Made in U.S.A.
The America-made clothing debate
By Shane Cohn 01/24/2013
The mind is capricious in how it extinguishes and sparks pendulums of momentum and change.
In one moment, something so mundane can become a personal battle cry, or just the opposite.
One day you’re a meat-eater, you learn something about it, and the next day it just seems wrong. So you stop. Or you only eat grass-fed beef. And it goes on.
Suddenly, you decide, you’re going to cut back on plastic and reuse more often; or you’re going to read the news every day and start attending city council meetings; or maybe you decide it’s time to finally start practicing safe sex.
Or maybe one day you start looking at the tags on your shirts and pants when you’re putting away the laundry. You begin to notice that the clothes you’re wearing were made in China, Honduras, Vietnam, Bangladesh and India. You think about the carbon footprint created just so you could wear that T-shirt, and about that story you read about little children working 70-hour weeks in disease-ridden third-world factories, sandblasting your denim so that it looks “worn.” In the background, the nightly news comes on the television with yet another report about America’s unemployment rate, and then it all hits you hard. “I’ve been an asshole. Why am I supporting this? I’m going to buy my clothes American-made from now on. And you know what? If others are doing this too, maybe we’ve all been literally carrying a piece to this American unemployment puzzle on our backs.”
Apparel is front and center of what seems to be a burgeoning “buy American” movement because of its accessibility, explains Alex Kaplan, founder and editor of Made in USA blog (madeinusablog.org).
“It’s something that labels openly,” says Kaplan as he navigates through Los Angeles traffic-hour. “You buy it frequently, like once every month, as opposed to cars and appliances, and you’re in contact with it more frequently.”
There was once a time where the “made in America” label was the meat and potatoes of a developing, industrial America. But with the discovery of cheap, overseas labor in Asian countries and acronym-heavy trade agreements like NAFTA (duty-free with Mexico and Canada), CAFTA (duty-free with Colombia and other Andean countries) and IFTA (duty-free with Israel), the American apparel and textile industry has been in rapid decline for the past three decades. More than 97 percent of the 19 billion pieces of apparel sold in the United States last year were made somewhere else, primarily in China and other Asian nations, according to Labor Department data compiled by the American Apparel and Footwear Association. The U.S. lost more than 900,000 textile and apparel jobs from 1994 to 2005, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that these industries will have the most rapidly declining employment rates of all industries through 2014.
Now, in 2013, the “made in America” label has become something of a vintage or specialty item, sold in boutique shops for much higher prices than foreign-made apparel sold at traditional big-box stores like Target and Walmart. But could the projection about the apparel industry be reversed? Economists have been suggesting that China has hit the Lewis turning point, a time in an economy when the bulk of cheap labor runs dry and begins to lose its competitive advantage. Could this conscious trend to buy American-made, sweatshop-free apparel result in a greater demand and put Americans back to work in this industry?
In her Temescal Alley storefront/studio in Oakland, Calif., Ali Golden is creating samples and handbags for her autumn/winter 2013 collection. The Ventura High grad will crank out about 10 to 15 design prototypes a season and eventually take the samples to an old, nondescript ma-and-pa warehouse in downtown San Francisco, which employs about 100 people. She’ll put in an order for a few hundred pieces per style, meet with the folks in charge and explain exactly what she wants and be able, more or less, to oversee the entire operation.
Ali Golden is a former Ventura resident and current designer of contemporary women’s clothing.
“When it’s time to produce, I’m there every single day,” says Golden, 29, who has a contemporary woman’s clothing line called Ali Golden. “It’s great because I have the control over my product.”
The workspace inside the Ali Golden boutique.
Golden says that from a branding perspective, she loves that her clothes are made in America because there seems to be a more conscious shift of late by customers to seek out American-made apparel.
It’s debatable whether this perceived shift is due to more exploitation of sweatshop abuses in the countries where most clothes are made, or consumers craving craftsmanship, or even, perhaps, patriotism.
Thom Hill, owner of Iron and Resin label and storefront in Ventura, agrees there is a consumer shift in wanting the American label on their gear.
