What it really means when a brand says it's 'Made in America'
June 5th 2017 | Rachel Lubitz
Ten years ago, it you had thought of the term "Made in America" you probably thought of items that are produced with American-made materials, crafted entirely within the United States.
Then, American Apparel tarnished the term somewhat after claims the American-made company used illegal labor. And now, with Donald Trump's rise in American politics, it's become a highly politicized talking point, with brands that have long-been made in America caught in the middle.
"The buy and hire American order I'm about to sign will protect workers and students like you," President Donald Trump told a crowd of of manufacturing employees in Wisconsin in April. "It's America first, you better believe it. It's time. It's time, right?"
For many brands though, it's been time for a while. Long before Trump made supporting American-made brands a campaign slogan (regardless of the fact that Trump's own brand isn't made in America), some fashion companies took it seriously, and remained dedicated to keeping production in the U.S. Since 2009, long before Trump ascended, U.S. apparel production has increased by 50%.
So Mic decided to speak with a number of brands that pride themselves on being made in America, to get a feel for what it really means to them, and what has to be done for more American brands to stay here and thrive.
Retail company L.L.Bean flaunts itself as one of the few American brands that still operates a U.S. manufacturing facility. While that's true, the bulk of the company's products are manufactured in China, a fact that made headlines recently after Donald Trump encouraged people to buy its wares.
If you're interested in buying L.L. Bean items that are "Made in the USA," the signature Duck Boots and canvas Boat and Tote Bags are manufactured in Maine, according to the company website. The New England facility employs more than 400 people.
According to the privately held retailer, its $1.6 billion in net sales last year represented a slight uptick on 2015 numbers. The brand is highly trusted, in part owed to its stellar lifetime warranties.
LEVI STRAUSS & CO.
Levi Strauss been a staple of American denim for generations. Its products are durable, making them a great pickup when you're trying to save money on clothes over the long term. However, only particular styles are 100 percent American made. In fact, a quick search on the company's website produces just a handful of styles made start to finish in the U.S. The denim for these products comes from North Carolina, and the jeans themselves are constructed in Texas.
The rest of the brand's apparel line is made in Asia, with the company operating 17 factories in Bangladesh.
Levi Strauss (LVISF) stock has increased from $2.35 per share in April 2016 to $3.04 as of March 2017. 2016 marked the fourth consecutive year for profit growth.
New Balance is another one of those so–called American brands that's not entirely made in America. In fact, New Balance manufactures just 4 million pairs of sneakers each year in the U.S., according to the company's website. That number represents only a fraction of total production, as most New Balance shoes are made in Asia, according to NPR.
If you want "Made in USA" athletic shoes from New Balance, note that they come with higher price tags.
New Balance is a privately traded company. In 2015, the business earned $3.7 billion in revenue, according to Forbes.
The red metal wagon helped make Radio Flyer one of the most iconic American brands. However, this beloved children's plaything is not made in the Chicago plant anymore. The famous red wagon has been a product of China since 2004, according to NBC News. Radio tricycles and scooters are also made in China, along with other assorted items.
According to Forbes, the company had $110 million in revenue as of January 2016.
MELISSA & DOUG TOYS
Melissa & Doug products can be found in many American households. The toy company made a name for itself by producing colorful wooden toys, games and puzzles and has achieved great success in today's technology-driven world despite its relative simplicity.
Boasting a handcrafted feel, these toys might seem as American as Lincoln Logs, but they're actually made in China. Still, parents can rest assured knowing the products are examined carefully for safety. The toys are tested multiple times including by the founders' Melissa and Doug and their children.
In 2016, ABC News said the company was worth $350 million.
Famous for its caramels, Brach's Confections has been a staple of American candy jars for more than a 100 years. Although "America's candy maker" graces the bag, in actuality some of these treats come from elsewhere.
In 2012, the candy brand merged with Ferrara Candy Company, which has production facilities in Mexico. To determine where the candy you buy is produced, you'll have to read the back of the bag carefully, as there's not a full disclosure on the company's website.
Brach's Confections is a privately held company founded in 1904. No recent financial statements are available to the public.
U.S. MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALLS
Baseball is practically synonymous with American culture, so you'd think that those pricey souvenir baseballs at MLB games would be American made. However, the manufacturer, Rawlings Sporting Goods, produces them in Costa Rica.
According to Reuters, workers spend 10 hours a day forming 108 stitches on every baseball. The balls are then shipped to Miami, where they'll eventually be used for only a few pitches each.
Rawlings is a private subsidiary of Newell Brands, which is publicly traded and includes products such as Rubbermaid and Sharpie.
Some American automakers don't deliver entirely on the American-made promise. The Ford Fusion is among America's best-selling vehicles, but it's made across the border in Mexico, according to AutoGuide. The model sold 265,840 units last year, making it one of the top sellers in the U.S. Other models like the Fiesta and Lincoln MKZ are also made in Mexico, according to the report.
Ford's stock dropped slightly at the end of the first quarter of 2017. Revenue has increased since 2014.
