‘Made in the USA’ has received its fair share of attention lately. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise, as conversations surrounding domestic manufacturing tend to be more emotionally-charged than discussions about foreign manufacturing partners. With it being an election year, we’ve heard candidates promise up and down to protect American jobs and boost domestic production – talk of job creation and retention has been front and center for several months now. Then of course there was that hiccup with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats not actually being made in the US.
“The true origin of the fabric in that hat remains a mystery — whether US- or foreign-made and by whom — and a striking example of how difficult and murky it can be to verify something is actually ‘Made in USA.'” –BoF
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case. True, Trump’s campaign hats are sewn at a factory in Los Angeles, but that isn’t enough to satisfy the stringent requirements of a ‘Made in USA’ claim. Shinola, the watch company based in Detroit and lauded for its American heritage, came under fire recently for a similar discrepancy.
“But as you can imagine, many of the components and raw materials are simply not available in the U.S. and because of that we are unable to meet the almost unattainable Made in USA standards created by the government.” –WWD
In 2015, watchdog agency Truth In Advertising filed a complaint against Walmart saying over 100 of its products had “Made in USA” labeling errors – leading the FTC to initiate an investigation. The case was closed three months later after Walmart clarified its claims and made more detailed disclosures about the percent of American-made content.
Clearly “attention to detail” needs to be one of your skills if you’re bold enough to make a Made in USA claim. What are these labeling standards, and why are brands struggling to meet them?
Made in the USA comes with a certain level of pride and prestige, as well as the implication of higher quality. As with any brand, it is critical to uphold this image if we want to preserve its meaning in the minds of consumers. The requirements are specific – more so than for any other country that wishes to export goods to the US. A brief overview is below – Maker’s Row also provides a good explanation here.
- To say Made in the USA, brands must follow the “one step removed” rule:
- To label a shirt, the fabric must also be made in the USA.
- To label a fabric, the yarn must also be made in the USA.
- “All or virtually all” significant parts and processing must be made in the USA
- Manufacturers and marketers must have a reasonable basis to support their claim, including competent and reliable evidence that supports both express and implied claims.
Let’s talk “implied claims” for a second. When you see an American flag on a clothing label, what do you automatically assume about that garment? That it has integrity? That it was made in decent working conditions, and employees at the factory received fair wages? Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Labor issues still occur here in the U.S. – whether that’s excessive overtime without just compensation, paying employees below the federal minimum wage, or any other type of garment factory horror story we read in the news. There are countries where we’ve grown to expect such violations, but we fail to recognize they can just as easily occur here at home. This is an important distinction: labor issues point to a broken fashion system, not a specific country of origin. Since this system is global, its dark side is too.
“The kinds of problems that we just find persisting in this industry all emanate from a supply chain that is broken and that ultimately leaves the workers bearing all of the risks and all of the costs of this system. And that is simply not acceptable.” –WWD
On the practical side of things, it is a conscious decision to pursue Made in the USA: there are so many limitations and challenges to achieving this label that it doesn’t just happen on accident. The production process centers around the supply chain because this one variable holds the highest priority. Brands who produce overseas have the ability to mold their supply chain to meet the needs of the product (whether that’s materials, pricing, or some other factor), but brands who produce domestically do not have that flexibility. The design will change (or be dropped from the collection) in response to the limits of the supply chain, not the other way around.
Securing production partners within the U.S. has become much more challenging over the past several years. Costs continue to rise (whether that be for raw materials or higher wages) but that doesn’t mean consumers are willing to pay more for their clothes: in fact, apparel prices aren’t keeping up with increases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Both June and September of this year actually saw apparel prices decrease while the CPI increased. These factors combined have resulted in an exodus of sorts, leading manufacturing to shift overseas. In 2015 there were 2,128 garment makers in L.A. – down 33% from 2005. Between 1990 and 2013, total U.S. employment in apparel manufacturing fell from nearly 940,000 to 144,000. Compare those numbers to 1931 – when New York had the highest concentration of apparel manufacturers in the world – and you can see how such a change would drastically affect the makeup of the fashion industry.
As garment industry jobs have shifted overseas, here in the United States we’ve lost a lot of the manufacturing capabilities required to produce clothing – especially within the expedited time frames many brands strive for these days. For smaller designers who haven’t yet acquired significant order volumes, being made in the USA isn’t a viable option. Instead, the current state of domestic apparel manufacturing forces their hand: they often have no choice but to outsource production to foreign manufacturers.
Manufacture New York is working to change this reality. With over a decade of experience as a designer in NYC, CEO and Founder Bob Bland saw first-hand the need for a completely new model. By applying the concept of a sharing economy to apparel production, Manufacture NY creates access to affordable, consistent, and reliable domestic production resources. Cooperative ownership of machinery democratizes sustainable production solutions and makes small-batch manufacturing possible, and vertical integration of the fashion supply chain promotes collaboration and innovation. According to Bland, the average age of apparel and textile manufacturers in the US is 60 years old – if we don’t act, this will create a major skills gap for future generations. By enabling emerging talent to produce in the US, Manufacture NY is challenging what has become second-nature in the fashion industry – proving that the “way it is” isn’t necessarily the way it has to be.
The upset in the fashion calendar could also result in a resurgence of domestic manufacturing. Changing to a see now/buy now system requires brands to cut down significantly on lead times – one way to do this is by bringing production back to the US, avoiding the typical 30 to 45 days required to ship an item overseas. Rebecca Minkoff utilized this strategy for her Spring 16 line back in February: she made a few additions to the line in December, and by producing them in L.A. and New York they were ready in time to show.
There is some serious progress being made when it comes to bringing apparel production back stateside. Whether through city-sponsored initiatives like Made in N.Y. or through capsule collections like The Backyard Project by North Face, a USA supply chain is within our reach.
Check out some Made in the USA brands below: