Welcome to Grit Nation.
I’m Joe Cadwell the writer, producer and host of the show and in this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with Josh Ruyle from Image Pointe and Dignity Apparel both based in Waterloo, Iowa.
Though I originally went into this conversation with the intent of discussing union printed apparel, I came away with a greater understanding of the socio-economic impact companies like Image Pointe can have in rural American communities.
We’ll open our conversation by discussing the humble beginnings of Image Point, once known as Back Alley Printers, and how Josh together with his wife and co-owner Beth, continue on the proud legacy that her parents started in the 1970’s.
We’ll then learn how the Ruyle's, put their experience of working overseas to alleviate poverty and suffering in developing economies, to use here in the US.
Next, we’ll unpack the Image Pointe mission statement, of “existing to create dignified, life-changing jobs” as Josh explains the difference and importance of not just having a job, but actually having a “good job”.
Later, we’ll look into the relationship Image Pointe has with over 3000 union affiliates across the US and Canada and what it takes to create original, high-quality, logos and designs.
And we’ll end our conversation by understanding how the recognition of environmental and human rights abuses in the global garment industry led to the creation of Dignity Apparel, an all-American clothing line.
After this episode be sure to visit the show notes to find more information to help you dive deeper into the subject.
The Show Notes
Welcome to Grit Nation. I'm Joe Cadwell, the writer, producer and host of the show. And in this episode I had the pleasure of speaking with Josh Ruyle from Image Pointe and Dignity Apparel, both based in Waterloo, Iowa. Though I originally went into this conversation with the intent of discussing union printed apparel, I came away with a greater understanding of the socio economic impact companies like image point can have in rural American communities will open our conversation by discussing the humble beginnings of image point, once known as Back Alley Printers, and how Josh together with his wife and co-owner, Beth, continue on the proud legacy that our parents started in the 1970s Josh rule Welcome to Grit Nation.Josh Ruyle:
Thank you, Joe. Thrilled to be with you today. Thanks for having me on.Joe Cadwell:
Yeah, thank you so much, Josh, for taking your time to be on the show to talk to us about image point printers. And in your backstory, I understand it's, you've traveled extensively. I'm really interested to hear a little bit more about that. But if we could, why don't we start with the the origin of image point how When and where did image point start? Yeah, so image point was founded about 45 years ago, by Jeff and Pat Swartzentruber, who also happened to be my in laws and still very engaged in the company, specifically, Image Pointe original name was actually Back Alley Printers. So my father in law, Jeff was printing shirts in a garage, originally for his his church youth group. And just slowly but surely, went out. And you know, did what people did back in those days, you know, pounding the pavement, you know, driving all over the state of Iowa, and finding a customer base, UAW 838, which is actually right across the road from us, I'm looking out the window in my conference room right now, big flag, right, there was our first union customer. And at that point, it was just Jeff. And they said, Well, you got to you got to join the union, if you want to print for us.Josh Ruyle:
And, and so that was that was really the beginning of kind of, you know, diving in and understanding the Union Market, the importance of Union made in the USA, garments, promotional items. And that really over time, over the course of multiple decades really became our focus and specialization in really ties into the the mission and the values of the company as well.Joe Cadwell:
And speaking of values of the company, Josh, you know, I got on your website prior to our interview, and I couldn't help but notice you have a mission statement there. And your mission statements pretty, pretty straightforward. It says We exist to create dignified life changing jobs. What does that mean to you?Josh Ruyle:
Yeah, I'd flesh that out in a couple of ways. So So my background is actually in economic development. So my wife and I lived outside of the US for about a decade, specifically working in poverty alleviation, economic development, trying to figure out what are the best ways to take families and men and women who are living in poverty and help them to get out of that, that place and find find hope, find income, find a way to support their families. And the short version is, the best thing you can do. And this is statistically validated, is to help them get a job. And actually, if you go and you look at Gallup, the biggest polling organization in the world did a survey back in 2015. Across I want to say it was over 150 countries, hundreds of 1000s of data points, asking