AMERICAN GIRL DOLLS
Boasting retail stores across the country and the word "American" in the name, American Girl seems like a company that would manufacture its famed dolls in the U.S. In actuality, these dolls are made in China like many other products by parent company Mattel.
According to the company's website, more than 29 million dolls have been sold since 1986. Although they're manufactured overseas, American Girl dolls are distributed from a warehouse in Middleton, Wis.
American Girl Brands, LLC, is a privately held company. The last financial statements, which were released in 2013, showed sales of $659 million, a 10 percent increase from 2012's figures.
CHUCK TAYLOR ALL STARS
Although the shoes were first worn by basketball players, Chuck Taylor All Stars, also known as Converse All Stars, quickly became popular among non-athletes. Buoyed by musicians and celebrities, this brand has been around since the early 1900s.
Americans have worn them for generations, but these shoes haven't been manufactured in the U.S. since the early 2000s. In 2003, Nike bought Converse and moved production of All Stars and other styles to Asia.
2016 revenue decreased by 1 percent to $1.96 billion. Converse accounted for 6 percent of Nike's total revenue in 2016, according to Vault.
One of America's most popular vehicles is actually made south of the border. According to U.S. News & World Report, some Ram 1500 Regular Cab models are built in Saltillo, Mexico, in addition to Warren, Mich. The Ram pickup truck sold over 489,000 units last year, making it the third best-selling vehicle in the U.S., reported AutoGuide.
Ram is part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, or FCAU, a publicly traded company on the NYSE. Since April 2016, FCAU stock has increased from $7.73 to $10.96 per share. Revenue has been consistent for the past three years.
IPHONES AND IPADS
Apple is known for being an innovative brand. More recently, it released a Clips app that competes with Snapchat. But, that's not what made the brand so popular.
The iPhone and iPad might feel as American as the pie that shares their name. However, even though Apple has its headquarters in California, manufacturing is done in China. According to Bloomberg, Apple had shut down its last U.S. manufacturing facility by 2004.
While Trump promised to get Apple to produce its devices in the U.S. again, there is no evidence of this happening in the near future.
Apple, Inc. (AAPL) is a publicly traded stock on the NASDAQ stock exchange. In 2015, the company saw a jump in revenue from the year before, but in 2016 both total revenue and gross profit decreased.
GERBER BABY FOOD
When you hear the word "Gerber," you probably think of the cute Gerber baby pictured on every label. Dating back to the 1920s, Gerber was the first baby food sold in American grocery stores, making it something of an institution. However, these days it's actually part of Nestle, the Swiss company best known for its chocolate.
Although Gerber does not disclose its manufacturing list on the website, Nestle states that the company has 418 factories in 86 countries.
Nestle (NSRGY) has increased its dividend share over time and offers a 2.99 percent yield. The company reported 46.3 billion in revenue or sales for 2016.
Ray-Ban is among the most recognizable sunglasses around. And while the style is deeply ingrained in American culture, the brand is actually manufactured in Italy these days.
The iconic eyewear was once made in the U.S., but Bausch & Lomb sold the brand to Italian eyewear company Luxottica in 1999. According to Framesdirect.com, most Ray-Bans are made in Italy, but some are produced in China, where Luxottica also has factories. If you want American-made frames, you'll have to find vintage Ray-Bans.
Profits for Luxottica (LUX) dropped in 2016. The stock is currently close to its yearly high price of $55.08.
This colorful item has long been a favorite plaything for children. Although the moldable clay originated in Cincinnati in the 1950s, Play-Doh hasn't been produced in the U.S. for decades. It's actually a product of China, though this fact is set to change in the near future. According to the Wall Street Journal, Hasbro, the maker of Play-Doh, expects to open a production facility in Massachusetts by 2018.
Hasbro announced revenue of $5.02 billion last year. That's a 13 percent jump from the previous year.
What 'Made in America' really means
At its core, a brand being made in America means that from its first designs to its fabrics to its manufacturing, it's all being sourced from America.
Brands you may strongly associate with being American, and think have an investment in the so-called American dream, like Levi's and Ralph Lauren, aren't made in America at all, favoring factories from places like China and Bangladesh, places that are at the center of many workers rights concerns.
So to these brands which are made in America, it means a lot to them.
"Our brand is very small, so I think it lets people know that we're a small business, and we support other small businesses," Kerry Stokes, a co-founder of Calhoun & Co., which specializes in cheeky home decor and produces in Brooklyn and North Carolina, said in an interview. "I think it's important to support people in your community, and that could mean a lot of different things. It's just about supporting small businesses, and also having a safe, responsible business model."
Given the many controversies surrounding foreign labor, and the common exploitation of factory workers abroad, the founders of these made in America brands see it as almost a moral move.
"I think the label speaks to some degree of integrity to the brand," Jon Bekefy, the founder of Alta Motors, which produces screen-printed T-shirts out of Oregon, said. "It speaks to me about a level of concern and care about the market and the workplace and environment. We have such good control over what we do and where do it here."
What are the pros of being explicitly made in America?
