clothing,” Fox said.

It is estimated by the Container Recycling Institute that 2 million plastic water bottles are used in the U.S. every 10 minutes, and that nearly 22 billion plastic bottles go into U.S. landfills every year.

Each Dirtball T-shirt is composed of seven 16-ounce recycled water bottles and its “Dirt Short” is made with the use of 25 16-ounce plastic bottles. For every 100,000 T-shirts Dirtball produces, it keeps 700,000 water bottles out of landfills, 400 tons of carbon emissions out of the air, 500 barrels of oil saved and creates five manufacturing jobs, according to Fox.

Fox, a 45-year-old North Carolina native, takes pride in his sustainable product clothing line and how he keeps it all American-made.

“The majority of our mills are within 100 miles of our headquarters,” he said. “Generally, the total distance our T-shirts travel from yarn to finished goods is from 140 to 360 miles total travel across our product range. We reduce our carbon footprint this way. Think about the waste sourcing goods from China, India or Central America. The footprint would be 15 times larger than ours. It would also take much longer to get to market and the quality would not be the same.”

Among the many clothing items bearing the Dirtball label are T-shirts, shorts, chinos, polo shirts, jackets, sweat shirts, hoodies, sweaters, socks and hats. All components, except for small amounts of recycled cotton and polyester, are American-made down to the zippers made by YKK in Macon, Ga., and buttons manufactured by Scovill in Clarksville, Ga. Recycled cotton is made from scrap material gathered at cut-and-sew operations, but it is no longer available in substantial quantities in the United States.

So how did Fox — a former professional race car driver who raced on the Grand Am circuit, American Le Mans Series and even started a handful of races in NASCAR Busch Nationwide Series for Porsche — get involved in the apparel business?

“I had the opportunity to either start Dirtball or buy Bud Baker Racing School and I chose to start Dirtball,” said Fox. “During that time in 2008 and 2009, I just sat here in Hickory and watched the sky fall in almost like overnight. Just layoff after layoff with companies closing or moving. We went from like 4 percent unemployment to 15 percent unemployment. We were one of the highest places in the nation in unemployment losing all the furniture and textile jobs.

“It was big-time unemployment, so I decided I was going to try and do something about it and I started Dirtball as a 100 percent, made-in-USA, eco-friendly apparel brand.”

Dirtball has no retail outlets, and Fox barely calls it a wholesaler.

“We’re a brand first and foremost,” he said. “On top of that we are a converter. We leverage our supply chain. We sell many of our products under the Dirtball brand but I don’t care if our product is labeled by somebody else like Mosquito Authority, Keep America Beautiful, Google or Widespread Panic (the jam band) or any of these other companies and organizations we’ve done business with, as long as somebody is getting a T-shirt or a jacket we facilitate that is American-made and eco-friendly. Other brands that want things done but can’t get it manufactured come to us because we already have the supply chain," he said.

“We get asked every now and then ‘who does this for you?’ but we won’t tell anybody about our supply chain because that’s our intellectual property," he said. "If people knew that, then there would be a bunch of other Dirtballs running around in the apparel business. There is not a lot of people in this space.”

Dirtball’s clothing is knitted, dyed, finished and assembled in America. He contacted the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to make sure he could flaunt the Made in USA slogan.

“I just sat here in Hickory and watched the sky fall in almost like overnight... It was big-time unemployment, so I decided I was going to try and do something about it and I started Dirtball as a 100 percent, made-in-USA, eco-friendly apparel brand.” Joe Fox, Dirtball Founder, CEO and President

“A lot of these big companies say it’s too expensive to make it in America,” Fox said. “That’s a crock. What they don’t realize is they run from a different business model. If you ran a Sigma Six-style business model, you can make it here in the United States all day long. It’s lean manufacturing. That’s why you see Macy’s running sales. They are going to get only about one quarter of their inventory sold through full retail. And then the discounts start showing up at 25 percent, 30 percent, 70 percent because they are trying to eliminate the rest of that inventory and they are lucky if they end up with a 50 percent margin. I can achieve that same 50 percent margin in a shorter time because I don’t have to depreciate my goods. I didn’t run 10,000 units. I ran only 1,000.”

Being able to produce smaller production runs of apparel items allows Dirtball to lower inventory and keep products in the supply chain before delivery.

“When we do 3,000 or 5,000 unit runs, that is pretty much in everybody’s sweet spot,” added Fox. “So it hits where they need to be whether it’s two weeks or a month of production, it keeps everybody full staffed. When we hit those sweet spots on a regular basis, and you do that for six or seven years, you climb up on the food chain ladder just because you’ve been in business for that long. You develop a good relationship with your suppliers.”

As for the name Dirtball, the moniker was born after a friend gave him a hat that an ex-girlfriend had made him with Dirtball emblazoned on the front. His friend said, “here Fox, you’re a bigger Dirtball than I am” while giving him the hat.

“I just started wearing it,” said Fox. “We were at my last NASCAR Busch race in Mexico City, and a guy I know came up to me on pit row and asked what Dirtball was. And I just said man, that’s going to be my new apparel brand.”

Fox may not have crossed the NASCAR finish line in front of Jeff Gordon, but he is out in front in America’s home-made, environmentally-friendly apparel business.

“If Made in America, Buy American changes just five percent of the country’s purchasing habit, that is billions of dollars that stay in the U.S. economy," Fox said. "It’s a win for everybody.”

To learn more and shop at Dirtball.