From cotton picking to textile nanotechnology, Singtex Industrial Co (興采實業) founder Jason Chen (陳國欽) has seen it all. From a family of three generations of textile makers, Chen’s ultimate goal is to “revolutionize the way people think about fabrics.”
“We’re doing this one step at a time, starting with public awareness on the need to protect the environment through its purchasing habits. Slowly but surely, we’re pushing them toward high quality, value-added and eco-friendly apparel,” Chen said in a recent interview with the Taipei Times.
Earlier this month, Singtex announced its latest invention — the S.Cafe, which weaves waste coffee grounds into interlaced fibers to create textiles that offer fast drying properties, ultraviolet shielding and odor control.
With four core technologies and more than 30 patents constituting the bulk of its business operations, the Sinjhuang, Taipei County-based company is now among the leading functional textile suppliers in Taiwan and is spearheading the high-end textiles with organic components business.
Singtex also manufactures ready-made garments for global brands and runs a textile-testing lab to certify fabrics made by international suppliers. Last year, the firm grossed NT$650 million (US$19.73 million) in revenue with a gross margin of more than 25 percent.
But success wasn’t immediate. In 1989, Chen and his wife moved from Changhwa County to Taipei to start their business. They had little money and were propelled only by strong entrepreneurial spirit and Chen’s just-obtained degree in textile engineering from the Oriental Institute of Technology in Taipei.
“The first four years were rocky. We didn’t know if we were going to sink or float. Through perseverance, attention to quality and a few loyal clients, however, our small business started growing,” Chen said.
Before 1994, Singtex was just like dozens of other domestic textile contract makers, whose business relied primarily on producing for large US retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Kmart Corp. Facing cutthroat price competition from India, Chen also went the low-cost route and spent three years in China to replicate his business using cheaper labor there.
With other companies facing a similar challenge, Taiwanese textile contract makers relocated en masse to China.
“In the early 1990s, it was the ready-to-wear makers who first left the country. However, at the time, they were still buying fabrics from Taiwan to make garments,” Frank Hsu (許文正), deputy secretary general of the Taiwan Textile Federation (TTF, 台灣紡拓會), said by telephone.
Over time, downstream apparel manufacturers decided to relocate textile factories to China as well, to reduce costs and transportation. “About 90 percent of companies in both sectors left Taiwan — and to this day, there is no sign they’re considering coming back,” Hsu said.
Hsu has observed first-hand the growing capacity of Taiwanese firms in China over the years.
“It’s not just double-digit growth, but triple-digit growth,” he said.
Aside from China, Vietnam and Cambodia are also popular destinations for manufacturing, he said.
Singtex, however, had a completely different experience in China. The technical fabric company did not benefit from inexpensive manpower and instead suffered from poorly made products by Chinese workers who were not trained properly and did not abide by the same quality standards.