From a brand standpoint, being made in America has plenty of benefits. For one, regardless of Trump's involvement or not, there is an inherent non-partisan patriotism in only looking at American resources.
"Supporting American-made products is outside any rhetoric or connection to anything going around," Edward de Innocentis, the co-founder of 1620 Workwear, which uses fabrics from Massachusetts, and factories in El Paso and Los Angeles, said in an interview. "Regardless of who's in office, it promotes this idea that Americans are working together."
There's also the fact that keeping business as domestic as possible is easier, and ensures a high-quality product. Business owners are able to keep an eye on production, the factories themselves and the people who work in them.
"There's some real benefits, like a faster turnaround in styles and sampling product," Joshua Walker, a co-founder of1620 Workwear, said. "You can also go to the factories, and see things for yourself and check and see how the people are doing."
So why aren't more brands being made in America?
Given the benefits, and the ability for brands to keep an eye on production and factories, why aren't more brands embracing this movement?
There's a bit of a two-prong answer to this question. The first is that to some giant brands looking to make 10,000 shirts and 20,000 pants at a time, America simply doesn't have the resources, nor the people willing to invest, in order to have a strong production system for clothing here.
"When you talk about manufacturing in the United States and in China, you're talking about a China with factories that are fully automated," Courtenay Nearburg, co-founder of the menswear brand Krammer & Stoudt, which is based out of Brooklyn and uses factories in New York and Los Angeles, said in an interview.
She continued: "They have a ton of factories and we're talking machine-made clothes. When we're talking about made in the U.S., we don't have a lot of machine-driven factories. We're talking about clothes made by hands still, on sewing machines, it's those kinds of skills. So it's just an entirely different infrastructure, and skill sets of the people who are making these clothes."
Another problem facing some high-fashion designers like perhaps Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, who use factories in Bangladesh and China respectively, is that American-made items aren't inherently associated with luxury, the way that Paris-made or Milan-made items are.
"I can't think of any luxury brand that's made in the U.S," designer David Hart, whose clothes are produced in Brooklyn, New Jersey and Chicago, said. "When you think of one American designer who's luxury, it's Tom Ford, and he makes in Italy. It's been engrained in people's minds, this idea that American brands are streetwear and not luxury."
Who Made in America is really benefitting:
This is where it gets kind of interesting, politically. On the business side, a fashion company focusing on producing and manufacturing all of its products in America obviously help things like American fabric producers and American small businesses, even American factories. But who's working in those factories?
According to the founders of 1620 Workwear and Hart, it's immigrants. By buying American, you're not only helping American companies and factories, but immigrants themselves, who make up a ton of factory workers in the United States.
"You go into our factories, and it's all immigrants making our stuff," de Innocentis said. "And they're coming here and they respect their jobs and it's very unique. The factory owner [of our factory we use in Chicago] was a refugee in 1991 and moved here as a dressmaker. His labor force is mostly Polish and Hispanic, which is dominant in Chicago."
"As American consumers are paying more for American-made goods, they're directly benefitting and helping the immigrants who've made them," de Innocentis continued. "The parking lot at our manufacturing is filled with nice cars. The world we don't want to live in is getting people cheated, which can happen in Asia because the wages are lower."
Indeed, as Hart noted, by only producing in America, he can go to his factories and keep an eye on the workers themselves, and make sure they are treated well. In a time when calls for safer working conditions for factory workers in China and Bangladesh haven't been heard, that's important.
"I couldn't develop my collection without immigrants and the people that are working in the factories," Hart said. "It's important that the workers are well-cared for. The other great thing about working with factories here is that I can actually go and talk to the people who are making this clothing. That's different than emailing with someone overseas. There's something super special about having that connection."
It's simply that, in the fashion world, everyone is truly entirely indebted to immigrants and the skills they've brought in. And don't think that the irony in Trump trying to boost these industries, despite them being dominated by immigrants and him being so anti-immigration, is lost on these designers.
"I don't think that he's really familiar with a lot of the ins and outs about anything having to do with manufacturing or factories or anything," Nearburg said. "Any attempt at bettering American manufacturing is going to have a positive effect on immigrants, and help them bring more of their family members over. He has no idea."
Regardless of Trump speaking so publicly and constantly about "Buy American, Hire American," none of the American-made designers and business owners we spoke to have seen any Trump impact at all.
What it going to take for more American brands to boom?
The simplest answer to this question is: Investment. Investment by billionaires for improved production and sustainable factories and investment in things like fabric production and innovation.
"It should get to a point when a company wants to scale up, and there are facilities here in the U.S. that can provide for them," Nearburg said. "There's not a lot of big brands doing this made in America thing, and the reason I think is the sustainability economically with huge production runs in the U.S. Again, things here are more handmade, on sewing machines and that's fine because it's a great quality, but it's not conducive to large productions."
That being said though, designer David Hart is hopeful.
"It's all just on people who are committed to being made here," Hart said. "There's so many benefits and yeah, maybe you'll have to decide to be a little smaller, but the quality and the joy in this kind of production is unparalleled."
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