The Skill is Gone

The other day I was driving through Farmland, Indiana.   It was rush hour somewhere, but not in Farmland that day…or ever.

The town has a population of 1,340 plus one guy who looked a little out of place.  He was doing the strut where one arm swings and the other holds the waist of his pants to keep them from falling below his knees.

“I wonder where his underwear were made,” I thought, because that’s how much of a problem I have.

I’m not against the baggy-pants look, but Farmland is the kind of place where keeping your pants up is such a priority that suspenders are often employed; fashion be damned. So it’s no surprise that my next thought was, “That boy needs a belt.”

I don’t normally wear a belt, but, inspired by the beltless Farmlander, I am today. Also, I’m training for the NYC marathon and my pants are starting to get loose.

My belt was Made in the USA — Maine to be precise.  Jim Taylor’s company The Belted Cow produced the belt and the design is the work of artist Scott Earle.  Only 3% of our clothes are still made in the U.S. and I always enjoy learning about how domestic companies compete.  It isn’t easy.  Jim sent me an email after reading “Where Am I Wearing?” explaining:

My wife and I started a small business in 2004 that works with gallery artists (not apparel designers) to create unique artwork for casual belts and accessories.  We make all our products in Maine.  We have to compete with a lot of companies that outsource their manufacturing to the regions you write about.  It is very difficult to compete on price with these companies because their costs are much lower than ours (including freight in).  For instance, my flip flops cost me 4 times what my competitor pays for his from a Chinese company.

I think people know why many products made overseas cost less to buy and why companies like Wal-Mart are doing so well.  In my experience, customers do like to buy apparel made in the US and our customers like the fact that Belted Cow products are Made in Maine.  However, they are not willing to pay too much of a premium for that.

Sourcing domestically has its own challenges.  For apparel, it is typically more expensive (relative to overseas) and it is getting harder to find high quality factories to do your work.  The domestic apparel industry just does not attract people like it used to. In my experience you are lucky to find a factory with workers like you found in Perry (NY) who have many years of experience and are committed to what they do.  But who will take their place?  There aren’t a lot of young applicants for sewing jobs in US factories. I have been in many domestic apparel plants and they sound similar to the ones you visited in terms of the physical plant.  They do seem very different when you look at the average age of the workers and how they are treated in terms of compensation and opportunity.  That is the premium you pay for when you buy a US made garment.  I think it is worth it.

Only 3% of our clothes are still produced in the United States. The garment industry is gone and isn’t coming back, but there are a brave few, like Jim, who have found their niche and are holding on.  Not only do they compete with highly-skilled cheap labor and cheaper materials, the declining domestic garment labor force may not be sustainable.

Cue B.B. King: The skill is gone. The skill is gone away from here. I know you done me wrong…and the skill is gone.

I think many of us associate American-made with quality (ignoring automobiles), but that might not be the case anymore.

I’m proud of my belt.  I know it’s story about Jim and his wife and about Scott, the artist, who they commissioned.  I’m so proud of it that I might buy another and the next time I pass through Farmland and see the fella with the baggy jeans, I’ll give it to him.

It would be worth it.

Let’s get the conversation started: Do you try to buy American? If so, why and how much more are you willing to pay?

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Kyle says:

I don’t go out of my way to buy American. Typically, it has less to do with price than with quality and availability. For example, I’m just not a big fan of American made tennis shoes. That said, since talking with you about this topic and reading WAIW, I have visited a number of company websites (Nike, Asics, etc.) to read their corporate social responsibility statements. I’m guessing that Nike is as reviled as Coca-Cola when it comes to workers’ rights, but Nike’s website at least makes it sound as if they have taken steps to have their factories independently monitored. I mean, “Management Audit Verification Tool (MAV)” and “Safety, Health, Attitude of Management, of People and Environment (SHAPE)” all sound very official and socially conscious. Who knows though? Maybe they are just meaningless words buried in a dusty corner of Nike’s website.

I’m involved in local disaster-preparedness issues – wanted a pair of boots that met the OSHA spec for puncture resistance, dropped objects, oil (traction against), and – electrical insulation. We’ve had problems in NYC the last few years with people dying from stray amperage, sometimes dogs.
In any case – I bought a pair of Red Wings. Turns out their “regular” grade stuff is made in China – but the upper-end (what I bought, higher spec – made in the U.S. by unionized workers with decent pay and health insurance. And so warm I can wear them for hours in the coldest weather. Price difference, retail – between the two lines – about $80 and $120 – so $40 more for much better boots with no surplus moral weight.

But the situation found me- and I was happy about it – I try to look out for details like this – but it’s hard to track.


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