The severe economic challenges of the 21st century have Americans thinking about jobs, and that’s got them thinking differently — and far more positively — about American-made apparel.
This story first appeared in the September 5, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
With the unemployment rate hovering above 8 percent since February 2009, many unable to find full-time work matched to their skills and jobs in a manufacturing sector that has been decimated not only by hard times but also by improved productivity, Americans are reflecting more on where their cars, clothing and other consumer products are coming from.
A survey conducted by The NPD Group exclusively for WWD revealed that more than half — 54.9 percent — of the 1,600 adults responding are either “much more aware” or “somewhat more aware” of the country of origin of their apparel than they were five years ago, before the onset of what is now termed the Great Recession and what is certainly perceived as a turning point in the economic fortunes of the country. In addition to the 25.1 percent who said they were much more aware of where their apparel is being made and the 29.9 percent who described themselves as somewhat more aware of it, 37.5 percent said their awareness was about the same as it had been five years ago. Just 7.6 percent indicated they were somewhat or much less aware of where their apparel originated.
Americans have spent the better part of 40 years watching production migrate from the U.S., which now produces only about 15 percent of its own apparel, to China and other low-cost production markets. According to the NPD data, collected and analyzed by the research firm last month, brands and retailers may be lagging somewhat behind in market presence than what consumers have embraced in their attitudes. The firestorm that erupted following the disclosure that Ralph Lauren Corp.’s attire for the U.S. Olympic team was made in China would suggest there’s more of a market for U.S.-made apparel — and more emotion about it — than some apparel marketers may realize.
Asked to evaluate the importance of U.S. origin in their purchasing of apparel, 24.7 percent said it was “extremely important” and fully 51.5 percent said “somewhat important,” meaning more than three in four of those surveyed — 76.2 percent — placed some importance on it. Asked how important U.S. origins were to them 10 years ago, less than half considered them important — 13.1 percent “extremely important” and 33.3 percent “somewhat important.”
The trajectory of those attitudes surprised Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD.
“I wasn’t surprised that the attitude had changed, but I was surprised by just how much more supportive it was,” he told WWD. “When you ask people to pinpoint their feelings about something, you have to take the numbers with a grain of salt. If 40 percent of the people say they care, maybe just 20 percent would act on that. The jobs market has had a big effect on conscious consumer priorities, but the wallet doesn’t always follow when it comes to purchasing.
“Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s not an opportune time for brands and stores to explore the opportunity to build and sell more American product,” Cohen continued. “The companies that are building product in the U.S. and those selling those products need to exploit it; and those who aren’t sourcing here or using product sourced here need to explore it. Who can overlook the opportunity to address what might be even a 20 percent level of greater passion about the products they’re offering?”
Whether they’d back their opinions up with cash, checks or credit cards might remain to be seen, but Americans say that they’re ready to buy American even if it costs them more. More than one in five — 21.4 percent — said they’d pick an American-made shirt or blouse over a comparable import as long as the price wasn’t 25 percent higher, and another 17.3 percent said they’d go with the American option as long as the price was no more than 10 percent higher. To those figures, you can add another 9 percent representing those who’d pay a premium of no more than 10 percent. Three in 10 — 30.4 percent — would buy American if the prices were roughly the same, while 21.8 percent, about the same percentage who’d accept a premium of up to 25 percent, would buy American “under any conditions.”
“Consumers are telling us that they’re willing to pay at least a bit more, and occasionally quite a bit more,” Cohen observed. “The tolerance [for higher prices on American products] is there and the consciousness is there, but so far there hasn’t been a move in that direction.”
The NPD analyst considers domestic origins among any number of selling points that retailers and brands have yet to fully leverage, similar in ways to environmentally sustainable practices.
“There could be an added benefit to marketing the product that way, as in shapewear products that can claim they make you feel better and look better. If you add, ‘And they’re Made in the USA,’ it’s a more attractive sell, something people could purchase not just with satisfaction but with a certain degree of pride.”
Michael Klein, William L. Clayton professor of international economic affairs at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said, “There’s a parallel between this and social consuming. People talk about green consuming or Fair Trade, and it’s a similar reflection of social concerns that are reflected in people’s purchasing.”
Similarly, Barbara Kahn, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, sees an opportunity for domestic manufacturers to promote their American roots, as American Apparel Inc. and a number of premium denim brands, such as True Religion, have done.
“People are more likely to pay for ‘Made in America’ if there was a value proposition tied to it,” she said. “The Italians have done that, and in that kind of a trade-up, people are willing to pay extra money for something. You can market to the economic recovery, the need for more American jobs and social responsibility, but it takes on greater meaning if it’s coupled with emphasis on quality, as some of the premium denim brands have seen.”
The NPD numbers indicate that dedication to domestic derivation increases with age. Nearly nine in 10 — 89.2 percent — of those 65 and over said they always or usually pay attention to where they products they purchase were made, dropping to 87.9 percent for those 55 to 64 and 81.1 percent for those between 45 and 54. There’s an uptick, to 81.6 percent, among those between 35 and 44 and then a drop for those 25 to 34 (72.9 percent) and 18- to 24-year-olds (70.9 percent).
Tufts’ Klein believes that this trend might have more to do with disposable income than it does with strongly held social attitudes, adding, “It could simply be that older people have more income and are willing to pay a bit more because they can afford to.”
Consumers might have mixed feelings about how much more they want to pay for U.S.-made apparel, but, without respect to the effect it could have on prices, they approve of government intervention to rebuild U.S. apparel manufacturing. Nearly three-quarters — 74.2 percent — supported incentives for companies that help rebuild apparel and textile production in the U.S., with just 8.1 percent opposed. Support for new trade barriers to discourage imports was less solid, with 55.7 percent of respondents in favor, 14 percent opposed and 30.3 percent unsure of their position.
However, when asked about the past, 75.9 percent felt that the government should have been “more diligent” in protecting apparel and textile jobs in the U.S. as imports from China and other countries grew. Just 5.3 percent felt otherwise, while 18.8 percent were unsure of what the correct approach might have been.