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Building Optimism: American Manufacturing Remerges in a New Form

CCA LiveE | Monday December 26th, 2011 | 5 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By Devin Harvath

American manufacturing once conjured images of sweaty workers in cavernous factories churning out steel beams and station wagons. By the middle of the 20th century, a deep sense of optimism and the possibility of a solidly middle-class life for workers accompanied these images. Today, manufacturing brings to mind offshore sweatshops and abandoned U.S. factories, and this trend shows no immediate signs of ending.

However, there is reason to believe that American manufacturing is alive and growing, albeit in a new form. The reshoring movement and local manufacturing advocacy groups, like SFMade, have received a lot of press attention recently. Additionally, anecdotal evidence among some in my generation X and Y community shows a desire for locally made, high-quality, and long-lasting consumer goods.

Several San Francisco companies are responding to the demand: TCHO manufactures chocolate, Rickshaw makes bags, Betabrand manufactures clothing, Anchor Brewing brews beer and Mission Bicycle builds bicycles. California legislators are also fueling the movement: new legislation establishing benefit corporations—corporations in which directors need not prioritize financial interests over social and environmental interests—should encourage more entrepreneurs to assume the higher costs of local manufacturing for the benefit of local communities.

However, despite the recent excitement around this trend, many questions remain. Does local manufacturing in our San Francisco community reflect a national trend? How big is this “artisan” manufacturing movement and is it really growing? What is the movement’s potential in the coming years?

1. Is the “local” trend national?

According to an op-ed by SFMade’s Kate Sofis, the movement’s success has so far been concentrated in major cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the craft skills of large immigrant populations cross-pollinate with vibrant design communities. However, even small cities and towns show evidence of the movement’s early development. Local farmers’ markets have sprung up across the country (localharvest.org lists 708 farmers’ markets across the U.S.), and manufacturing initiatives (such as urban-made.org) are appearing in de-industrialized hubs like Allentown, Pennsylvania.

2. The “local” movement is in the news, but is it really growing?

The success of online marketplaces like Etsy suggests that Americans want an outlet, not only for creativity, but also for craft-making. This online marketplace claims to be a place for the curious among us who want to know the story behind consumer goods. And with 11 million registered buyers and sellers, Etsy has clearly found a niche. Mark Dwight, founder of Rickshaw, attributes the growth in popularity of this kind of marketplace to many Americans’ rejection of a 20th century “culture of disposability.” This rejection seems to reflect a growing interest by the public—and not just among those in design professions or those living in large urban centers—in well-made goods and crafts.

3. Does this movement have potential for helping the U.S. economy?

While inexpensive overseas labor and profit-driven corporate cultures may hinder the locally-focused movement’s progress, several factors may help the movement positively affect the U.S. economy: a labor drain, quality control problems, and rising raw material costs that slow productivity for large Asian manufacturers; a falling demand for mass production; the availability of commercial and industrial real estate here in the U.S.; and the falling cost of small-scale manufacturing machines like laser cutters and 3D printers.

It’s impossible to know for sure whether this growing movement that has the potential to revive our economy, but as younger generations emerge from the economic downturn, they may come to hold different values than those honest workers from generations past. Gone is the sense of security created by defined benefit pensions and social safety nets. A growing sense of curiosity replaces a sense that hard work alone will suffice. To be compelling, the next generation of businesses will need to be smaller, more novel, and more community based. And regardless of how important a role the local movement plays in the future, the search for meaning in everyday interactions, the power of stories, and the value of design will be increasingly important.


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  • T

    One thing I have noticed is that local manufacturing makes sense when you are able to offer the customer specific additional choices that they wouldn’t otherwise. Local brewing allows for beers that are extremely fresh with impeccable quality control. That’s not possible for trying to brew overseas. It is the same with bikes. Mission is able to offer a level of customization (including painting the frames) that’s just not there with mass-production. Trek is doing the same with local production of their Project One series (high-end) bicycles.

    If you can offer a product that’s not available through mass-production, you can sell a locally-made product. Unfortunately economies of scale have not reached the point where local manufacturing (just for the sake of local manufacturing) is economically viable yet…

  • DaleRussell

    Great article. Let’s hope these local movements spread nationally. We definitely need more manufacturing to return to the USA.

  • YerCuz48197

    Local crafts markets, small manufacturing plants as well as farmers markets are alive and well here in Ypsilanti, MI. By supporting local and strengthening local infrastructure, the nation as whole will get stronger. We are reclaiming what is ours from the outsourcing, large corporations one piece at a time. 

  • Gpduofa

    Smaller, More novel and community based…

  • http://twitter.com/TheSawmillC Sarah Anne White

    Great article Devin! Check out the great things going on in Detroit! http://detroitlives.org/