We Can Make It In The U.S.A., But Will We Buy It?

made in usaWhen Lynda Fassa drove through New Jersey towns on the hunt for local manufacturers, she passed a sign that read: "Embroidery Capital of the Wor."

It used to say "World." Now there's just a pawn shop, an army recruitment center, and a handful of bars. Every year, one or two of the dyers for her and her husband Hoss's eco-friendly Green Babies line goes out of business.

"You don't have to be a brain surgeon to realize that we've made a mistake somewhere along the line."

When the artificially inflated construction bubble popped a few years ago, the reality of American manufacturing was exposed in all its devastation. These days, 'Made in U.S.A.' no longer seems like token patriotism; it's an ideology that ties together class, workers' rights, systemic unemployment, urban decay and, at its core, an understanding of what America is and should be. With a war waging over collective bargaining rights, citizens are getting both a micro and macro awareness of the steady decline of secure middle class jobs.

"Since everyone has begun to figure out that we've outsourced all of our jobs, there's a lot of angry people," says Macon Rudick, the owner of SanSegal Sportswear, which released its Made in U.S.A. "Green Brand" 12 years ago.

This summer, ABC World News launched a series called "Made In America." Diane Sawyer breathlessly revealed that a catalog produced by On Campus Marketing, where students at 850 campuses buy dorm staples, didn't feature a single American-made good. Almost all the souvenirs at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's gift store: foreign-made. Your home: furnished courtesy of China.

Suddenly, the connection between off-shoring and America's epidemic of unemployment made it to primetime. If the $46 billion that American college students spend on school stuff every year stayed in this country, ABC calculated, half a million more Americans would be employed.

Rudick has been trying to get the Smithsonian to carry "Green Brand" goods for over a decade. After ABC did their expose, the museum finally gave him a call.

Is it hypocritical for political candidates running on a platform of job creation to wear shirts sewn in Vietnam? Is it wrong that although U.S. military uniforms must legally be manufactured inside our borders, much of the merchandise sold at a U.S. Army PX Superstore, says Rudick, is made a few latitudes south or a handful of longitudes east of them? These are questions that few have been asking until now.

Trading Jobs For A $5 T-shirt

When Joel Joseph co-founded the nonprofit Made in the USA Foundation in 1989, 50 percent of the country's clothes were made domestically. That figure, he says, is now 5 percent. Elizabeth Cline, the author of the forthcoming book "Overdressed: Why Cheap Fashion Is a Bad Deal," places it at 2 percent.

Since October 2000, the U.S. lost 32 percent of its manufacturing jobs, which translates to 5.5 million layoffs. According to Joseph, when Nixon lifted the trade embargo with China in 1972, he cost Americans 2 million jobs to date. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meant that goods made in Mexico as of 1994 no longer faced tariffs; American companies relocated south.

Bad for the American worker, but a winning move for brands and retailers. According to Rudick, the price point used to double at the cash register. Now, retailers expect a profit margin 3.5 to 5 times what they paid, and can still give consumers the low prices they like.

This process has unfolded over the last few decades, but Americans have been mostly unperturbed. Protests on college campuses, starting in the 1990s, were almost all about sweatshop conditions in Latin America and Asia, not the fact that these factories were in these regions to begin with.

When Fassa founded Green Babies out of her New York apartment 17 years-ago, it was because she thought there would be demand for chemical-free baby clothes. Making those clothes domestically was more of an afterthought, a concern over labor conditions that she couldn't monitor herself.

"I don't want to sounds corny and altruistic," she says, "but we were making organic baby clothing, so we were pretty motivated to making the world a little better, not worse."

And sure enough, her customers, while drawn to the idea of wrapping their baby in toxin-free threads, have shown little concern for the Made in U.S.A. label.

Unlike the food movement, where the drive for organic and local has grown in tandem, the market for organic and recycled clothing has surged, while consumers have remained mostly unconcerned about where that organic cotton and recycled polyester came from.

"The problem is that everyone wants a $5 T-shirt," says Fassa.

"It's a bit of greed on everybody's part," says Rudick. "But we've outsourced our jobs to the point where we've created a monster. If you're not competitive, Walmart will eat your lunch."

