By Salena Zito
SAVANNAH, Georgia -- Tyler Merritt has questions.
Ten years ago, the 39-year-old West Point graduate launched his apparel company, Nine Line, out of his garage. Named after the military code word for getting wounded soldiers off the battlefield, the company now runs the booming business out of a 60,000-square-foot facility here in Georgia.
They produce a complete range of punchy patriotic apparel while employing more than 200 people, mostly veterans and their spouses, in suburban Savannah.
On this day, Merritt is standing outside of the Nine Line storefront, which is adjacent to a Black Rifle Coffee shop, along the cobblestoned River Street in historic downtown Savannah. He has his rescue dog, Red, on his leash and doing the right thing on his mind.
Merritt says he has never shied away from service, patriotism and doing the right thing: "These things are at the heart of why we do our business and how I do business with others."
But he wonders: From where does the cotton for his shirts come? His company uses the fabric on his clothing line, whose shirts bear slogans such as "Land of the Free Because of the Brave" and "Faith, Family, Friends, Flag and Firearms."
For him, it had to be ethically sourced -- in short, not from any supplier who was part of the slave labor trade in the Xinjiang region of China. This is nonnegotiable for Merritt and his brand. To ensure he maintains these standards, he goes above and beyond what most retailers do, and he conducts isotopic testing -- basically a DNA test on fabric to detect the unique fingerprint of the country of origin.
That's when things went south. Merritt discovered one of his suppliers had been using cotton from Xinjiang, so he made a phone call.
"I said, 'Hey, I'm a customer of yours. Can we talk about this?'" Merritt, who was a helicopter platoon leader for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment known as the Night Stalkers, said.
Soon after that first phone call, Merritt said he started to get legal notices from "very, very powerful law firms," which he said initially gave him pause, then ultimately motivated him to continue to press for information.
"I've never been one to back down. So it was, I believe, a very poor strategic move on the count of Next Level Apparel, which is the entity that was tested through the boxes that we received into our facility from our distributor S&S Activewear. The carton label stated the importer of record was YS Garments, and after a simple Google search, I discovered YS Garments is doing business as Next Level Apparel. When I received test results back from these samples tested, it stated the Next Level DBA YS Garments products were consistent with Xinjiang cotton," he said.
Merritt said he even spoke to the CEO of Next Level privately about the issue. "Eventually, I ended up speaking to lawyers over the next several months," he said. "In the end, I asked one very specific question that would never be answered directly: 'If you have suspected product that is either coming to this country illegally or at the very least unethically, do you plan on quarantining it and testing it? And if it comes back as consistent with Xinjiang cotton, will you inform your customers and return it to whoever you purchased it from?'"
The Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China is where a lot of the cotton used worldwide originates. The Chinese Communist Party has populated this region with forced labor and "reeducation" camps meant to nullify this historic minority.
"If you are a company buying cotton for your fabrics in this region, it gives you an unfair, illegal advantage because you are paying less than your competitors," explained Merritt.
Next Level Apparel posted a statement on its retail page regarding concerns about reports of forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that read in part:
"Next Level Apparel takes very seriously any reports about forced labor and we have been engaging with multi-stakeholder working groups to assess collective solutions that will help preserve the integrity of our global supply chains. We will continue to collaborate with industry associations ... to understand, evaluate and address this critical global issue."
Merritt remains skeptical: "After months of discussions, I've been able to return all of my products that I purchased from them. They have assured me it was quarantined and will not be put back into circulation, but there are lingering questions that need to be answered."
"Their 'Zero Tolerance Policy' states they would terminate any relationships with vendors who utilize unethical sourcing such as slave cotton from Xinjiang. I want to know if they have done that yet. It is incumbent on them to identify who is in their supply chain that is causing this to occur," he said.
A call to Next Level Apparel was not returned by deadline.
For the average consumer -- or even church groups, youth sports organizations or local event planners -- fraud in the textile industry is easy to mask. "If you're selling at a convention center, if you're selling to a church group, if you're selling to a school group and people are looking for those bottom dollar prices, they may be unknowingly participating in the slave trade if they're purchasing from some of these companies that are utilizing forced slavery, that are utilizing cotton that derived from Xinjiang cotton," Merritt said.
Merritt's decision to take this on has come with great personal cost. Since this journey began for him late last year, he's been slammed with lawyer fees, and his company has faced numerous cyberattacks.
"I won't say it hasn't been hard, but I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning, and that means doing the right thing. That's how I've approached my military career, my personal life, and my business. Everything comes with risk, but clearly, it is a risk I am willing to take. So bring it on."
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.