people, What do you want most in life? What are your dreams, and it came back as a very clear result, people want a job, and not just a job but a good job. And that's defined as you know, 3030 hours a week with a paycheck. That's really what they're they're looking for. And so, so really, that's what we did for about 10 years outside of the US. I was working in Asia and Eastern Europe and really where the focus was through micro lending, or doing loans to very small businesses. To help them to create employment, you know, first for kind of their family and immediate family that then out into the communities that they served in very fulfilling work, came back to the US in 2013. And realized it's really not all that different here, Joe, if you look across the cities that we all live in, and you go, and you say, Where are the pockets, or populations of people who are unemployed, there's a lot more than you think. And naturally, for those of us who are, you know, working this are aware of it, you know, it's predominantly in minority communities. And, and really, we said, Man, you know, as we grow, if we have the opportunity to grow, if we can really create employment and have employment at the center of who we are and what we're doing, when that'd be amazing. And you know, not only that it lines up squarely with what the labor unions that we serve and support care most about. And so so really over the course of the last five or six years, as Jeff and Pat, my in laws have stepped out, and you kind of raised up a new leadership team here, that's really been the focus to say, look, how can we do that? How can we go further.Joe Cadwell:
And you've gone further, you've gone from Jeff, Pat's original conception of the Back Alley Printers with just them. And then a small handful of folks to accompany now that is 60 employees is more or less Josh?Josh Ruyle:
Yeah, yeah, we're between 60 and 65. And we've just opened garment factory right on the other side of the highway. So we just launched that right at the beginning of March. And we hired 10 people there with a plan to hire about 20, more before the end of this year.Joe Cadwell:
And I understand a lot of the folks that you have hired over the years not only come from us, but you also are bringing in a lot of first generation refugees from countries like Bosnia, countries, like me and Maher, and really showing these people the American dream, so to speak, by offering those folks good jobs, not just a job, but a good job, livable wages, benefits, fair working conditions and sort of a life with dignity and respect. So that's admirable, and all along the way, you're promoting American made goods, Union made goods, you're supporting the people that are really the backbone of the American working class, the unions in our in our country. So that is a, that is a fantastic story. And we're going to get into the garment end of this, I'm sure, because I really am excited to hear that, you know, you're getting into that market as well. And not just not just putting the the logos on the items, but actually creating the items in which the logos go on. But before we do speaking of logos, in your opinion, Josh, what makes why why is branding, so important, what defines a good logo, wire? Are people clamoring to get their names on shirts? What's that all about?Josh Ruyle:
Yeah, it's a great question, Joe. I, you know, and I would frame it from the perspective of going to be carpenters local, who served about 3000, active locals, regional councils, district councils or unions at the international level, I think about what what they're thinking about when they order from us. It's really about solidarity and organizing. And then those are the two words we talk a lot about, we don't think of ourselves as just slapping a logo on a t shirt or on a coffee mug or on a pen. We think what can we do to help the unions that we serve and support, truly accomplish their goals. And ultimately, that's going to be solidarity and organizing. So if you have people who have a, you know, custom, custom branded, visually high impact, really well done design that helps define them. We've done some really cool stuff for carpenters locals across the country, I can think of some really cool recent IBEW designs that we've done in the Pacific Northwest or in California, where they're working with our graphic designers to say, what really represents us, you know, what are those things that make us feel unique as a group, and that the people, the members of the Union are really going to resonate with, if you can do that, and you can create a stronger sense of solidarity or affinity with within the group. Man, that's something that people want to be a part of, we're all looking for community, we're all looking for something to be people surrounding ourselves that share the kinds of values that we have. And then that emanates out and makes it easier for unions to then go out into the community and to attract new membership, and, and really, to grow. And again, that lines up with our mission if they can grow. Again, like you said, you know, it's not just creating jobs, creating good jobs. So we want to do that ourselves. But then how can we play that? Even if it's a small role? How can we play a small role in helping unions to then organize and gain new members over time, and that's, that's right in the center of what we want to do with our mission.Joe Cadwell:
