This article is brought to you in partnership with Farm to Feet.
Not since “Flashdance” has American manufacturing seemed so sexy. Back in 1983, Alex Owens created sparks whether she was wielding a welding torch or corkscrewing across the stage as an exotic dancer. Then the manufacturing exodus of the late ’80s and early ’90s shuttered U.S. factories and laid off their workers (good thing Alex joined the ballet, because she likely would’ve lost that welding job to a low-paid foreign laborer). But now, some American companies — including quite a few in the outdoor industry — are recalling production back to the United States. More gear is not only designed but also built here, using American materials and labor.
So hip has American production become, in fact, that lawsuits have haunted brands that jumped on the U.S.-made bandwagon with goods that didn’t live up to the claims. EK Ekcessories had been stamping an American flag and “Truly Made in the USA” on its lanyards and phone cases until last year, when the Federal Trade Commission reminded the company that products sold as “Made in the USA” must contain “virtually no” imported components.
It’s an exacting standard, (find out what goes into defining "Made in the USA") yet companies increasingly seem willing to give it a go, particularly for small-scale production of specialty items. “We’re the microbrew of apparel,” explained Dan English, CEO of Colorado startup Voormi, which uses Rocky Mountain wool in its backcountry apparel and outerwear. Voormi designs all its own fabrics from scratch, rather than buying bulk from overseas suppliers, and produces jackets and base layers in relatively small quantities. At $220, the company’s introductory High-E Hoodie midlayer hardly shares the Coors Light pricing bracket, yet Voormi sold out of everything it produced.
Larger brands also are bringing production back to the U.S., generally for technical or customizeable goods that represent a fraction of overall production. Chaco still makes most of its footwear overseas, but its buyer-designed MyChacos sandals (offering a trillion permutations of sizes, webbing designs, and stitch colors) come from a Rockford, Mich. plant it opened in 2011. And in December 2010, Keen started producing and assembling some of its footwear in Portland, Ore.
Such efforts join the handful of companies that never stopped making gear here: Cascade Designs continues to make its mattresses, snowshoes, drink bladders and stoves in Seattle (where Gerber and Outdoor Research also maintain factories), and Kokatat dry suits are still made in northern California.
Kokatat created its American Made Outdoor Gear Awards (aka the Sassy Awards) not only to spotlight U.S. manufacturing, but also to address rising interest. “We get calls from companies looking to manufacture products here in the U.S., asking how we do it,” said Jeff Turner, Kokatat’s sales/marketing/design manager. The award program (which grew from 50 entries in summer 2012 to more than 100 this year) serves as a network for exchanging information and ideas about domestic gear production.
More networking opportunities exist within the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which formed its Made in America Working Group to help members navigate the challenges involved in making gear stateside. “There’s a lot of confusion about how to find the raw materials you need, and what it takes to comply with labeling expectations,” said Lindsay Bourgoigne, advocacy manager for OIA (which partnered with Outdoor Retailer to offer the Made in America Product Showcase). Launched in January 2013, the Working Group now includes 125 companies. Said Bourgoigne, “Made in America is a trend that’s likely to endure.”
The stars and stripes’ surging popularity has as much to do with economics as patriotism. With Chinese labor costs increasing by 15 to 20 percent each year, factories there no longer guarantee fat margins. Rising transportation costs make trips across the Pacific more expensive. Then there’s the volatility of the global supply chain, as evidenced by the riots in Vietnam this past May when 20,000 protestors stormed factories in Binh Duong.
But mostly, we can thank the Millennials for the surge in U.S.-made gear. “Just 10 years ago, buyers didn’t care where their stuff came from,” said Chip Coe, Chaco’s general manager. “But the Millennial consumer is very aware of the origin of goods.” That insistence on transparency is exactly what apparel startup Duckworth is banking on: “The new luxury is to understand where your product comes from,” said Duckworth founder Robert “Bernie” Bernthal, who sources his Rambouillet wool baselayers (which hit stores this summer) from a single Montana ranch.
When people approve of a product’s origins, they open their wallets a little wider. Chaco quickly sold out of its “From the Vault” line of classic, USA-made designs priced at $125 (compared to $100 for regular, Asian-made shoes). Buyers also pay a 30 percent premium for customized MyChacos sandals, which sell briskly (up 40 percent over last year). “We’ve proven that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for U.S. goods, provided they’re of good quality,” said Coe. Surveys bear that out: A 2013 study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group found that buyers are willing to pay 10 to 60 percent more for American-made products.
That Chaco and others can now make anything here at all is the direct result of the Berry Amendment, which obligates the U.S. armed forces to equip its troops with American-made gear. Those government contracts preserved the U.S. supply chain and kept a handful of factories running after the offshore migration: Outdoor Research’s Seattle facility stitches sophisticated gloves for the Navy Seals and Army Rangers, and also serves as an R&D laboratory for OR’s consumer designs. “Having a fully functioning factory to make prototypes just two floors down from the design team has proven to be incredibly valuable,” said Jordan Wand, VP of product and marketing. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense petitioned Congress to expand the Berry Amendment to include footwear, after New Balance and Wolverine Worldwide promised to deliver Made in the USA-compliant shoes.
But manufacturing for the military hasn’t been enough to stimulate big-dollar investment in cutting-edge production technologies. Even when factories aren’t obsolete, they haven’t kept pace with revolutionary innovations such as plastic injection (hence, no American-made ski boots).
The real bottleneck on American manufacturing isn’t technology or materials — it’s skilled labor. The factory slowdowns of the 1980s and ’90s resulted in idle workers who either retired or found other careers, and their kids learned to toss pizzas rather than sew seams or glue soles. “Talent for non-automated production is gone,” Coe said.
Some gear — like socks — are naturally less labor-intensive and require just a handful of skilled engineers to oversee the machines that do most of the making. That's why many outdoor sock brands are produced stateside, (albeit mostly with New Zealand, Australian or South American-sourced wool ... a few, such as Farm to Feet, use U.S. sourced wool.) Companies that rely on human hands are finding that they must retrain their U.S. workforces. At Keen and Princeton Tec, newbies apprentice with greybeards before those workers retire and take their know-how with them. “Some skills have died out in the broader manufacturing picture, so we maintain them here by creating our own talent pipeline,” said George Chevalier, Princeton Tec’s marketing manager.
Because even the least-skilled American workers earn more than their Asian counterparts, stateside manufacturers have to be crafty about trimming expenses elsewhere if they want their products to be priced competitively. Vertical integration helps: Cascade Designs and Easton Mountain Products save money by making their own parts rather than buying them from outside suppliers. Black Diamond counterweights the higher cost of Salt Lake City labor with efficient design that reduces waste and prioritizes less costly production methods.
Mystery Ranch fired its dealers and now sells direct to consumer. “We pay 10 times more for labor on a labor-intensive product, so the savings had to come from somewhere,” reasoned Gleason, who feels that other companies wanting to ramp up U.S. production will also have to eliminate the retailer middleman.
That uncertainly has kept gear’s behemoths from recalling its troops to the U.S.: Some NikeID shoes are produced in Oregon, but that represents a faint speck in the company’s $6.2 billion universe.
And that’s fine, said Nemo Equipment founder Cam Brensinger, who doesn’t see many Americans who truly want to be factory workers. Thus Brensinger sees little point in bringing sewing (or other tapped industries) back to the United States. “We should be proud that stuff is designed here, and made there, which involves less pleasant tasks,” he said.
The real future of U.S. manufacturing, Brensinger said, is to invent labor-saving technologies — like stitchless construction. “It makes sense from a performance standpoint, because if you want to make a high-performance piece of waterproof gear, there’s probably a better way of doing it than punching a zillion holes into something you want to be watertight,” he reasons. But it also addresses the U.S. labor shortage: “The question is whether we can replace the tough and dirty job of sewing with something that involves sitting behind a computer, that creates a job that Americans actually want to have,” he said.
But since making tents and other types of gear currently involves many human hands, Made in the USA is reserved for the special stuff. “Made in the USA matters to people when they’re buying the things that represent them,” explained Andrew Gritzbaugh of Gerber (which produces 40 to 50 percent of its products in the USA). People don’t care how the $5 knife is made; they just aim to buy the cheapest thing on the shelf. Buyers do care when they’re selecting the things that bespeak their identity — as outdoorsmen, and Americans.