ISAIC: Giving the Fashion Industry a Makeover

by Jennifer Cain

Partner, The Vella Group
Published On: August 23, 2022Categories: Insights, Nonprofit Profiles

The fast fashion craze took off in the late 1990s. Speedier manufacturing and shipping methods combined with a growing demand for affordable, trendy clothing gave rise to a new business model. More and more clothing brands started mass producing low-cost copies of high-fashion designs, moving at breakneck speed to supply retail stores while the trends were still hot. Today, the global fast fashion market totals more than $30 billion.

While fast fashion has made stylish clothing more accessible, it has come at a great cost. To make the concept work, manufacturers rely on cheap labor, often from developing countries, where poorly paid workers churn out garments in sweatshop-like conditions. Today, more than 97% of apparel purchased in the United States is made overseas.

Rapid mass production has also led to wasteful practices that harm the environment. Each year, 50 billion pre-consumer garments end up in landfills – clothing that hasn’t even made it to retail stores. And that doesn’t account for all the trendy outfits worn only once or the discarded tops that didn’t hold up after a few washings.

It’s a wakeup call for the industry, and Detroit’s Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC) is determined to facilitate change!

ISAIC, a nonprofit organization started in 2020, collaborates with soft-goods manufacturers and educational institutions to pilot test advanced technology solutions and train employees to operate and scale those technologies.

The goal? Responsible production of high-quality soft goods using innovative solutions that reduce waste, upskill and empower employees, and return production to the U.S.

A Resource for Advanced Manufacturing 4.0

One look at the ISAIC facility and you see how it’s a model for change. The learning and contract manufacturing center, located above Carhartt’s flagship store in midtown Detroit, features bright, open workspaces filled with natural light and high-tech equipment.

In one area, employees test artificial intelligence (AI) technology to improve quality on knitted caps. A sensor scans a defective cap with exceptional precision. Every time a defect is spotted, the data points captured help the team avoid making that mistake again.

Upcoming pilot programs will focus on two areas designed to increase production efficiencies, reduce environmental impact and reshore manufacturing to the U.S.:

  • 3D knitting
  • Mixed reality systems that combine AI with augmented and virtual reality

But lasting change won’t come with technology advances alone.

People-Centered Approach to Sustainability

ISAIC believes true success stems from a holistic approach to sustainability, one that takes both social and environmental factors into account.

“Sustainability starts with people,” says ISAIC CEO Jen Guarino. “If you call your product sustainable, but it relies on people who don’t have sustainable lives, that’s not sustainable.”

To that end, ISAIC is developing a workforce for the future – highly skilled, empowered workers who enjoy opportunities for well-paid employment and career advancement.

The organization’s training programs, including Fundamentals of Industrial Sewing and Production (FISP), apprenticeships and continuing education, develop a continuous supply of highly skilled workers who can support advanced soft goods manufacturing in southeast Michigan and beyond. Since 2021, ISAIC has completed more than 1,300 hours of instruction and now has a crew of 31 employees. The FISP curriculum now operates in 10 locations across the country.

Equity and inclusion are driving forces in the organization. ISAIC’s training programs have changed the lives of people who might not get these opportunities otherwise. Last year, KT, a returning citizen who began as a sewing specialist and completed the FISP curriculum, was trained to become ISAIC’s line supervisor. Another student, Roni, was formerly homeless. She became ISAIC’s first graduated apprentice and a key member of the team.

As for environmental impact, ISAIC follows a principle of “Progressive Good” where the organization constantly tracks its waste, emissions and materials usage to determine incremental steps towards continuous improvement.

The fashion industry has a long way to go. Change won’t happen overnight, but ISAIC is committed to transforming the industry one partnership, one apprenticeship, one innovation at a time.

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