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Why Tortuga Backpacks are Made in China

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Whenever I tell someone that I run a backpack company, they ask two questions:

  1. What kind of backpacks?
  2. Where do you make them?

The answer to #1 is urban travel backpacks.

The second answer requires an explanation.

How We Got Here

The original Tortuga (V1) was made in Southern California.

We settled on a factory in California after searching for a factory, any factory, anywhere, to manufacture our first batch of bags.

On the advice of our original designer, we started in China. We didn’t have any connections there. We didn’t have anyone in-country to help. As you might expect, this approach was a disaster.

We spent months of time and thousands of dollars designing a bag then begging any factory that we could find to make a sample for us. After months and months of only having a sketch of a backpack, a factory in China finally agreed to make our bag.

Our dreams were about to come true. Fortune and fame were sure to follow. We did it! Right?

Below is the picture that the factory sent of the first sample. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw it.

Tortuga v1 first sample

The first sample of Tortuga V1. AKA “The Great Monstrosity.”

We freaked out. In order to have some control over the process, we started frantically searching for factories in the US.

Most never returned our calls. The rest were at capacity or unwilling to take a chance on a new company placing a small first order. I get that.

But aren’t American factories desperate for business? Aren’t they being forced to close because everything is made in China now?

The media has led us to believe so, but it’s not entirely true.

US factories working in soft goods, like backpacks, do much of their business on government contracts. Just look at the work they cite on their websites. They are busy manufacturing for the military.

We’re happy to see these factories working, but their government contracts create a barrier to entry for new companies. Factories manufacturing for the government can charge bloated prices and be guaranteed a steady stream of work from multi-year contracts. They don’t want to sacrifice that business for a small order from first-time entrepreneurs like us.

They’re doing the right thing for their business. You can’t blame them for that.

In the days before Kickstarter, we couldn’t muster enough money or backers to convince factories to divert their production lines to our tiny order.

Made in the USA

After a demoralizing search, we found a factory willing to work with us. Even better, it was a short drive from LA where Jeremy already lived and where I moved during production. Hallelujah! Now, all of our problems are solved. Right?

Starting with the first sample, the factory (which shall remain nameless) was missing deadlines and ignoring phone calls and emails. The company made high-quality bags but was a nightmare to work with. We were desperate to launch our first product and didn’t have anyone else willing to work with us. We literally couldn’t afford to move to another factory.

After an arduous, 10-month process, we finally had our first order of bags in stock.

Our costs were way too high, especially relative to the Tortuga V1’s $199 price, but our first priority was to get the bags made, at any cost.

We didn’t make any money on this initial order. We spent 18 months selling through a mere 100 bags.

Tortuga V1 was a test. Now that I know the term, this was our minimum viable product. Would people buy a backpack specifically designed for urban travel? The answer was a loud YES.

Next we had to figure out how to proceed and turn this validated idea into a real business.

sewing on the production line

Typical production line at a cut and sew factory.

Why China?

We created a re-design bag, the Tortuga V2, and moved production to China so that we could try to make a profit on the next round of bags and start building a business.

We’re aware of the controversy about offshoring, particularly in China. We know that re-shoring manufacturing back to the US is a growing trend. Many brands that I admire, like Outlier and Mission Workshop, are made partly, or primarily, in the US.

Since we’re asked so often about where we make the bags, we wanted to share both where we make the Tortuga and why we make it there.

China Has the Best Supply Chain

China is the best place in the world to manufacture soft goods. Period. What Detroit once was to cars, Southeastern China is to soft goods.

Chinese factories have access to every component imaginable in any size and color within driving distance.

The concentration of soft goods businesses in Southeastern China allows companies like us to draw from a huge ecosystem of factories and suppliers. These Chinese factories have better access to everything during the production cycle than American factories do.

We’ve experienced this first hand. On one visit to China, we met with our backpack supplier on Monday then drove to the Duraflex factory on Wednesday to choose our preferred buckles from their 100,000 SKUs on hand.

As we’ve grown and evolved our brand, we’ve branched out beyond Chinese suppliers for some specialty fabrics and hardware. Most common elements of our bags are easy to find in China. As we push the boundaries of product design, we’ve had to branch out to the US, Germany, Taiwan, and Singapore for the right components. Luckily, many foreign suppliers have a factory, distributor, or office in China or nearby in East Asia.

Additionally, Southern China has excellent transportation infrastructure, easy access to shipping ports in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and fast access to other East Asian suppliers.

China Can Make High-Quality Goods

Many people believe that “Made in China” means low quality. This is not true. Plenty of companies make shitty products, but that’s on them, not the factories.

Made in Japan once carried the same negative connotations. Then Sony showed the world what Japanese factories could do.

Chinese factories are perfectly capable of producing high-quality products. Premium luggage brands manufacture in China’s Guangdong province. Apple builds most of its products, including the iPhone in your pocket, in China. Most “smart” devices, including luggage, are made in Shenzhen, China.

“Made in China” only means low quality if you choose the wrong supplier or ignore your responsibilities as a brand. You are responsible for setting expectations and ensuring quality levels with your suppliers.

Companies looking to save money on labor when making bags are moving production to Southeast Asia. Vietnam is on the rise but not yet to China’s level.

supplier team

Me (Fred), Patrick, Giulia, and our supplier team of Shirely, Jacky, and Jerry.

How We Did It

Thanks to a referral from a design consultancy, we found a quality factory in China to manufacture Tortuga V2, the Tortuga Air, and the accessories we later released.

The V2 line helped us to grow as a company and team. In the second half of last year, Patrick and Giulia joined our product team. Patrick is the industrial designer behind the upcoming V3 line of products. Giulia is our production manager working with our suppliers in China.

With the right team in place, we vetted another 22 factories then chose 6 finalists for sampling. We’ve now chosen a new factory partner for V3 and beyond. We are working with fabric suppliers in the US and hardware suppliers in Germany and Taiwan.

Tortuga has an increasingly global team and supply chain. We are location agnostic. Today, China is the best place for us to make premium travel backpacks that are still affordable to most working age travelers. In the future, that may change. If it does, we’ll adapt and continue to share the journey with you.

We happily welcome your questions and comments below. Thanks for reading.

Updated: 6/20/16 Changes to our supply chain and info on V3.

Image Credit: Visual Hunt

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  • triphackr

    Fred, this is pretty interesting thanks for sharing. Manufacturing in the US seems to come at a very slow and steep price. Judging my your photos of a high quality and sleek V2 and nice price point I think you guys made the right call. Looking forward to seeing it.

    My only question is where can I get an original V1 sample!

    • Thanks, Clint. You’ll have to fight someone for a V1. Look for one in the original packaging in case they become collector’s items.

  • john

    wow, how interesting, on so many levels!

    • Thanks, John. Glad to hear that you liked the post.

  • Target

    Since you are not afraid to frequently compare yourself to your various competitors, I feel I can get away with this question – The one thing that keeps me from preordering right now is your use of fabric.

    About the 1680 ballistic nylon, Tom Bihn said, quote: ” many of our competitors have switched to 1680 ballistic nylon. The 1680 is woven (as I understand it) from a really big 1680 denier single yarn, rather than two plies of 1050; this large yarn size makes if look like a two-ply fabric. The 1680 is made in asia and is about half the cost of 1050 ballistic, and though it may look very similar when brand new, it ages rather poorly, tending to fuzz out at any wear points. I’ve seen messenger bags made from 1680 ballistic that look pretty bad after only a few months of use.”

    I was hoping you could comment on this, probably with your reasoning to choose the fabric. Thanks!

    • Thanks for commenting. We’re always happy to answer questions.

      In our experience and our designers’ and factories’ recommendations, 1680d is plenty tough. I’ve intentionally been hard on all of our finished bags and prototypes without having any fabric problems. Our earliest customers have traveled with V1 bags (which used the same material) for 2+ years without any complaints. See reviews here: http://www.tortugabackpacks.com/products/tortuga-travel-backpack. Other bag makers like InCase and Ignoble also use 1680d. Unless attacked with a knife, the fabric is rarely the fail point of a bag. Seams, zippers, and buckles are much more likely to be an issue. I’ve written about that here: http://www.tortugabackpacks.com/pages/guarantee.

      We could use a more expensive fabric and increase the cost of the bag, but you wouldn’t get a noticeably better product, just a better marketing bullet point. The final reason was to differentiate the Tortuga from the military-style bags that use ~1000d without making a crappy product. If we ever start to get complaints about the problems you mentioned, we’d switch without hesitation.

      Sorry for the long-winded reply. If you have more questions, feel free to comment or email me. Thanks again for checking us out. -Fred

      • Target

        Hello Fred, thanks for the elaborate answer. I’m not fully convinced yet, but I’ll think it over 🙂
        Cheers
        Target

      • albertb

        1680d is also much heavier than 1000d. Any plans to use 1000d or even dyneema in order to reduce weight?

        • Not on the Tortuga. Weight isn’t the primary concern. 1000D has a different texture and, especially in blacks, is a magnet for dirt and dust.

  • Natraj
    Creations provide fancy Non Woven Bag in several range……

  • Jennifer Harrison Koutouras

    This story sounds exactly like ours. We made our first bags in Ohio, and we paid $100 a bag. We then switched to China, and although they are still expensive (we use the best materials as well), it is at least possible to make a profit. We’ve even had prototypes similar to the one in your picture above. Too funny!
    Jennifer, The Glo Bag

    • Hi Jennifer, Thanks for chiming in. Manufacturing is an adventure. It certainly takes a LOT of trial and error. Good luck!

  • scott

    red oxx sky train…designed and built in the u.s.a…

    • The Sky Train is $50 more expensive and 13% smaller than the Tortuga. It doesn’t have a laptop pocket or a hip belt.

  • scott

    oh wait…topo designs roll top or travel bag…made in the u.s.a…

    • Yes, some other products are made in the USA. Topo’s stuff looks cool, but their “Travel” Bag is $30 more expensive and 32% smaller than the Tortuga. It doesn’t have external access to the laptop sleeve (have fun at security!) or a hip belt for weight distribution.