Creating The Alternative

If you want to make a change in society, according to eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, there are three ways to go about it: You can try to transform the system through law, politics, activism, or a lot of cash. You can try to change the culture, through exposes, stunts or celebrities. Or you can try to create a robust alternative.

"You can't just boycott Victoria Secret all day, but you also can't act like you're in 'Sex and the City' and pretend like you have no idea how things are made," says Rachel Weeks, the CEO of the collegiate apparel brand School House. "We've moved passed an era of boycotting big brands and finger-pointing."

After graduating from Duke in 2007, Weeks flew to Sri Lanka to dip her toes in the garment industry.

Four years later and Weeks is on the front lines of a movement to transform the way Americans dress. At first, she contracted a factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka and started paying the workers what she determined to be a local living wage, almost triple the $60 a month they were used to making.

Very quickly, Weeks noticed something interesting. The workers became more productive. It turns out that when your employee can pay 15 rupees for the bus, as opposed to walking 2½ hours to work, when they can eat real meals instead of taking vitamin supplements, when they can send their children to school, they're miraculously better workers. And the notoriously high turnover rate in the world of outsourced manufacturing plummeted to a sturdy zero.

This year Weeks made an even more radical move, "onshoring" her manufacturing from Sri Lanka to North Carolina, and reviving a corner of the East Coast textile industry from its long and painful death throes. She found a fabric mill in Lumberton, a box manufacturer in Greensboro, a zipper factory in Oxford, and yarn suppliers still surviving in pockets of her home state. She's paying all her workers over a minimum wage, and is selling her brand at 100 outlets across the U.S.

College Kids Take On The World

It's no coincidence that this movement is making its first real gains in the world of collegiate apparel. College students are better able to force their universities, as supposed beacons of enlightenment, to support manufacturing that lives up to its values. Northwestern's a much easier target than Nike.

College students also care the most. In part, because they always care the most. In between classes on colonialism and human trafficking, college students are more eager to make a dent in a perceived injustice. But the same forces that drove the globalization of capital in the last couple of decades have also caused a globalization of conscience at college. "Young people today," says Weeks, "are consumers of the world around them in a way that has never existed before."

There's a craving among young people for products that seem more socially responsible, more personal, and more of that slippery buzzword "authentic." And while sweatpants with "Georgetown" across the butt might be a small slice of the national apparel market, it's having a growing effect.

"The era of the big box food store, the big box mall, is really unwinding," says Weeks. "Do you remember when Walmart changed its logo from all-caps to lowercase?" she asks. That was a telltale moment. "I thought, they're trying to be like Apple! I know they're watching what's going on. They wouldn't be dabbling in fair trade or organic cotton if they weren't."

Other stores have taken heed. Target and Macy's may be onshoring some supply soon. Nordstrom is opening a new two-story, 11,000-square-foot store in the heart of Manhattan that will donate all proceeds to local charities. Sounds like bad business. It turns out, however, that making your brand conjure warm fuzzy feelings can actually translate into profit.

In the past year, after two decades of whopping declines, the number of garment jobs in the U.S. actually increased.

Addicted To Throwaway Fashion

Of course, domestic manufacturing means wildly higher labor costs, particularly when it comes to the labor-intensive world of apparel. Some activists have a well-scripted response to this: Corporations should just deal. Branded products are usually so marked-up that a company could just swallow the cost. An Air Jordan 5 Retro is $110, with probably little difference if those clear rubber soles are molded in the People's Republic or Poughkeepsie.

Weeks insists that the extra price of labor is almost entirely offset by other savings, mainly "all the freight and duty costs of bringing in all these crazy components from Hong Kong," as well as higher material costs, the full-time contracted quality controllers, and her thrice-yearly trips to the Indian subcontinent. Turnover can also be much faster, if your factory is just a car ride away.

Most Made in U.S.A. clothing brands still concede that going local is more expensive, and at least some of those extra costs end up on the price tag. At School House, however, investing in human labor is no bleeding-heart exercise.

"I'm a die-hard feminist, but I'm also a capitalist," Weeks emphasizes. "I believe company value and brand value is a much more nuanced conversation than chasing cost around the globe. It's about not treating everyone touching your product as a piece of machinery along the way, but as a human being. The ROI [return on investment] isn't going to be visible on this quarter's balance sheet, but it will leave a legacy for your company."

