Next Level Apparel vs. Nine Line Apparel: Their Xinjiang Cotton Controversy, Explained

A veteran-owned clothing brand that discovered Xinjiang cotton in the products of one of its suppliers in January has named the company it accused of “participating in the slave trade.”

Speaking on “Fox and Friends” over the weekend, Tyler Merritt, CEO of Nine Line Apparel, identified the manufacturer as Next Level Apparel, a major wholesale producer of apparel blanks, including T-shirts, tank tops and hoodies.

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Nine Line Apparel routinely conducts isotopic testing on its wares, Meritt explained to the program, because the “relentless patriotic” label wants to ensure that it isn’t using cotton produced by Uyghurs and other persecuted Muslim minorities in the northwestern Chinese province.

“It’s very similar to a DNA test,” he said. “So, it compares isotopes from a region in Xinjiang, China—this is a region where people are forced to work indefinitely for the simple fact of being born a Muslim—so, we test this material, and we’ve identified that Next Level Apparel, doing business as YS Garments, which is…the importer of record…that’s what came back consistent with Xinjiang cotton, not once, but a second time that we tested at a different lot, a different batch from a different distribution center came back as being consistent as well.”

Writing on the Georgia-based company’s blog in February, Merritt said that he didn’t believe the initial test results, which is why he commissioned Oritain to conduct a follow-up. Meritt, a former Apache helicopter pilot in the Army, didn’t name Next Level Apparel at the time. He said he contacted the manufacturer’s CEO to request a meeting, only to have its lawyers threaten litigation if it didn’t keep its name under wraps.

“When I had my lawyers respond with isotopic test results that are admissible in court, the tone changed and excuses came pouring in,” Merritt wrote. He said that he demanded to return all the products at the exact cost he paid and that the goods be destroyed. Nine Line Apparel also cut ties with the supplier until it could guarantee that future tests would not show the presence of “slave cotton.”

“It’s a shame that the American people have been lied to and are not able to trust what a company says,” Merritt wrote. “I have made it my life’s work to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. and if we are unable to enforce the current laws, China will succeed in its blatantly obvious intent to undermine our economy and destabilize our manufacturing capabilities. Nine Line will answer the call to stick up for the Uyghurs and for the workers in our factory right here in Georgia. We will allow our actions to speak louder and will happily call out the hypocrites who advocate against social injustice while profiting hundreds of millions of dollars from the slave trade.”

On “Fox and Friends,” Merritt said that Randy Hales, Next Level Apparel’s CEO, told him that the company has a “zero tolerance policy” for forced labor but didn’t “elaborate really what that means.”

“And that’s what I’m doing here,” he told the program. “You know, their lawyers have hit me up on a weekly, monthly basis telling me to stop testing, telling me…essentially that they’ve got this under control. They’re going to do testing from here on out, and they’re going to self-govern. But that’s unacceptable to me.”

In a statement on its website, Next Level Apparel said it is “fully committed” to ethical and responsible manufacturing.

“We want to thank our customers, suppliers and stakeholders who have supported us in this effort, and we commend those who have also spoken out against forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” the California-based firm wrote.

Next Level Apparel said it requires all suppliers to confirm they are not using materials or labor from Xinjiang, as well as share country of origin certificates to verify the source of their cotton. While the company noted that most suppliers combine cotton from multiple sources worldwide, any attempt to include Xinjiang cotton in this mix will not be tolerated, it said.

Shortly after Nine Line Apparel made its initial announcement, Next Level Apparel said it would be “expediting” its requirement to have all fabric suppliers use 100 percent U.S.-grown cotton for purchase orders placed after Feb. 1, 2023, “well ahead” of its original goal. It also said it had engaged a third-party forensic expert, later revealed to be Oritain, to implement origin testing protocols.

“This is a significant advancement in our commitment to global social responsibility and builds on our aggressive 2020 supply chain traceability priorities,” Hales said at the time. “This move complements NLA’s robust environmental, social and governance initiatives with regard to suppliers who violate our zero-tolerance policy by utilizing forced labor.”

Hales told Sourcing Journal that the company’s discussions with Oritain, as well as its plans to use only 100 percent U.S.-grown cotton, preceded Merritt’s findings, but that it had produced the merchandise in question before the partnership was in place. Besides terminating its relationship with the vendor responsible for the Xinjiang cotton, it has pursued partnerships to nearshore much of its fabric production in Latin America and the Caribbean, he said.

“When Nine Line raised concerns, we took timely action to address them and protect the integrity of our products,” Hales said. “We offered the company the opportunity to return its inventory and subsequently quarantined it. We conducted our own testing, discovered a very small amount of our fabric inventory tested positive and quarantined that inventory. We all know the existence of banned cotton has challenged our industry to improve and adapt, and NLA will continue to take the necessary steps as our industry works toward resolving the issue across the supply chain.”

The Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, which went into effect a year ago, requires Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to apply a rebuttable presumption that all goods made in whole or in part using inputs from Xinjiang are prohibited from importation into the United States under Section 307 of the 1930 Tariff Act unless there is clear and convincing evidence that forced labor wasn’t involved in their production.

According to statistics on a newly released dashboard, CBP has detained nearly 680 apparel, footwear and textile shipments, valued at $30 million, since June. Of these, more than 290, valued at $3 million, were ultimately denied entry.

Still, Merritt criticized the federal government’s enforcement as “paltry at best.”

“Some of the largest manufacturers are still utilizing forced labor to ensure hefty profit margins,” he wrote on his website in February. “Since the current administration isn’t enforcing the UFLPA, we at Nine Line took matters into our own hands. We set out to test our manufacturers both out of an abundance of caution and a bit out of curiosity. If our business were to knowingly cheat the system by importing illegal goods by failing to mention they originated from Xinjiang, I would imagine my days in the industry would be numbered.”

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