Nice and full disclosure for anyone who's listening right now I was put in contact with image point by one of the locals carpenters Union. here in Oregon, I was looking to, to do a branding of the podcast the grid nation podcast with the with one of our CO carpenters locals and they said, hey, you need to reach out to image point. And I tell you the the experience I had there were from the first call was, was customer service seemed like it was job one, the person I talked to was really, really easy to work with. They took my concept of what I wanted to see on the front and back of the shirt, and they made it come to life. The process you had mentioned, you have graphic designers or creative designers, how do they go about you think, you know, with their inspiration? And it's tough to think inside the mind of an artist like that, but what do you think is is important? What what sticks out? When they go to say, hey, we want to find a brand particular to this local or enterprise?Josh Ruyle:
Yes, usually it's, it's a sales rep, or the account executive that's going to be speaking directly with the business agent at the Union to try to understand what trades do you represent? And, and even, you know, what are some of the things that make your local unique? And some of those can be, you know, geographic, I think is some some that we've done recently for California along the coast and they've got that California vibe that California feel in terms of colors and you know, Ray Ban sunglasses or Wayfarer sunglasses or you know, different things that are trying to integrate in that feel. local or regional. We've done some interesting union designs in the Pacific Northwest with Bigfoot integrated in Sure. Where they're looking for that Sasquatch out in the redwood forests up there.Joe Cadwell:
Always a fan favorite here.Josh Ruyle:
Yeah, exactly. So it's usually you know, honing in on you know, what's the trade you know, what's the thing that's that's specific and unique to this this area, or sometimes it's an inside joke, we don't even they're telling us to design something, we'll do it we don't really know what it means, but it means a lot to them. And really the kind of our sales team who are interacting, you know, very closely with with the business agents or with the ordering party at the Union, to figure out what makes you guys unique, and then get that are you are graphic artists, and goodness, Joe, that the amount of talent they have, I could never, I could never touch it, you know. So we've got graphic artists who have been with us for, you know, 1015 20 years, and who just know how to very quickly kind of put something together and put it in, put it in front of people that's going to really hit it the what they're getting at.Joe Cadwell:
This episode of Grit Nation is proudly supported by the Carpenters Local 271 based in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks to their generosity, the hard working men and women of the local 271 can now sport an official "I've Got Grit" high visibility t shirt. This US made garment is produced by Image Pointe of Waterloo, Iowa and features the American flag and the newly designed Grit Nation logo. I have to say it looks really sharp, I'm pleased as punch to have their support. If your local business or organization is interested in collaborating with Grit Nation-The Building Trades Podcast, Yeah, and so we have the design agreed upon and without getting too deep in the weeds, Josh, the actual printing process, I I'd be happy to hear from you. Grit Nation is proud to support understand there's a few different printing processes to those who support the blue collar trades people of America take an image to actually get it to adhere to a garment is kind and Canada. And now back to the show. of complex, you boil it downJosh Ruyle:
methods or screen printing, embroidery, dye sublimation and direct to garment printing. And we do some we do some laser etching as well. But But screenprint is certainly the the bread and butter of what we do. And when you get into the some of the technical end of it, you know, it's a highly specialized trade, our screenprint lead who's been with us for over 20 years, even before working here, worked at another large contract screen printer that was printing for you know, large sports teams, they would do the Superbowl T shirts and and really that you know that end of the trade is you know, the graphic artists can come up with a really good design, you then have to take all of the colors of that design. And you have to separate them out. So there's a separation process so that you can get get down to kind of the screen level. Then it's one color per screen. Those get set up on a machine and then ink is forced through the screen. It's a very fine mash where you're laying down one color and then the second color third color sometimes we have up to 14 colors on on one design. And then you get you can even get a very high rez almost photorealistic image on on the front. So that's that's certainly majority of what we do embroidery, you know fairly straightforward if you've seen an embroidered polo or embroidered hat. It's an embroidery machine or you get it set up on the machine. A lot of the nuanced technical end of that is with the digitizing How do you make sure the stitches kind of get aligned perfectly to you know, get the best representation you can have The design that you're making dye sublimation, if you see in sports jerseys, you think like a bike, you know, like a biking jersey or a football jersey, something or it's a moisture management polyester, you want that to be breathable. So screenprint would lay down and can, you know, wouldn't breathe as well. So dye sublimation is a process that actually instead of laying ink on top of fabric, it dyes the fabric all the way through. So you still have those kind of, you know, breathability moisture management features. So we use that for some applications. And then direct to garment printing. It's the newest technology in this industry. It's essentially like a, you know, a large glorified inkjet printer that you can put the shirt in and it just prints directly on to the shirt. So it's it's less labor intensive in terms of the setup than a large, large format screen print press would be but it can't do the volume as quickly. So you know, we would use that for let's say less than 50 shirts on an order. If we get an order for 5000 shirts or 10,000 shirts, we're certainly going to do it on the bigger press kind of longer setup time but more efficient.Joe Cadwell:
So it definitely sounds like there's been some some significant technical advances in the print to garment world since Jeff and Pat first, were working out of their their garage, it really is tangible when you get a garment that just feels good that you're comfortable wearing and that you know has a great looking logo and and really that you don't feel that that sticky texture to it. I've had a lot of cheap T shirts over the years and and you definitely what's the point you don't want to wear it. So you know, it's nothing like paying for a quality t something that's American made something that's Union made is definitely going to represent the the best of the best there. And with that said, I understand that that this shirts now, you know, when I was researching shirts for the for the for the podcast here and sweatshirts for the podcast, I ran into a lot of supply chain issues before I came to an image point why why was it different from my experience there from every everybody else know everyone else. So we cannot get that color. We can mix and match the types of shirts but image point.Josh Ruyle:
So yeah, challenges are certainly a major issue in our industry. And they've been an issue since well, before COVID. Right. So everybody's facing supply chain challenges right now we've been facing them for over a decade now. And the reason behind that, Joe is that, just to throw out a couple of statistics. If you go back to 1960, roughly 95% of the garments that Americans wore were produced right here in the US. And that means the cotton was grown by an American cotton farmer, the yarn was was spun in an American mill, you know, the fabric was dyed and finished. Right here in the US it was cut and sewn in a garment factory. And then it was worn by Americans, here's a 95%. And by 2009, that number had gone down to 2%. And so you know, just 80% decline. And you just imagine you all those jobs were offshored at that point. And there were very few factories left as of 2009. And you can imagine, especially the industry, we're in, you know, our customer base, and we as a company care about, can we get Union made garments, we wanted to be in a unionized facility. Well, by the end of last year, the number of suppliers that we we had or we could actually get shirts was less than 10. And when I say shirts, you know, that's a broad term, you know, hoodies, you know, jackets, polos, any garment, less than 10. And of those, only a few are union and the union ones that even been bought out by non union companies who really, you know, kind of questioning, do they are they intending to continue servicing this industry? Are they doing it just because they want to have access to the Union Market not not because they actually understand the impact that it can have. And so we saw the writing on the wall a few years ago with that and had been working on a few things to try to really make sure we could secure supply of Union made garments to sell to our customer base over the long term. Long story short, you know, we landed on, after a few years of trying a few different things we landed on, we're really going to need to do this ourselves. That's that's the only way that we can see a path forward here. So right at the beginning of this month