by Teresa Novellina
When Matthew Burnett, founder of Maker’s Row, launched his own watch line in 2007, he followed the advice he had always heard and went straight to Asia to get them manufactured, believing the costs would be less.
“My largest order was the factory’s smallest order and I was always getting pushed to the back of the line,” Burnett recalled in a panel talk at Northside Festival Friday. That problem led to first a much-improved arrangement domestically (more expensive, but ultimately worth it), and eventually his New York City-based startup, Maker’s Row, an online network of U.S. factories that he launched in November 2012 and which connects designers with domestic factories.
His company tapped into a trend toward made-in-the USA brands, one that panelist Mitch Cahn of made in the USA manufacturer Unionwear says has little to do with patriotism but plenty to do with buying local, environmentalism, and a growing demand for better workers’ rights. His Newark, N.J.-based manufacturing firm, which supplies unions, government organizations and others with apparel and accessories, now has fashion designers calling.
“There are a few misconceptions about Made in the USA,” Cahn said. Among them: that the cost of raw materials is more expensive here. In fact, prices on imported textiles have been rising 25 percent a year for the past few years, and “we’re in the ballpark” on textile prices in the United States.
Meanwhile in China, labor costs are on the rise, and workers are demanding better conditions as well.
While labor costs remain higher here, one cost-saving strategy he has found that works is what he calls “lean manufacturing,” which he says makes sure that people involved in labor spend as much time as possible on activities that improve the quality of the final product, and represent an improvement “that your customer is willing to pay for.”
Jeff Sheldon, the founder of Ugmonk, is a graphic designer whose e-commerce company uses American suppliers. It’s pricier, but he saves in the long run. For instance, because the brand uses a screen printer domestically (for which they paid more), they’ve built a relationship that means when he has a rush order, Ugmonk gets pushed to the front of the line.
“I think it’s really true that you get what you pay for,” Sheldon said. “I’ve learned that if you ask for cheap or the best quality you’re going to get one or the other.”
How to make the most of selling products made in the U.S.
By Brendan Menapace for Promo Marketing Magazine
There are plenty of products that were made in America that we should all be proud of—Bruce Springsteen, baseball, movies where Nicolas Cage navigates an elaborate scavenger hunt made up of national monuments to find a historic treasure. The list goes on, but what stands out the most are the many promotional products manufactured in the U.S., and the business opportunities they present. By providing products made domestically, distributors can create business with new clients. Here’s how.
OPEN NEW DOORS
Aside from providing jobs in the U.S., domestically-made products can give distributors the chance to work with clients that otherwise may not have been available. David Bronson, national accounts manager for Unionwear, Newark, N.J., said that many companies only will purchase products that are made in the U.S. He named nonprofit, government and military organizations as potential clients that [usually] purchase domestically. “More and more, large domestic manufacturers, food processors, tech companies, and other corporations that promote themselves as ‘Made in USA’ are requiring their logo gear to also be consistent with their domestic mission,” he advised. “Unions and political campaigns generally have domestic sourcing requirements, which will boom in the upcoming presidential primaries and general elections.”
Bronson, who has been a distributor for a decade, added that using items made in the U.S. makes sense from an economic standpoint. “Domestic manufacturing is beginning to make sense economically in a number of areas,” he noted. “In particular, small-batch customization allows buyers to save on overhead, such as sampling, tech packs, sourcing, prepayments and lead times, that can dwarf the unit costs of importing fewer than a thousand units.”
Tim Boyle, president of JournalBooks/Timeplanner Calendars, Charlotte, N.C., explained that buying domestic ensures the protection of U.S. labor and manufacturing laws. “The U.S. has much stricter laws and regulations regarding safety and compliance,” he said. “When distributors sell U.S.-made products, they do not have to worry as much about factories using child labor or unsafe materials.” He added that distributors should still evaluate a company’s code of conduct and compliance safety standards. “Compliance and safety are top concerns for end-users,” he said. “Although the standards for compliance are improving globally, it becomes much trickier for distributors once they go offshore.”
HANDLE INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION
Some distributors may be hesitant to choose domestic products over imports, as they say they can often get products from overseas at a cheaper price point. However, importing products can come with a high price tag that some distributors might not take into account. Factors such as duties, fees, shipping and port delays can throw a monkey wrench into the process and end up costing more than it than saves.
