After Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti shut down all nonessential businesses in March, many apparel manufacturers circumvented his Safer at Home order by pivoting to making personal protection equipment.
For some, the move not only helped keep their lights on but also inspired new business endeavors.
That included Scott Wilson and his apparel company, Tour Image Inc., which does business as UStrive Manufacturing.
UStrive’s mask and isolation gown manufacturing deal for a major hospital chain prompted Wilson to design reusable products in hopes of reducing the waste inherent to the medical supply industry — something he hadn’t given much thought to prior to the pandemic.
“Our whole mission in life is making organic, sustainable clothing that’s good for the planet, the environment and people,” Wilson said. “Medical products are the opposite of that. Everything is for single-use only. … Medical staff are wearing things literally sometimes five minutes — they walk in a room, see a patient, walk out, take it off, it goes in the trash, and that contaminated PVC gown is going to be in the earth for 250 to 1,000 years before it breaks down.
“This goes completely against everything I stand for. … We’ve been developing an isolation gown that can be washed a minimum of 10 times and then be relabeled as a Level One isolation gown and be washed for at least another 10 times.”
Wilson, an apparel industry veteran, partnered with several former vendors in 2018 to set up UStrive to produce organic, sustainably made garments.
UStrive is comprised of Tour Image, a company Wilson founded in 1990 that focuses on product design, and private-label apparel sewing facility Jin Clothing Inc., both in Boyle Heights.
UStrive also includes South Gate-based Care-Tex Industries, a full-service dye and finishing facility that uses organic dyes, and S&B Printing Inc. in Florence that specializes in nontoxic, water-based printing and embroidery using organic thread.
In November, UStrive secured certifications from the Global Organic Textile Standard and Textile Exchange’s Organic Content Standard, a differentiator when it comes to wooing eco-conscious brands.
“Each one of us has to play a role for the other to succeed,” Wilson said, adding that GOTS certification required “resources, time and commitment, which is not something that a vendor relationship would work with.”
Wilson and his partners turned to their existing client base and were in the product development stage with several apparel brands when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
“We were shut down for about a week, and I was starting to wonder if this lasts a long time, we could possibly be out of business, and we’ll lose all our employees,” Wilson said.
Then Kaiser Permanente called, looking for factories with well-controlled manufacturing processes. UStrive was ready. Its certifications helped with obtaining Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
According to the FDA, that allowed “unapproved medical products or unapproved uses of approved medical products to be used in an emergency to diagnose, treat or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions … when there are no adequate, approved and available alternatives.”
UStrive now has 350 workers — up from 100 in March — and has produced some 1.5 million masks and nearly 500,000 gowns.
The masks, used for nonmedical applications, feature a cotton jersey inner layer and a woven outer layer of poplin fabric.
The nylon isolation gowns, used for Level 3 or moderate-risk situations, contain an RFID chip that will track how many times the gown has been washed. Once it reaches the 10th wash cycle, the chip will alert the staff to downgrade use to basic care for another 10 wash cycles.
“After 20 washings, the chip tells you that the gown needs to be disposed of,” Wilson said. “So, you’ve just taken it down from five minutes to one month of use. And when it does get thrown out and disposed of, it will be even less harmful to the environment.”
Bet on isolation gowns
The market is getting saturated with masks he said, but his bet is still on the isolation gowns.
“You need those for everyday surgeries, for everyday hospital operations,” Wilson said.
Obtaining a full FDA license to produce Level 4 isolation gowns — those used in high-risk situations and which provide resistance to pathogens and liquids — will “cost a lot of money and a lot of time and effort, but we’re committed to doing it,” he said.
“I’m hoping that with washable gowns, we will do what we’ve done in the apparel industry. We will change the medical industry to become more sustainable. That’s our goal.”
Wilson declined to disclose the company’s revenue or the total value of the PPE-related contracts UStrive has won to date.
UStrive’s website lists wholesale prices for masks. At $3.27 a piece for 1.5 million masks, UStrive netted close to $5 million from April to June, according to a Business Journal estimate.