Shopping ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ isn’t really so patriotic…or is it?
When you look at clothing labels while out shopping, you likely see more Made in Sri Lanka, Made in India, Made in China, and Made in Guatemala than Made in the U.S.A. labels. It seems just about every country in the world produces clothing except America. How can this be? Americans like to buy clothing more than any other nation in the world, so wouldn’t it be suiting that we like to make it, as well?
Unfortunately, American factories have been closing down at a steady rate, with 90% of our garment factories’ production being outsourced since 1955. Skilled and unskilled labor jobs are disappearing at startling rates. And since the 2008 market crash, American fashion companies have been downsizing the staff even in their corporate offices.
“If we’re going to be competitive with the global market, we need to focus on innovation and coming up with new ways of developing and producing product while maintaining and passing down the traditional skills of sewing within this country,” says Erica Wolf, of Save the Garment Center.
While most American fashion companies still hold their design and operations offices here, much of our customer dollars go to the countries that make the clothes; paying their taxes, developing their nations, building their economies. We expect our politicians to solve America’s rising deficit, meanwhile when we go out shopping, we spend our money supporting just about every country but our own. There seems to be a disconnect here. Aren’t there still values and standards that we as Americans believe are worth saving? If you can’t find what you want with a “Made in the USA” label in it, is it wrong to buy it if it is made elsewhere?
There are those who would forgo such non-American purchases; they tend to be the patriotic individuals who post American pride all over everything they own. They proudly sport American-manufactured clothes and equate shopping with the survival and promotion of their values; keeping jobs in America, putting food on the table for their families, looking out for their neighbors, pride, and better-quality clothing.
For over a century, progressive Americans have worked to protect U.S. workers’ rights. Our nation set up some of the first and most effective labor unions, some of the strictest labor rights protection laws and environmental protection standards enacted in the world. These standards have improved over time, and help to prevent more tragedies from happening like the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Americans fought for their rights, the government responded with appropriate laws, and all the while we never would have suspected our continual raising of the bar would over time lower the amount of jobs available to American workers.
Today, we have some of the most stringent factory standards on the planet. While the job of sewing operator is still no walk in the park, at least American technicians don’t have to work long hours without breaks or overtime pay. Modern day U.S. workers now at the end of the day get to go home to see their families, something that is unfathomable to the workers in the labor camps of China.
David Riley of americansworking.com has a theory that large companies have figured out how to operate business as usual regardless of the U.S. protection laws we enact: If they can’t do it here, they will do it somewhere else.
“We have outsourced all of our pollution and human suffering. America has made so many laws protecting the environment, the people, and our company trademarks here, that we can’t do business competitively in our own market. We are making American workers and our factories compete with those in countries who have none of the laws or standards that we must uphold,” says Riley. “We would never allow a factory in China to operate here. But we allow them to sell in our market, so in a sense we are allowing them to operate here anyway. We would never be able to compete.”
But amidst our fiercely competitive and, at times, cannibalistic business culture, our values continue to play a powerful role in the world of good. In 2006, American businesses and individuals were reported to have given more than 4.5 times what all of Europe, Australia, and Japan combined in private donations to charities and philanthropic causes that gave aid to developing nations. Granted, our donations are tax-deductible, but if we can afford to help others, why can’t we spring to support our own – at least with our shopping habits?
The majority of American fashion businesses default to China for production, claiming the cost of labor here is generally much more expensive than what American consumers are willing to pay for.
But according to Erica Wolf, of Save the Garment Center, this is not entirely true.
“With prices shifting, and China becoming more expensive it would benefit a big retailer to have their production department, at the very least, examine the prices at domestic factories. On certain garments the pricing is now comparable if not less domestically. And of course this additional business to local factories would help support American jobs,” she says.
Instead, businesses have learned to take advantage of the world market by outsourcing production to countries with cheap, exploitable labor to cut costs while keeping the prices of their goods low. The truth of the matter is that if a brand can’t dictate to us what we want through advertising, then they are forced to listen to what the consumers demand, and if we look for, request, and buy clothes that are Made in America, more companies will make clothes here.
However, for the average American consumer, fashion is frivolous, and has little to do with values or morals. It is less about the quality or where it is made and much more about the brand name on the label.
Riley says, “So much money goes into and comes from the marketing of high fashion brands; the image of high fashion is where they invest. The money spent there has to come out of something else, and I think that something is the cost of labor and product quality. They’re replacing the dollars for production and spending it on branding and marketing instead.”
With most American consumers so heavily influenced by the intoxicating spell of fashion advertising, most of our consumer drive comes from what we see in the media, rather than from the desire to choose items that represent our traditions or values.
Of course, there is one little company that challenged the standard formula and decided to go completely against the grain. In its 22 years of business, American Apparel has been surprisingly successful at building an American-produced fashion business using a vertical integration model that allows them to do nearly everything from design, to advertising, to production all, more or less, under one roof. Here is a brand that has taken great strides to give “American made” a new image.
If you can get past their ads, the company is all-American; proudly promoting their sweatshop-free, Union Made, U.S.A. produced, vertically integrated business, their charitable donations to natural disaster victims, and their political support of civil rights.
American Apparel isn’t the only contender willing to take on the global market while maintaining American production. There seems to be a new revival on the “Made in the U.S.A.” fashion front. As Wolf notes, “There are designers doing production in the United States. For example, Nanette Lepore does 80% of her production in America.”
And quite recently, the American menswear company Brooks Brothers has made great efforts to bring it back home, complete with a luxe denim collaboration with American classic, Levi Strauss, and a heavily publicized marketing campaign to help equate “Made in America” with the luxury and quality that their brand stands for.
The Olsen Twins’ incredibly successful line, The Row, is yet another high fashion line that is primarily produced in the country. These brands have the marketing muscle and savvy and the will to bring the fashion-minded consumers once again back to getting behind American-made clothes, providing high end fashion that Americans can be proud of.