Bronson also explained that some clients would even be willing to pay more for domestic products. “Even when import pricing can still result in significant savings, there are many end-users who will still pay a premium to co-brand with the most powerful brand in the world—Made in USA,” he said.
Boyle he believes the global competition is a good thing for U.S. companies. “It’s hard to compete with importers on price, but not impossible,” he said. “We are constantly exploring new ways to increase manufacturing efficiency and decrease material costs, and we can often be competitive with import items, especially custom projects. Price is only one aspect of the equation.”
The best way to compete is to produce a better product. Bronson said that many imported items are made with cheaper materials and unnecessary labor, which creates an inferior product. “A common example is tote bags coming out of China that have a seam along the bottom,” he detailed. “This adds labor cost to the bag and also weakens the bag at its biggest stress point.” He explained that the sum is there because cutting large panels into smaller pieces provides a greater yield for the manufacturer.
“If a bag has $40 in materials in either China or the U.S., but it costs $4 to sew it in China vs. $8 in the U.S., the end difference will be $44 versus $48,” he continued. “And that $4 difference will be more than eaten up by shipping, fees and duties.” Bronson added that the gap between the price of imports and domestic products has decreased every year for the last six years, and he believes the trend will continue.
GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT
According to Consumer Reports, when given a choice between a U.S.-made product and an identical item sourced overseas, 78 percent of Americans prefer the American product. Boyle and Bronson are optimistic about the demand for domestic products.
Boyle said that he sees the demand for U.S.-made items himself. “My opinion is that the demand for U.S.-made products has never been stronger,” he said. JournalBooks, which has manufactured in Charlotte, N.C. since 1971, has taken steps to keep up with the increased demand. “We do whatever it takes to keep up with demand, whether it is adding the necessary equipment or adding members to our team. JournalBooks has a modern, 90,000-square-foot facility with plenty of extra capacity for additional growth.”
In Newark, N.J., Unionwear is having its best year to date. “The demand is higher than ever,” Bronson said. “It has been a challenge to continually increase capacity.”
He attributed much of the success to Unionwear’s ability to offer detailed customization. “Small batch customization is one area where improvements in order processing and set up times can have big payoffs,” he expressed. “We can make any of our bags in any color combination customers want at low quantities. This is what China does not offer the industry.”
Unionwear President Mitch Cahn’s 15 Minute Ted Talk–Made Right Here: How the international worker rights and buy local movements are creating a surge in U.S. urban manufacturing opportunities. The talk discusses why the premium for domestic goods are shrinking, and the five types of business to business to market segments with strong convictions about buying USA Made.
Manufacturing is booming in Newark and other American cities after decades of decline.
Newark, NJ has over 400 active factories within the city limits that employ over 10,000 people. Four years ago nobody knew this, now a growing number of people know this. How did this happen in the middle of a recession? Well, as a manufacturer, I can’t say it was anything that our industry did. I am pretty sure it wasn’t anything that our government did. And I don’t think it was a wave of made in USA consumerism that pushed us over the edge.
What happened was over the last 20 years, goods have been made overseas in the third world very, very cheaply on the backs of exploitation of labor and exploitation of the environment. The growth in manufacturing now is because both “overseas” and “exploitation” have become a lot more expensive and a lot less attractive.
Activists did this–labor activists did this, unions, worker rights coalitions and environmental and buy local activists made this happen. They raised awareness, they localized supply chains and they helped to impose regulations creatively. And as a result we’ve seen what’s going on in Newark right now. “Made in USA” has relatively become a bargain. Cities like Newark are reaping the benefits because we have an infrastructure in place still from the 70’s and before that, we have a lot of concentrated labor and we are in the center of a transit hub. We have the ability to move people and goods around very quickly. We are within a day’s drive for something like a third of the population.
What I want to do now is talk about my experiences running Unionwear, which is a manufacturer of baseball hats, bags like backpacks and garment bags, safety vessel scrubs. We manufacture everything from scratch right here in North Newark. We have about a 110 union workers, we are 11 miles from Midtown Manhattan. We have been in business for 21 years. In almost every product category of ours, we might be the most expensive place to make that product in the entire world. So how is that over the last four or five years we’ve grown by about 25% per year after about a decade of being flat.