Only brands with a high enough price point, however, are able to have that nuanced conversation. They can afford to "swallow the cost" or create a long-term "legacy" with much greater ease than Jaclyn Smith for Kmart. Since the advent of offshoring, Americans have mourned millions of lost jobs, and hundreds of shattered communities. But at the same time, they have been trained to expect the dirt cheap clothes that globalized production makes possible. In fact, many families, plunged into poverty by a shuttered factory, have come to rely on them.

We live in an age of throwaway consumption, where nothing much is expected to last. At the turn of the century, "readymade" clothes were often way out of the price range of the average American. In 1902, a knockoff French "lingerie style" dress at Marshall Field's started at $25 ($621.50 in today's dollars), according to Cline. These days, you can get a Tie Lace Dress at Forever 21 for $29.80. A smocked flutter-sleeve dress from Walmart will set you back $4.

Americans consume as quickly as fashion purveyors can provide. In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits, Cline found. We now buy more than 60 articles of new clothing a year. In the 1930s, thousands of Jewish immigrants used their Old World craftsmanship to build one of the most thriving textile centers in the world. Today, the grandchildren of Manhattan's Garment District architects are making bimonthly trips to H&M.

And the difference in quality is astounding. "Everyone's obsessed with the clothes in 'Mad Men,'" says Cline. "People forget that those clothes were made in New York. People forget how amazing our garment industry was." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of apparel manufacturing jobs in New York state is under a third of what it was in 2000.

At some point, people just stopped caring. So many of us shop for things that are cute and flattering and on trend, but with little concern for the fabrics, the quality of the stitch, the evenness of the hem. "No one knows anything about clothes," says Cline, "because nobody sews anymore."

The Wrong Way

Governments recognize the importance of domestic manufacturing. States spend millions on "economic development," trying to lure manufacturers inside their borders. North Carolina, for example, gave Dell Inc. $280 million in tax breaks to entice it to set up shop. "That's really not helping the American economy," says Weeks. "It's helping the people in Greensboro, or wherever it goes. But we're one country."

The North Carolina authorities probably regretted it too, when Dell closed down that facility last year. The computer manufacturer is investing $100 billion in China over the next decade.

"Here in Durham, there's a lot of talk about how to bring tech jobs to the area, how to turn university students into local professionals," Weeks explains. "Meanwhile in this town, five homeless people walk into the office every day, asking for money."

Manufacturing is critical to the American economy, because there are a lot of people in this country without the skills to program for Facebook. Manufacturing jobs have traditionally been a secure option for the less educated and a first rung for new immigrants.

"There's a lot of hope in America, to continue to lead and innovate in entrepreneurship and technology," Weeks says. "But there are also a lot of people who need a job right now, who need to put food on the table today."

Getting People To Care

While the desire to support American jobs through our purchases has perhaps never been higher, it's countered by the need of many Americans to spend within squeezed budgets.

"People have become cheaper. More are shopping at H&M and Walmart," says Cline. "We're so attached to this method of shopping now, where we just want the latest and newest trend, and for the least money as possible."

But these clothes aren't always the wisest investment. "My pair of Allen-Edmonds has lasted for 20 years," says Joseph, speaking of the high-end Wisconsin-made menswear brand. Spending $250 on a pair of shoes might seem extravagant to most Americans, but it's cheaper than buying a new pair of Payless cap-toe oxfords, at $39.99, every two years.

Weeks sums up the issue in a sentence: "Do you want two disposable H&M Made in China T-shirts, or to invest in a School House shirt that's withstood the wash test?"

Made in America goods aren't necessarily higher quality than clothing manufactured abroad. U.S. automakers tried to make the "Buy American" push in the early 1990s. There were just two problems: Japanese cars were better; and Ford, GM, and Chrysler manufactured many of their parts in Mexico.

The key is not just to bring manufacturing back to the U.S., but also to make the goods produced here impossible to match.

"We will never be able to compete with China on price," says Cline. "So we have to compete on quality, design and speed."

For this to work, Americans need to learn how to recognize a well-made piece of clothing.

"People want to buy things that are better made and last longer, and they're ready to spend a premium on that," says Hoss Fassa. "If Made in the U.S. comes to mean that, then yes. Then maybe it'll start meaning something again."

Next:The Secret To Creating New High-Paying Jobs In America

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