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Manufacturing Technical Apparel in the US is too Hard and Other Lies

Bill Amos

I don’t know how I stumbled on it, but I came across this document from outdoor brand Patagonia, Inc. last week entitled “Made in China”. Written in 2013, it is a laundry list of excuses for why their products are not made in the United States.

This isn’t just solely a Patagonia issue obviously, it is ubiquitous across the apparel industry.

The same year the above-mentioned document was written, I was helping a former garment factory owner here in Oregon go through a container full of goods that she had loaded when she shut down her factory in the mid-90’s.

It was a time capsule of the end of an era. By 1990 only fifty percent of clothing sold in America was made in America. By the year 2000 that would drop to 29 percent. Currently that number sits around 2.5 percent.

The container was full of the remnants of this bygone era. It was full of samples, logo labels, care and content labels, trims, etc. from myriad outdoor brands. Some now defunct, some billion-dollar companies: Patagonia, Columbia, Serac, you name it.




To look through that container time capsule was to realize that in twenty short years that exodus of manufacturing represented the death of many thousands of factories, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and, perhaps most damaging, the loss of a cumulative tens-of-thousands of years of institutional knowledge.

 

In their document, Patagonia, Inc. opines that, “Qualified American Factories are Tough to Find” and that it is, “very difficult for clothing companies to find factories that meet our standards, the textile industry is much smaller; the work has shifted overseas.”

You know why the work shifted overseas? Because these companies LET IT HAPPEN. Patagonia, Inc. says that they, “paid for ads in the New York Times and newspapers around the country in opposition to the NAFTA treaty, because we feared it would degrade environmental standards and because it would displace American workers.”

This line of thought seems to say that buying ads absolves Patagonia of any responsibility. Post 1994 someone must have held a gun to their heads and said, “you have to move your production overseas, or else”.

No, they, like almost every other major apparel company, ditched their domestic factories for less expensive alternatives in far off places where externalities could be out of site and out of mind. If they felt so strongly about it they could have stayed.

After all, with all the other brands leaving the country, they would have had their choice of the best factories to work with. But they didn't. This exodus accelerated a slow-motion train wreck that has led us to the precarious place we find ourselves now:

a hollowed-out manufacturing sector with former industrial towns all but abandoned, with high unemployment and rampant opiate abuse and an inability for our country to produce goods that our necessary for our safety and security.
 

Proponents of globalization as it has been practiced will say that America is post-industrial, our economy is too advanced and we are too good for these jobs. This is a lie that has been told repeatedly to justify the destruction of America’s industrial base.


Even Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist who has done more than anyone to cheerlead this devastation, has recently admitted just how wrong he was. In a Foreign Policy article entitled, “Economists on the Run”, the author writes:

 

"Now Krugman has come out and admitted, offhandedly, that his own understanding of economics has been seriously deficient as well.

In a recent essay titled 'What Economists (Including Me) Got Wrong About Globalization,' adapted from a forthcoming book on inequality, Krugman writes that he and other mainstream economists 'missed a crucial part of the story' in failing to realize that globalization would lead to 'hyperglobalization' and huge economic and social upheaval, particularly of the industrial middle class in America.

And many of these working-class communities have been hit hard by Chinese competition, which economists made a 'major mistake' in underestimating, Krugman says.
 

It was quite a “whoops” moment, considering all the ruined American communities and displaced millions of workers we’ve seen in the interim."   
 

That is quite the whoops moment and the amount of damage that Krugman has done cannot be overstated.

As a result of these policies, we have shipped an obscene amount of our nation’s wealth to China in exchange for low priced goods, and those low-priced goods have turned out to be more expensive than we could have possibly imagined.
 

I would argue that, for most Americans, our economy is actually far less advanced than it was when we were actually manufacturing the bulk of what was sold in this country.

The process of globalization has been very uneven in who has benefited. A small percentage have accrued unimaginable wealth, while the vast majority of people have languished. Currently millions of people toil in Amazon warehouses loading Chinese made goods into boxes to be shipped around the country.

Millions of people work at Walmart, stocking shelves full of goods, the majority not manufactured here. An astounding 55 million Americans work in the so-called "gig economy", with very little in the way of worker protections or benefits. So what's more advanced, what we have now, or a vibrant manufacturing economy?

 

Back to apparel. One thing the average American consumer probably does not know is that almost every outdoor brand, yes, including Patagonia, Inc., makes product for the United States military.

The Berry Amendment was a forward thinking 1941 law that requires that almost all textile products be wholly made in the USA from fiber to finish.

This law is one of the reasons that our greatly diminished textile industry still exists at all. While these companies complain that there are just not enough good domestic factories to make their products, they, in fact, use quality US factories to make their military products.

 

Going back to their document, Patagonia, Inc. says, “Trade programs that have encouraged textile and sewing manufacturers to move offshore have meant that the factories that remain have a difficult time providing the capacity we need.

The number of sewing workers required to produce tens of thousands of garments each season, many of which are very complex, are extremely hard to find.”

While this is true to a degree, using modern production systems and equipment, producing tens of thousands of garments a month is certainly in the realm of what can be done in the United States. I know this because, as I write this, I’m looking out the window onto our factory floor and I see a line of twelve very skilled sewing machine operators making over ten thousand pieces of flatseamed garments a month.

But to do that a brand like Patagonia, Inc. would have to pay production costs to a factory that pays their workers a decent American wage and benefits. It is a fact that it is more difficult and more expensive to make things in the US, but if these brands had the will (we know they have the capital) to do so, they could certainly do it.

In the process they would help create thousands upon thousands of manufacturing jobs and revitalize a long neglected, but very important, sector of our economy.

 

In their recent black Friday marketing campaign, Patagonia, Inc. asks their customers to “Buy Less, Demand More.” Ultimately it will be up to the consumer to demand that more of the products they buy be made in the USA.

When a customer buys a product from the likes of our brand, NW Alpine, their money is multiplied throughout the local economy. Part of that purchase goes to paying wages to our employees, who then go out and shop at our local stores and eat at our local restaurants.

We try to source much of our fabric in the US, and when we send payment for raw materials that money goes to places like North Carolina, where they pay their workers and the money is similarly multiplied in their local communities.

Part of that money from our customer's purchase helps to pay expenses, taxes, and profits that allow us to make capital investments and hire more people. Where you spend your money matters a great deal. As Patagonia, Inc. says, we should demand more. Demanding more should include demanding made in the USA.   

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