“The ‘made in USA’ movement is small, but it’s growing, and it’s going to continue to grow as people have different ideas about the value they get out of ‘made in USA’ goods.” He explains that most American-made apparel is small-batch production, which emphasizes quality and quick turnaround. Some of the American factories he uses have endured since the 1800s.
“Some of these factories are owned by the same families and have incredible histories,” he explains. “That is tangible to the customer if they hear the story behind the product and see where it came from. ‘It comes from a factory in the West Virginia mountains that has been there since the Civil War.’ They love to hear that, and that adds value to a product.”
Golden said that manufacturing facilities in places like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles can turn out small orders quickly, but the skill set and workforce to handle massive orders from the world’s largest companies doesn’t exist yet, which is why the customer is paying higher prices for the “made in America” label. A printed T-shirt that qualifies for the “made in USA” label can average about $35, which more than doubles the price for a “made in China” standard shirt.
“You pay premium for craftsmanship,” says Golden. “It’s too expensive to make in America for a substantial amount of clothing.” Golden says that unless the industry does begin to surge in the States with factories and skilled workers, she would have to consider outsourcing to China if her company increased sales three fold. “There is a huge misunderstanding of what it takes to make clothes. Maybe there are crazy machines in China that I don’t know about. But we’re talking about making clothes. It’s hard, and it’s a process.”
In the Iron and Resin storefront, Hill sells jeans made in San Francisco, and the denim comes from the Cone Denim White Oak facility in Greensboro, N.C., the oldest working denim plant in the U.S. “The best denim in the world comes from there,” he says. “The looms are from the early 1900s and the rolls that come off there are shorter, so cost is more expensive, but the quality is so much better than the modern looms.”
Iron and Resin storefront in downtown Ventura.
The jeans sell for $200. Levi’s, now made in Asia and Latin America, in comparison, sell for about $40.
“We try to have things at all price points because not everybody can afford a $200 pair of denim,” Hill clarifies. “But at the same time, that denim will last as long as six pairs of Levis. You’re paying for quality, something that is made in the U.S., and you’re supporting U.S.-based workers and ultimately giving back to the economy and making the country stronger.”
The global market debate
But couldn’t an argument be made that to rally behind the “buy American” campaign be, in a sense, an un-American departure from the red, white and blue laissez-faire principles of capitalism? Could it be called economic nationalism — placing judgment on something for where it came from instead of its value?
Bill Watkins, director of the Center of Economic Research and Forecasting at Cal Lutheran University, says that strictly pushing a “buy American-only” atmosphere would weaken trade relations. He looks at trade as something that benefits the global economy and says that goods shouldn’t face buyer discrimination based on artificial political borders.
Opened in 1895, Cone Mills started supplying denim for Levi’s jeans in 1910.
“In a sense, we’re all citizens of the world,” says Watkins. “Why deny other people the opportunity to have the same things we have? If you’re not trading with them at all, you’re condemning them to something we wouldn’t wish on them or that they would want. If you don’t trade, you’re condemning them to a third-world existence.”
Kaplan, whose blog’s subhead reads “bringing back American manufacturing through consumer action,” says there is a certain patriotism in buying domestic goods and doesn’t agree with Watkins’ assessment. “So the whole ‘Buy Local’ movement is bad? No one says this is anti-trade,” says Kaplan. “It’s logical. It makes sense. It’s better to support people you live around because you thrive.”
Sung Won Sohn, Ph.D., an economics professor at Cal State University, Channel Islands, says that there are certainly economic incentives to buying American, but agrees with Watkins in the idea that trade makes the world go around. For every billion dollars in exports, he says, about 15,000 jobs are created in the U.S.
“My main point is, if more apparel is made in the U.S. and for good economic reasons, I’m all for it,” he says, “but not because we don’t want to import other things. We need both.”
Sohn also sits on the board of the mega-retailer Forever 21, which it should be noted, recently came under fire for alleged sweatshop conditions at vendors supplying to the company. In Sohn’s experience with fashion retail, he says that of late, there are a “growing number of people that prefer to buy ‘made in USA.’ Is it better-made and better quality? I don’t think it is, but they like the ‘made in USA’ label.”
