Fall is football. It is back-to-school. It is sifting through summer photos. This fall is a little different, however, a leap year kind of fall. The quadrennial dose of fake patriotism from our politicians is the canary in the coal mine. We have a big election coming up, they say. And the entire summer and through this fall, we will be told to be patriotic, and to watch out for the Chinese. They are taking our money, it seems, but we can stop them. Just buy American products. So, everyone is buying American and supporting the economy. Made in USA is back, I am told, through flag draped tweets, posts and pins.
But are they? Are they really buying American?
Most surveys agree that roughly 3 out of 4 Americans say that buying Made in USA products is important. Half of them would even be willing to pay 10% to 20% more for domestic apparel than imported. The truth is, they are speaking patriotically rather than practically.
For the average consumer, “Made in USA” is a luxury brand much like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada is to the upper crust. Made in USA clothing is too expensive, most of the time at least 50% higher - usually closer to 100% higher - than imported apparel and accessories. A somber search on Amazon.com just hints at the problem.
A pair of Made in USA New Balance (990V3) woman’s running shoes will set you back $150 while a comparable imported pair by Nike(Air Pegasus+) will cost you $100; a domestic Carhartt leather belt is $25 while a similar imported Dickies leather belt is $10; even the American flag made right here at home is four times as expensive as an imported flag.
Most Americans want to buy American clothing, but simply cannot afford to. Economic patriotism, union loyalties, product quality, and child labor violations are extremely important to most Americans who regularly look to buy American first, but reality is that the average consumer will buy an item when value and price intersect, a straight forward pocketbook decision. So, what can be done to sell US garments to this consumer? Can we still make it here – in these 50 states?
We cannot, of course, compete with wages less than $1 per hour. There are products that are simply better off made elsewhere. Let’s agree. But there is good news. There are smaller niche markets in which imports simply cannot compete. Some products must be made quickly and have requirements that mass production cannot meet. Some products no longer can be made in such quantities that warrant importing from Asia. The demand simply isn’t there. The market is changing to a “flash” driven market where social media tantrums drive a style to “hot” and down to “not” faster than a cargo ship can cross the Pacific. Controlling the production domestically allows for adaptation, speed to market, and flexibility to change with the mood of the modern vacillating consumers. Clothing produced in Asia requires at least a month from design to shore. This is our advantage, because we are local. It is a big market that belongs to us if we adapt, but only if we lower the cost of our products. Price and value must still intersect for a sale to be made.
Materials can be sourced more creatively and cheaper by creating domestic purchasing networks of like-minded manufacturers that work with American mills to obtain fabrics at economies of scale. Los Angeles garment district based suppliers and middle men are creating such networks and are able to lower cost of goods enough to offset higher local wages to again become competitive. It works and can work even better if we stay creative, flexible and innovative. That’s American entrepreneurship and that’s something they should watch out for – the Chinese, that is.