we launched it's called dignity apparel. So it's our own brand. It's a garment factory right across the street from image point, our facility here in Waterloo, Iowa. And we started out with we have 10 people within the factory we set up our first selling line. We're making hooded sweatshirts, so we've got you know, 12 ounce 100% Cotton, heavyweight hooded sweatshirts kind of thing you guys would love up in the Pacific Northwest double line hood. I'm wearing one right now. Yeah So very warm gray working outside, we cut it in size a generously. So we recognize a lot of people, if they're working outside, you're gonna want to have something underneath, hoods big enough to where it's still accommodate things underneath where it with the hard hat. And it's and it's it's a robust fabric. And then we have a lighter weight more breathable nine ounce at 20. Which is a great one for you know, fall or spring. And yeah, so we're getting going on those and have started producing them. And yeah, super excited about that. I think we have an opportunity to help not just revive an industry that's been in decline for decades, but play the role that we can play in ensuring that there still are Union made garments in the US five years from now.Joe Cadwell:
That's fantastic. That's dignity apparel. So dignity apparel is sort of a branch off of image point that is now providing the garments that image point we'll put there Yeah, that's right customers logos on that is fantastic. And again, bringing back those livable wage jobs, that to America. And it's at that's an incredible statistic that you told me that 95% At one time, 95% is as recent as the 1960s were, were made in the US and worn by Americans. And then over over time, all those industries were outsourced overseas. And I can imagine the corporations that have a lot of those lines, their profits went through the roof because they were no longer paying the workers, livable wages with benefits and safe working conditions. So admirable, Josh, that you are trying to revive that mindset of American pride and you know, ownership from the top down from the from the leadership to the to the folks on the factory floor, are all sharing in the wealth of a company. And that's something that unfortunately, seems a lot of larger corporations out there have lost that message of what it means to make livable wage jobs where everyone has equity in the company.Josh Ruyle:
One of the things that damage them in economics and statistics nerds. So you go into, you know what happened when all of these jobs got offshored. And you dig into this industry, and it's it's a seedy industry. It's not a good story once you get overseas, and you look at what's happened. So we, you know, lived and worked in China for a number of years. 20% of cotton in the US is grown in western China. It's in a province called Jing Zhao. And that province is predominantly a Muslim minority group called the Uighur group that is heavily oppressed by the Chinese government and often put in internment camps. And essentially, you're forced to pick cotton for no wages. So it's it's the equivalent of modern slavery, modern slave labor 20% of all cotton is grown in that area and ends up out in our T shirts and in our closets. And we, we aren't aware of it right, and you go back to the 90s. And you think of in Southeast Asia, kind of all the Expos as around garment factories, using you know, child labor. You look at all of the kind of pollutants, use for pesticides and what that's doing to our planet. You think of all the shipping emissions of getting those from there over here for what we wear, and the costs to real people are great. We're just not absorbing them here. And so you kind of you look at that and you say okay, well hey, I can get a $8 T shirt from Walmart isn't that good? Josh is not a good thing. And you actually get into the real impact on on the lives of people and no it's not you know, not only do we lose jobs here, what's happened overseas is not is not something I think if we we knew about we would acceptJoe Cadwell:
Right the socio economic impact of those decisions of buying a cheap $8 t shirt the environmental impact on a global scale is is mind boggling as well and yeah. And again all for what a cheap shoddily made shirt that you know, someone made pennies on $1 making it and yet the companies that overseas corporations are making money you know, in buckets it's it's a real shame that that sort of that system has come into play but again you know we have companies like image point and dignity apparel are pushing against that and hopefully Yeah, we'll see a reversal of that trend and I know the the union's greatly appreciate what you're doing. I greatly appreciate what you're doing. I'm really excited to get my my first order of image point printed apparel in it's going to be great to be able to align myself with the different locals that are in support of the show and hopefully continue to grow through good branding and a relationship with that man with image point. So, Josh, before we go, what what's the future hold for Image Pointe? I know a things just don't stop with apparel. I mean, we've obviously talked about dignity clothing line coming coming along. Are there any other trends that you're looking at?Josh Ruyle:
You know, the big draw for us is certainly, you talk about our mission statement in creating dignified life changing jobs. And that's really how we measure success. So we had our launch celebration here at the beginning of the month, we had representatives from painters and Allied Trades local to 46, District Council at one, you just a few of the union leaders who have walked with us for decades now came down. And I'll tell you what, they're everybody's excited about what we're doing is we are and, and so really, you know, kind of saying, How can we partner and walk forward and not just, you know, create, you know, 10 jobs or 20, and what's it look like to create 50 or 100, here, just at our current sales volume, if we were able to, you know, continue to grow, and then, you know, continue to build up dignity apparel over time, obviously, with the support of unions across the country, we can get up to, you know, 100 people, 150 people, maybe even more in that in that factory. And again, like you said, Joe, what we're going to look at is making sure we are, you know, well above average wages, benefits, they have, you know, three different insurance options right out of the gate, you know, we've got 401k, we've got just deep investment in on the job training. And so again, you know, creating a job is is is a major step when you have somebody who's unemployed, and yet, a good job is really what, what they need, right. And one of the things that I've shared pretty broadly, you know, I studied economics, as I mentioned, a lot of economists are not very friendly towards unions. But when I look at the US and kind of the common perception of unions, it's so different than the reality of the friendships that we've made in this union space, you know, across like I mentioned, we've got the, you know, 3000 Union we call customers are more they're more like our friends and family to get into what a unions actually care about, what are they actually doing, it's, it's just that it's trying to create, you know, not just jobs, but good jobs for working class men and women, all across the country. It I think it's more needed now than it's been in over 100 years. So that you don't have a, you know, that single mom who asked to go from their day job at the Amazon fulfillment center to their night job at Taco Bell to be able to support their kids, right, you know, what's it look like to actually create jobs where people can not just live but can thrive? And so, I mentioned, you know, hiring out of the Burmese community, the reason we did that here is because, you know, pre COVID, I will unemployment was 2%, we had the lowest I think in the nation at that point, unemployment in the Burmese community here was 48%. There's some studies that were done. Similar studies in, you know, Congolese community, the African American community on the east side of Waterloo. And so, man, what we found is that people are willing to work, there's a lot of barriers for them getting into the, into the workforce, you know, it could be language, it could be transportation, it could be because they just needed a second chance from an employer who would typically screen them out, and just super pumped about walking closely on alongside our union to figure out how can we do that really well? And how can we do that at scale? And, you know, we're gonna, you know, play some big bets and hope for some good things.Joe Cadwell:
All right. Well, it sounds like you're on track to really change for the better a lot of people's lives and I wish you and your businesses Well, Josh Ruyle. It's been a great conversation. Where can people go to find out more about image?Josh Ruyle:
DignityApparel.com So yeah, that's that's probably the the simplest and, and yeah, Joe, like, we've got, we've got big visions, we got big missions, we got to do our core job well, so you let me know how your shirts came out. If if they did, well, we'll make them we'll make them right for you. But if they did, definitely, that's that's the way that we spread the word just by doing good work. So dignity apparel hoodies are we're going to start selling those here in not too long. So I know you've got close carpenters brothers and sisters there locally. If there's anything we can do to send out some samples, have a look at those, let us know. And again, you know, get on our website. And we'd love to get in touch and give you a chance to see what we do.Joe Cadwell:
All right. Well, thank you again, Josh rule for taking your time to be on the show. You have a great weekend.Josh Ruyle:
Yeah, you too. Thank you, Joe.Joe Cadwell:
To learn more about Image Point and Dignity Apparel. Be sure to visit the show notes for this episode, or visit the website at www.gritnationpodcast.com That's gritnation podcast.com Until next time, this is Joe Cadwell, reminding you to work safe, work smart and stay union strong