Well we’ve narrowed it down to five areas. One is market forces, specifically understanding the market forces that are going on and being able to educate our clients about it. How is Obama care going to affect domestic manufacturing? How is immigration policy going to affect in manufacturing. What if China decides to float their currency against the United States? Is that going to make United States manufactured goods less expensive? And more appealing to the rest of the world? Yes.
We stay on top of these things and we make sure clients know about them because changes in the economy happen right under people’s noses and they don’t even see it.
Market selection is a big one. There are markets that want to buy local. There are markets that want to buy made in USA. It’s more expensive to buy those things but they are willing to pay a premium. Who are those people and how do we reach them?
Product selection is an area that goes along with market selection. Now someone might not be in a market that wants to buy made in USA but they might want to be a product that might be less expensive to manufacture in United States, so what are those products?
Re-engineering is important because it’s very different to manufacture a product where there is no regulation and people are paid ten cents an hour versus where it is manufactured in an area where there is a lot of regulation and people make 10 to 15 dollars an hour. You can bridge that gap through smart re-engineering.
Finally we take advantage of our geographic advantages. We play up how close we are to New York City and Newark airport and port Newark and millions of skilled laborers.
So I am declaring right now the era of cheap imports is over. It’s dead.
So what’s happened as the price of imports increases is the premium paid for made in USA product shrinks. As that premium shrinks it becomes less expensive for people to have sourcing standards or enforce standards that they already had. So what happens and why the market is grown is there are a lot more people who are willing to pay 25% more for a product that’s made green, made in USA, made union, then they were in 2008 when it might have been 200% or 300% more expensive for that same thing. And it is that a big of a difference.
So one reason for this is labor supply and demand. China has had decades of a one child policy, and as a result there are a lot fewer people entering their workforce now and the people who are entering the workforce, they don’t want to make the iPhone, they want to work for Apple. So there are not enough people working in these factories–when that happens you have to pay people more to get them to work in manufacturing.
As a result of people being paid more there is now a consumer class in China and in India and in Pakistan. That’s driving up the costs of goods, its driving up the costs of gasoline, petroleum which is making goods more expensive to ship to United States.
I put a slide up of the iPhone factory because that’s an example of what has happened because of worker rights activists. When all of the working violations at the Foxconn factory where over a million people are employed were discovered, labor activists came in and negotiated a 40% wage increase and they lowered the amount of hours they can work from a 100 hours a week to 60 hours a week. They came in a year later and negotiated another 40% increase. You imagine what it does when a million people make that much more money. And have to work that fewer hours. They have to scramble the find workers. That’s why prices have been of imports have been going up so much.
And as a result of social media, the rest of the world’s workers are finding out what’s going on and realizing they don’t have to work this way. So you are seeing the same sort of riots, protests, strikes in Bangladesh and Pakistan. This has led to wage inflation of 25% to 30% a year. The response overseas has been to cut corners– poison in pet food, poison in dog food, exploding tires, broken plane parts, that’s led to more regulation which has put more expense on products that come in from overseas.
Companies have moved their manufacturing to places that they thought were cheaper than China like Bangladesh. But they didn’t have the infrastructure and ended up being more expensive. You ended up with month after month, factory fires and factory collapses which led to more regulation and more expense.
So who is buying made in USA, now that their premium has shrunk?
There are five different ways that people can say “buy local” and these are the markets that we try to appeal to. Buy American, people buy American for economic reasons, or if they have standards like the US government. Or if they want consistent messaging, like General Motors who makes goods domestically and they want to buy American-made goods because they are selling made American.
People want to buy union and support their fellow union workers.
People want to buy fair labor, they don’t want to buy goods that were made in a sweatshop.
People want to buy eco-friendly and people want to buy local.
So one of the of the areas that wants to buy American is the US government which makes up about a quarter of our GDP. This is something that is relatively new, this enforcement of the government buying American made goods.
Another area is trade justice and if you say the labels fair trade and sweat free and living wage on goods, those are all ways of saying that these goods were made by workers who are not exploited.
