A number of Made-in-USA labels have recently moved some — or all — of their production overseas. We wanted to find out why they left, and what their move could mean to the American garment industry as a whole.
Over the last two years, a number of brands that were once 100% Made-in-USA, including Taylor Stitch, Buck Mason, Corridor NYC, Outdoor Voices, and Topo Designs, have moved some – or all – of their production to Asia.
While it would be easy to attribute those moves to a desire for cheaper labor and higher profits, it turns out that in most cases, it isn’t that simple. Yes, labor in China, India, and elsewhere, is less expensive than American labor, but according to those who’ve made the jump, the quality of that labor is far more consistent than what they had stateside – and it isn’t as cheap as it once was, either.
[image via Taylor Stitch]
“China is not the cheapest place to make product anymore and I totally hear you, it naturally sounds dirty because of it’s history,” says Michael Maher, cofounder of Taylor Stitch. “[But] the truth is, it’s one of the most advanced manufacturing countries in the world with some of the most skilled workforce.”
“[The] product is so much better,” adds Dan Snyder of Corridor NYC, in regards to their recent move to India, though he’s quick to add that the styles Corridor is still making domestically “continue to be very good.”
Construction quality isn’t the only reason some brands have relocated. Factories in China and India are also ruthlessly efficient and precise, which makes it much easier to add new styles to a collection.
“In the past, we have worked hard to keep our prices down by using value textiles,” says Snyder. “But I wanted to design my own textiles [and] the US has almost no textile industry… shirting textiles cannot be designed and milled here at an attainable price.” Now that Corridor is working with more dexterous factories, they can incorporate new “beautiful weaves” into their line without increasing the cost of their shirts.
[image via Corridor NYC]
And though pollution is still probably the most glaring pock mark on an industry that’s covered with them, and some factories in those regions have been notoriously problematic in that regard, others are actually leading the way in environmentally-friendly production.
“I set a goal to get virgin cotton out of our supply chain by 2020,” Maher says. “We’re already making all of our heavy bag tees out of 100% recycled content and are working a lot of hemp, tencel and organic cotton into our manufacturing wherever we can. We need these raw materials to be efficient to source… which means we need it to be close to the manufacturer. The place that’s pioneering these efforts is Asia. The factory we partnered with is Oeko-Tex 100, Blue Sign and GOTS certified.”
Maher also says he worked with Patagonia’s director of product to find factories where workers are treated equitably and humanely. And Snyder of Corridor made an equally concerted effort to find ethical suppliers: “all of our new factories are certified by WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production), SEDEX and OSHAS.”
[image via Gustin]
But even with Asia’s lower prices, more capable factories, and eco / ethical advancements beckoning, not everyone is giving up on making here.
“Producing in America has always been one of the core elements of our company, and something that we haven’t strayed from in over 10 years of developing and making products,” says Stephen Powell, of Gustin. “I think customers see that we haven’t joined [the other companies moving to Asia], and appreciate that we’ve stuck to our principles.”
For Carrie Hasagawa, of Battenwear, proximity is paramount. “It would never work… to move everything. We wouldn’t be able to walk in to our factories, be a part of the community like we are now. And that’s as important to us as anything.”
[image via Save Khaki]
David Mullen, of Save Khaki, also remains committed to producing domestically, even if it forces him to reduce the brand’s product offerings. “We built a business model where we’re making [only what] we need and if we hit on something, we make more,” he said.
While all three remain steadfast, they also admit that accepting limitations is par for the course when you manufacture in the US.
“From a quality perspective, US production can be challenging,” says Mullen. “It took us a while to find someone that could handle our pants. Sometimes, there are 40 sewing operations in a chino, which is a lot of labor and, ultimately, makes the wholesale model harder.”
[image via Battenwear]
For Hasagawa, however, the slight flaws sometimes found on American-made garments are indicative of a more intimate production process. “Those flaws are part of the integrity [of the garment],” she says. “They make each one unique, which lets you learn more about it. Old machines, slanted floors, variance between pieces, those things are part of a piece’s identity, and those flaws are important.”
Important or not, inconsistent quality and limited production capabilities are making it increasingly harder for brands that want to scale to stay here. And, like a snake eating its own tail, as more brands move away, more factories close, further lessening the industry’s proficiency and capacity.
So ultimately, it’s a question of whether a brand – and its customers – are willing to accept the American garment industry’s shortcomings, for the sake of keeping it alive.