  • bsbfankaren

    Hello! I’m an MBA student working on project to produce backpacks, and would like to find some additional information regarding manufacturing in China vs. the US. Can you help out?

    • Of course. Send us an email with specific questions through the contact form on the site.

      • bsbfankaren

        I’ll do that. Thanks!

  • mic

    Hi Fred, Thanks for sharing. May I ask how you were able to find the right manufacturing company in China?

    • We were introduced by a designer in the US. Referrals are ideal. Sourcing agents can help you with this. You can also try Alibaba or going to the Canton Fair and meeting factory owners in person.

  • Jk710

    Hey Fred,
    Thanks for the information. I’m contemplating whether I should manufacture in the US or China for a simple school backpack. You mentioned in the article that perhaps because a school backpack is not as labor intensive it might be feasible to have it manufactured in the US. I’m also in LA if you had any other references for making a prototype and first production run.
    Thanks!
    Josh

    • Hi Josh, I would NOT recommend the company that we worked with. You can find factories by Googling or searching sites like Maker’s Row and Thomasnet.

  • jomama7366

    Curiously, and perhaps a bit troubling?, is that one thing I don’t see mentioned at all here is worker conditions. One of the reasons we can get such affordable goods here is by exploiting “cheap labor” (i.e., human beings) in other countries, who get paid substandard salaries, and work in substandard conditions. Sub-“U.S.-standards,” I suppose might be more appropriate to say. Not singling out your company, here, just curious as to your thoughts/feelings about participating in that kind of system, on the owner/business side of things—i.e., exploiting “cheep labor” in order to easier turn a profit, and offer less expensive bags. Then again, perhaps the labor you use is not exploited?? Perhaps an article about the conditions of the workers who make your bags? Again, not judging here (I think many companies would be hard-pressed to prove that their “success” is not achieved by exploiting others…), but differentiating yourself from larger manufactures who care mostly about profit is a potentially positive trend. Can caring about not only the people who buy your bags, but the people who make them, be a part of this new entrepreneurial movement, too?

    • Thanks for commenting. To clarify, lower labor costs do not require substandard working conditions or exploited workers, only a location with a lower cost of living. Labor is cheaper in my small, Western Pennsylvania hometown than in New York City, for example.

      The factories we work with were referred to us by other companies with experience in China. Each factory was vetted by our sourcing agents before we ever spoke to them. I’ve visited the factories personally and met everyone from the owner to the workers on the floor. Factory work isn’t glamorous (I’ve spent time doing it myself), but the workers in our factories certainly aren’t being exploited. I’ll get some pictures of the factories on my next visit.

      • jomama7366

        I appreciate the reply, Fred. To clarify on my end, too, I did not mean to unduly accuse you of wrongdoing. Sorry if my wording came across that way. I think it’s important to point out that there are a lot of people who work in illegal “sweat shops” right here in the USA, right? So, it’s not so much a matter of China’s factories not living up to “USA factory standards.” It’s not that simple, I know. In the end, I do think that it’s a matter of “exploitation,” the idea of exploiting other beings for personal gain. This is but one of the reasons that Wal Mart, for example, is considered (perhaps not wrongly) to be an “evil” corporation by many people. But it’s not just them: many companies use similar tactics, and have similar business approaches, but might just not get as much press about it. This country was (practically) BUILT on the backs of exploited workers, from literal slaves, to sweat shop workers, to “wage slaves.”

        Of course, not everyone cares about such things. How many people eat animals and animal by-products without really giving a hoot about the animals? Or buy an iphone without ever once thinking about the people who made it? Most, let’s be honest. And I know full well that the computer I am typing on now was built by workers in China, who might fall under the rubric of “exploited.” But I don’t turn a blind eye to it. I think about that, and who makes my clothes, and how my food gets from A to B. I think the point is awareness.

        Anyway, I appreciate that you are starting a company that seems to believe in transparency, something that COULD go a long way towards changing the very kinds of systems in which people are exploited for the profit of others (that is, depending on how much people actually care about such things, right?). So, I’ll just speak for myself, it’s really good to hear that the workers in the factories that make your bags aren’t being exploited. That’s good for potential customers who might care about such things to know. I do think a blog post/article would be worthwhile, too, even more than just a few pics. You are certainly right that cost of living has a lot to do with it. In a place where things cost less, earning less is not necessarily exploitation. Perhaps going there in the article would be worthwhile. Just suggestions… 🙂

        Oh, and it’s good to hear that you’ve worked in factories yourself. How many CEOs can say the same? Not enough, methinks…. I, myself, have done a variety of different work, from stuffy office jobs, to manual labor, to retail, to restaurant, you name it. Experience matters, and hopefully engenders compassion towards others. Okay, I’ll stop babbling, now. Thanks for the answer. It’s refreshing to be able to have an open discussion about such topics on the website of a for-profit start-up.

        I look forward to maybe trying your bag at some point…if you can keep them in stock that is! 🙂

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