An example of someone who used to not buy products with these labels in is now is NPR. They would give away tote bags for memberships at the same time they were doing stories about sweatshops in China but the tote bags were made in those sweatshops because they get them for 25 cents a piece. Now it’s costing them $2.50 a piece to import. They are going to spring for $3 a piece and buy something that is made in USA and it basically cost less for them to put their money where their mouth is.
The link between fair labor and local and eco-friendly is this: The closer production is to consumption the less acceptable worker exploitation becomes. You don’t want to buy a shirt from someone around the corner who you know as working for below minimum wage and maybe working a 100 hours a week, but its okay if it is around the world.
Also the more likely that goods are produced using your labor and environmental standards. The factories are operating under the same laws that you benefit from.
Another area is product selection. So two examples of products that are less expensive to make domestically would be products that are big and bulky to ship and don’t have a lot of labor like this gigantic case right here that we make. That didn’t need to be made in USA but it is.
Or bags using expensive materials– this bag has $40 in leather in it but only maybe $8 in labor. In China maybe you can get it made for $4, so at the end of the day its $48 verses $44. By the time you ship it here and have the duties on it, its less expensive to make it in the United States. That’s why you see a lot of goods with expensive materials made in countries that are more expensive than United States like Italy.
So another area is small batch customization. There is a big overhead to making products overseas, you have to translate, you have to make tech packs. It is expensive to ship sampling back and forth, there are time zone considerations, so as result nobody wants to make 500 or a 1000 of something in China or Bangladesh. It’s a lot less expensive to make it here.
And finally re-engineering is the area where we are able to close the gap through product design. When we get goods a lot of times now people are reshoring goods–they send goods to us and it was a bag that they had made in China, they want to get it made in United States and I’ll say if you want it made exactly this way, its going to cost you $80 because there is no thought given to engineering the products because labor was practically free over there. We can redesign it so your clients won’t notice the difference that will be just as nice and we can do it for $15.
The other area is Lean Manufacturing and that is the concept where you can take people in a high wage environment and train them to use all of their time to just add value to the product and not waste time doing things that are not that the client doesn’t pay for, like looking for a pair of scissors or waiting for manager or walking from machine to machine.
So finally, Newark is a place that is perfect for manufacturing for a number of different reasons. We’ve got a high concentration of skilled labor, we’ve got a well developed infrastructure of manufacturing. There are lot of other manufactures here which means that there is a market for mechanics and trucks and things where that might not exist in an economy where there is not a lot of manufacturers. We are close to the port, we got Newark airport here and we’ve got access to everything. We have access to New York City we have access to capital, marketing, and technological expertise right here in the city of Newark through our academic communities.
There are other cities where this is happening. There are not a lot of rural areas where this is happening. So this is the time to take advantage of this once in a generation opportunity where people are coming to Newark to get things manufactured. Thank you very much.
The resurgence of domestic apparel manufacturing (including Unionwear) featured on the Wearables Fashion Sense Channel this month. All of these brands are available from your local promotional products professional, screen printer, or embroiderer. Read the article. Watch the video.
USA manufacturers such as GM, GE, John Deere, and Harley Davidson are already aware of the rapidly shrinking premium paid for USA Made. Most push “Made in USA” in their marketing and want to avoid appearing hypocritical saving money by putting their logo on an overseas product.
Other Industries Identifying with USA Made
Companies that promote their commitment to adding value with US labor in industries such as food processing, bottling, construction, energy and even technology, graphic design, and web development buy USA promos for the same reasons as domestic manufacturers.
Regulated Utilities/Telecom with strong Unions
Public Utilities and cable and phone giants such as AT&T and Verizon have been at the forefront of buying USA made wearables for their workers, as a nod to both the gigantic unions who represent their field workers and the politicians who must approve the usage of public bandwidth, easements, and other resources.
Trade Justice, Green, and other Social Ventures
Corporations with Social Ventures departments and/or a strong stated commitment to the environment or workers rights will buy USA Made–or at least avoid associating with countries known for sweatshops and lax environmental regulation.
Companies with Clients Highly Sensitive to “USA Made”
Unions, federal and state governments, the military, and political campaigns take issue with anything not USA Made, so companies giving away merch at events that cater to these industries take pains to endorse “USA Made”. Examples are financial services companies that cater to unions, military contractors, and DOT vendors.