When the Miami Heat called, a New Bedford business was ready to act ― its workers quickly began cutting up the NBA team’s jerseys and T-shirts.
Refried Apparel turned the unused clothing into about 9,000 face masks that the team then donated to Florida hospital workers.
Refried Apparel cofounder Mark Litos said his business has been fielding similar requests from professional sports teams across the country, including the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves. They are sending pallets of their extra gear to the New Bedford factory to be transformed into masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
“The teams are donating the masks to local hospitals, essential businesses, and their own employees,” Litos said. “The Astros are even reselling the masks as a charity for a COVID-19 fund.”
In normal times, the sustainability company repurposes unused clothing ― especially from professional sports teams — into new shirts, sweatshirts, dresses, or skirts. It’s a process Litos calls “upcycling,” which aims to reduce waste in the fashion industry.
“You have traded players, logo changes, or two teams go to a playoff and one loses, so you can imagine how significant the dead stock inventory is,” he said. “We partner with retailers, brands, and organizations to help them turn their dead stock into revenue.”
The company has licenses with Major League Baseball and the National Football League, and relationships with several schools, including Brown University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Organizations ship truckloads of apparel to the factory on Belleville Avenue, sometimes 10,000 T-shirts at a time. Then they buy the repurposed items back, which could end up being hybrids of T-shirts, sweatshirts, jerseys, and even socks.
“We break things down, slice and dice, and we use the mixed material to create one-of-a-kind fashion pieces,” Litos said.
The five-year-old company recently pivoted to making face masks — it was forced to shut down the factory and lay off its 20 employees in March, when Governor Charlier Baker ordered all nonessential businesses closed. But within days, some laid-off workers began volunteering their time at home to sew masks to donate to hospital workers and first responders.
“When the pandemic hit, we were very worried because revenue stopped," Litos said. "But when we started to focus on the masks, we lost sight of that. If we save one life, it’s worth it.”
After about two weeks, the factory was allowed to reopen as an “essential” business, with about half of its staff. Donations from the company’s partners and a GoFundMe page that has raised over $20,000 are helping to pay Refried Apparel employees for their labor.
The company sent 5,000 masks to New York hospitals, and it began supplying gear to Massachusetts General Hospital and Market Basket employees.
Overall, it has donated roughly 40,000 masks to hospitals, first responders, police departments, fire departments, funeral homes, grocery store workers, trash disposal companies, and food delivery workers. About 30,000 more masks have been made for sports teams that are donating about $2 for each mask to the company.
Litos said colleges and universities are interested in the masks, too, placing orders that range from 150 to 50,000 And he expects orders to increase as schools think about reopening.
“We are even starting to get calls from high schools who have old athletic jerseys, and they want us to make masks,” Litos said. “If you give a kid a mask with their school colors or logo, that’s a sense of pride that will encourage them to wear one.”
While Boston sports teams have not yet partnered with Refried Apparel to make team-themed masks, the company has received more than 40,000 T-shirts donated by well-known sportswear brands such as ’47 Brand, Outerstuff, and MV Sport. That’s allowing the company to produce as many as 12,000 masks per week.
To help generate revenue, the company has also started selling individual masks made from cotton T-shirts for about $5 online. Since some governments have mandated mask-wearing in public, online orders have skyrocketed, Litos said.
“We get upward of 200 orders a day; it’s crazy,” he said. “They come from all over the country . . . people are shopping around and seeing masks for $9, $15, $25 . . . that’s shameful. We are trying to help people, not take advantage.”