For a garment to receive the “made in USA label,” almost the entire product has to be made in America, according the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If U.S.-made fabric is sewn together in America, but uses thread from overseas, it qualifies for the “made in USA” label. But if a product uses fabric from overseas but is sewn together in the U.S., it does not qualify for the “made in USA” label, by FTC standards, but can be labeled as “made in the USA from imported parts,” or “assembled in the USA.”
The USA label, however, certainly doesn’t ensure that the product is made in decent working environments.
This past October, a press release from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division revealed that, in more than 1,500 investigations under a multiyear Southern California garment industry enforcement initiative, 93 percent of the investigations uncovered violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions, and the division found more than $11 million in back wages due to approximately 11,000 workers.
Small boutique owners like Golden or Hill however, are typically able to visit the factories that produce their garments, establish relationships with the workers and even see the whole operation through if they desired.
Sarah Scott, director of operations for the Los Angeles-based SCOTT x SCOTT Inc., has produced two seasons of garments. Her first was overseas, which she described as a “turn-key” operation, and she preferred the quality of the product that was made in Los Angeles for her second season.
“Being able to visit my factory on a daily basis has helped me to oversee every step of the way, assure quality control and be more hands-on with the construction of every garment,” says Scott. “As a new label, designing overseas is not always the most affordable option. You are dealing with large minimums, high freight costs, and oftentimes the inability to oversee each step of the production.”
Carhartt, who began producing work apparel in Detroit in 1889, was one of the last holdouts in the mass exodus away from U.S. apparel manufacturing. While Carhartt never closed all its American factories, in recent years it switched mainly to import, and it wasn’t possible to find the “made in USA” label anymore.
But last fall, Carhartt recently made its USA line available again, backed with a heavy “made in USA” marketing push; evidence suggests the tide may be turning again for U.S. apparel manufacturing.
“The ‘Made in the USA’ line of apparel is entirely based on consumer response; they wanted an option to buy products made here and we responded to their needs,” said Linda Hubbard, Carhartt’s chief operating officer, in a press release. The new line called for the hiring of more employees, resulting in a total 1,665 U.S. staff members working in the headquarters, call center, manufacturing and distribution facilities, according to last year’s data.
Los Angeles-based American Apparel Inc. has yet to outsource overseas. It’s the largest garment-making facility in the U.S. and employs thousands of workers. The Los Angeles Times reported last June that the company has reported nine straight quarterly losses, but Chief Executive Officer Dov Charney is convinced that the “made in America” label is going to work out in the long run, especially as international costs begin to climb.
“As that happens to the worldwide economy,” said Charney, in the L.A. Times piece, “it’s going to make a lot of sense to manufacture in the United States or in Los Angeles.”
Do what you believe in
Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “I don’t know much about the tariff but I know this much: When we buy manufactured goods abroad we get the goods and the foreigner gets the money. When we buy the manufactured goods at home, we get both the goods and the money.”
And Jim Morrison, The Doors, said this: “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, man. But I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.”
In the end, it comes down to what you believe in. If you have money, you can spend it however you please. It might just be that buying from small, artisan shops or individual craftsman — regardless of country — is the best way to ensure a quality product. Statistics can be manipulated to fit any side of the argument: spending slightly more on domestic goods creates job opportunities and brings wealth back to the local economy, or spending less and saving money on cheaper, foreign goods sustains the economy by way of trade.
The consumer will always be in a predicament, wanting designer quality at mass-produced cost, according to Scott.
“Do I buy the socially sound, American-made leather motorcycle jacket for $1,000 or the close-enough versions made in China for $250?” she asks. “More often than not, it is determined not by what one feels is politically correct in their head, but rather what funds are sitting in one’s bank account. There are still brands out there that make quality products, at a great price, in America. For those consumers out there that want to support our economy and promote American jobs, I would say, ‘Put your money where your mouth is’ and do your research to find those brands.”