SOURCING NOW: THE PROXIMITY FACTOR
PATRIOT GAMES: STRICTLY BUSINESS
Byline: Dianne M. Pogoda
NEW YORK — There might be plenty of good reasons for companies to produce goods in the U.S. and for consumers to buy them, but patriotism does not seem to be among them.
Manufacturers, the apparel workers’ union and industry observers concur that getting a lump in the throat as the American flag rises during the Olympics might be a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — influence business decisions. Nor does it stimulate most consumers to buy products solely because they are made in America.
Quality and value, however, do count — when deciding on a production site or a purchase.
“Americans are generally not moved by ‘made in America,’ but only by the tangible benefits of quality, price and appropriateness of the items,” said consultant R. Fulton Macdonald. “America was founded on freedom and individual rights. Flag-waving as a sign of unity and joint commitment to ideals is positive, and one dimension that is often warmly accepted.
“Flag-waving as a means to coerce individual behavior into channels not personally beneficial is entirely another, and instinctively opposed in America. Our history has plenty of proof of this almost uniquely American mind-set.”
Macdonald contends that advertising from unions and other pro-American manufacturing groups should concentrate not on “buy America,” but on “buy America because it offers the best, and here are examples.
“Effort and resources should be focused on improving American quality, just-in-time manufacturing, flexibility in production runs, use of technology to lower costs — all of which translate to better product and lower prices,” he added.
Even organized labor, which stands up for workers’ rights and American jobs, acknowledges that pure patriotism is not the key for sourcing or for decisions by shoppers.
“Patriotism has very little to do with manufacturing,” said Jay Mazur, president of UNITE. “Makers here are generally interested in sourcing where they get the best price.”
Mazur said the union has “never appealed to the public on the basis of flag-waving alone,” and purchasing decisions come down to “quality, price, style and availability, besides patriotism.”
“We’ve never said, ‘Buy only American.’ We’re for free and fair trade with the rest of the world,” he said. “I’ve always felt that American-made products are made better.
“Among consumers, [sentiment] plays a stronger role,” he added. “We have tried to sensitize the American consumer to the fact that there are differences between goods made under union conditions and under slavery or child-labor conditions. We’ve always received an extraordinarily good response from consumers, who say they don’t want to buy goods made under poor conditions.”
Patriotism alone has not saved many jobs recently. In its monthly job tally, the Labor Department reported that in January, apparel and textile employment was at its lowest since 1939, when the government started keeping track. In January, the apparel sector employed 857,000 people, down 13,000 from December, while textiles employed 629,000 people, down 9,000 from the previous month.
The job hemorrhaging has been steady over the past five years. According to the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of manufacturing employees in textile mill production dropped 2.5 percent between 1991 and 1995; jobs in apparel and miscellaneous textile production fell 5.5 percent in the same period.
Productivity, however, has improved in the past two decades. Technology has played a key role in this pickup. In 1994, workers logged 36.4 million hours per week and produced 101 percent more apparel than they made in 51.6 million hours in 1973.
Further, such technologies as computer-aided design and electronic data interchange have helped speed ordering, production and response time. Jobs that have been created are largely due to such improvements in operations.
Bud Konheim, president of Nicole Miller, which makes dresses and sportswear in New York, said the factors contributing to sourcing decisions are strictly related to business, not to the emotional strains of patriotism.
“If the capitalist system really works, you don’t need patriotism,” he said. “Patriotism is a phony emotion. Somebody once said it’s the last refuge of a scoundrel. Anyone who can’t tell you the right reason to do something invokes patriotism. And the right reason to produce here is because you get a better product.”
Nicole Miller used to manufacture in the Far East, but has since moved all its apparel production back to New York, except for silk, which is still sourced and sewn in the Orient. Konheim said he was losing control and quality, so he decided to pull back to the U.S.
Konheim is also one of the developers of the city’s Made in New York program. The reason he produces here is simple, he said: He gets better quality production for his collection of bridge-price apparel by manufacturing in the U.S., and has closer control over that process by using shops in New York.
“The focus of Made in New York is not to say, ‘Make it here because it’s good for the city,’ but to stress to manufacturers that it’s better for their business,” he said. “They get a better product, faster turn, better control, little or no waste and they can correct a problem before hundreds or thousands of pieces are produced. It’s in their own best interest.”
For example, when Federated Department Stores placed a $1 million order for sportswear with a Chinatown contractor through the Made in New York program, Marty Moskowitz, vice president of better sportswear for the retailer, said a variety of factors — including quality, price and delivery — contributed to the decision.
“We’re pleased that we can be part of the Made in New York program, but there’s no political motive involved,” Moskowitz said. “It’s strictly a business decision.”
The order, for coordinated separates under the Charter Club private label, will keep 300 employees of Valencia Sportswear employed from April through September.
Moskowitz said Federated has always made merchandise in New York, and the level of production has increased moderately in the past year or so.
Another manufacturer that makes its moderate-to-better-priced eveningwear here is Jump Apparel. Owner Glenn Schlossberg said it is the most efficient way for him to produce, because it gives him control over the garments and quick turn. It is not an issue of patriotism as much as a sound business decision.
“I don’t know how some other makers manage overseas,” Schlossberg said. “By producing here, I have control. If I need to change a color or a hanger, I can do so instantly. It’s worth more to me to be able to keep an eye on production than to save $1 or $2 a dress.
“It’s actually getting harder to ship here than to produce here,” he said. “The store requirements — from the type of bags to style of hangers to UPC tickets — are what’s making it difficult. But if I need to change to a different bag for a different store, I can do it right away with my production downtown.”
He said relatively few consumers make country of origin a priority, but added he did not think the union and other groups have done enough advertising to make a big impact on shoppers.
One manufacturer who does feel patriotism is a factor in choosing to produce goods here, and in marketing them, is Mel Cohen, a partner in Jonathan Cass Ltd., a knitwear maker. He said Americans generally feel good when they can get a high-quality product with a Made in U.S. label. But, he agreed the true impetus to manufacture here or to buy American-made items is superior quality and fast turn on fashion.
“There are two secrets,” Cohen said. “One is expediency. Here, you get fashion quickly, and you can respond to trends fast. If something is selling well, you can accelerate production, and if it’s not working, you can decelerate.”
He said making goods in the Orient is not as efficient, nor is the quality as high. For instance, Jonathan Cass makes sweaters with metallics, which carry a high tariff coming in from the Far East. The tariff makes them too expensive to produce overseas, he noted.
“We can’t compete on the basics or the labor-intensive goods here,” he said, “but here we have better control. We can do things without letters of credit, and get faster deliveries.”
This is the third in a series. Part One appeared in WWD March 4. Part Two appeared March 18.