What is the current Made In USA craze all about? Where does the sentiment come from? Is it nostalgia – a wistful look back at the Leave It to Beaver - Perry Como - Levittown days of American economic ascendancy? Is it a patriotic desire to see all of our fellow citizens employed, our economy flourishing, the rebuilding of the American manufacturing engine, transforming our unlimited supply of raw materials into an infinite variety of consumer products? Is it like the foodies’ Fresh and Local craze? Or is it a thinly disguised kind of xenophobia – US vs THEM – born from envy of the Chinese having achieved first place in the economic playoffs? Or, ultimately, just jingoistic malice from populist blowhards. Maybe a bit of all of the above.
Made In USA! I must admit I can’t hear the phrase but it sends me on a (bad) trip down memory lane. I see 70s and 80s ILGWU bus-side ad campaigns with BUY AMERICAN and big stars and stripes. Unions demanding we put little red, white and blue labels into garments. The words to the TV commercial jingle:
Look for the union label
When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse...
…always look for the union label
It says we’re able
To make it in the USA!
Check it out on YouTube, but have some Kleenex nearby. It’s a total tearjerker. At Hilton Manufacturing we employed 350 of these folks, mostly women, who went home from our place every night to clean their houses, do the laundry, feed their husbands and bathe their kids, check their homework; to try to get them ready for school the next day so they wouldn’t grow up having to work in a garment factory. Because the real American dream was to wake up after college at Bear Stearns or Northwestern Life or Drinker, Biddle & Reath, not in a manufacturing plant. Shirtsleeves to Cadillacs in two generations, and never a glance back. That was then…
The real reason for tears was that absolutely no one was listening; nobody bought the idea. Pretty soon old Sam Walton opened four stores in every American town and stacked a cheaper version of every conceivable item from Amana refrigerators to Zenith TV sets from floor to ceiling and we all agreed that Life Was Better! Our dollars went further! Further away, in fact, to China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia. Now it’s a new generation that’s enthralled with a fantasy of Made In USA! and simultaneously outraged that there is no improvement in the financial lives of the middle class, because, well, if we don’t make anything here, there’s nothing for a middle class to actually do.
Made In USA! Couldn’t the government have helped sustain it? Or at least not helped to end it. The “free market” is good if the senator from your home state is good at deal-making, the way Trent Lott excelled at keeping the tariff on imported worsted suiting material at 35% while our competition in Canada, already enjoying their NAFTA status, paid zero (0%) import tax. But a clothing manufacturer -- from Baltimore or Cleveland or New Jersey? -- you were pretty much friendless in Washington. Maybe exporting jobs, as the saying goes, is good for worldwide social stability. Maybe it’s better to let the Bengalis make blouses than to give them disaster relief. In any case it’s ironic at this point that people want to close the barn door when the horse is on another continent.
Back to the present, again. A couple of weeks ago an earnest sales guy shows up here with some samples from a new clothing factory in New England. This sounds fantastic. Small manufacturing lots, easy communication, willingness to customize and cater to the specialty retailer. Competitive prices, too. Made In USA! Now we see the possibility of a resurgence, a post-industrial-revolution Industrial Renaissance. Our heart skips a beat! Maybe all those naïvely optimistic Made In USAers have reason to celebrate! Another unit of a growing “cottage industry” that includes Raleigh Jeans, Filson, Shinola and others. And don’t forget the pillars of the business: Adrian Jules, John H. Daniel, Hickey Freeman, Alden Shoe, Hertling Trouser.
Except, wait a minute, the seams are a little puckered. Isn’t that a problem with a lot of domestic production? Stitching a bit heavy. Fit inconsistent. The pressing isn't great, doesn’t have the “crispness” it should. The armholes are wrinkled; sleeves not fitted in quite right. The buttonholes are, well... It’s the quality, stupid. And here’s where the rubber hits the road. My customer won’t care where it’s made if the lapels don’t lay flat, or if the size 40 in black doesn’t fit the same as the blue one. Made In USA! is a great idea but if the zipper don’t zip or the buttonholes are too small; if the fabric is cheap and raunchy; if the quality isn’t competitive with the stuff from Europe, Asia, wherever, it will just fizzle out. This is where entrepreneurship has to wake up and realize that sentimentality isn’t a substitute for sense. People are, by and large, more concerned with the value they get for their money than with their neighbor’s job security.
Want to rebuild US manufacturing? This is what has to happen: believe that there is a market for whatever consumer products we can possibly make here; believe that the customer will recognize, desire and pay for good stuff. Recognize that, on the other side of the supply-and-demand equation, we have the wherewithal, the available capital, the functional infrastructure already in place to produce goods that people want. There are people still left to teach the younger workers how to do it right. All it takes is old-fashioned determination and attention to detail.
We have to get it out of our heads that Made In USA! is something special in and of itself. The country of origin is an intangible element, and can be an advantage, but if the pants don’t fit it doesn’t matter that they’re made in Italy or in Buckingham bloody Palace.