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Is ‘Made in the USA’ Always the Most Sustainable Choice?

RP Siegel | Wednesday April 9th, 2014 | 5 Comments

madeinusaThis is a question many of us have wondered about. Seeing how the local movement is so closely associated with sustainability, at least when it comes to food, does that same closer-is-better reasoning hold when it comes to other products, such as clothing?

For starters, Steve Sexton challenged the local food argument in Freakonomics, in a post that has drawn a lot of criticism from locavores, including this smart piece by Tom Philpott. But still, he lands a number of valid points including the economies of scale argument and the fact that some places are better for growing potatoes than others. But probably the most important point he makes is that there are other considerations besides how far a product is shipped when determining how sustainable it is.

When it comes to clothing, there are other considerations to keep in mind. For example, how long an item of clothing will last determines how many times it will need to be replaced in a person’s lifetime.

This is the argument made by a companies like Appalatch and Osmium, which puts a high emphasis on the craftsmanship in their goods and their resulting durability. Companies like Darn Tough are now selling socks with a lifetime guarantee. The company even has a sign on its factory that says, “Nobody ever outsourced anything for quality.”

Pride aside, it’s certainly not out of the question that quality goods can come from many places. Even China. Thanks to the International Standards Organization, which provides operating practices and principles for manufacturing quality in the form of standards, quality is on the rise. Because a number of major multinational companies will not buy from suppliers unless they meet ISO standards, that puts pressure on companies to clean up their act. Fine, you say, if you’re selling nuts and bolts to Boeing, but we’re talking about clothing here. Yes, and some clothing makers have done just that. High-end Spanish clothing manufacturer Roberto Verino adopted the ISO 9001 quality standard back in 1997.

Quality aside, perhaps more prominent are concerns about labor practices. How can we buy clothing overseas, when so much of it is made in sweatshops? Organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, which is active in 16 European countries, focus on workers rights in the clothing industry. They are fighting for a living wage for workers and are seeking compensation for victims of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. Child labor is a major issue, with the number of children (age 5 to 14) exploited in this manner numbering in the hundreds of millions. The Asia-Pacific region has the most, followed by sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean

One Green Planet has a guide for purchasing sustainable clothing, which contains a list of 34 manufacturers that are at least somewhat sustainable with indications as to whether they are U.S.-based, organic, fair trade and animal friendly. Only 11 of them make their clothing entirely in the US. The list is not entirely comprehensive.

Among the environmental concerns associated with the clothing and textile industry are:

  • Pesticides used to protect textiles can harm wildlife, contaminate water supplies and get into the air and the food we eat.  Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world
  • Chemicals that are used to bleach and dye textiles are often toxic.
  • Discarded clothing fills up landfills. Americans generate 12.4 million tons of textile waste annually. That means that, on average, every American throws out roughly the equivalent of their own body weight in clothing every year.
  • Textile machinery causes noise, sound and air pollution.
  • Over-usage of natural resources like plants and water depletes or disturbs ecological balance. Most of this usage is in the agricultural phase, with lesser amounts in the production phase and consumption phase for laundering.

These concerns can occur anywhere, though some countries have stronger environmental regulations than others.

Longshot Apparel of Seattle, which makes clothing for tall men, chose to make all of their product here in the U.S. for reasons of quality and efficiency. The company’s founders, who came from places such as Nike, Adidas and Nordstrom, were tired of long lead times, unfathomable minimums, long flights and generally lower quality products.

But the fact is, roughly 60 percent of everything we buy comes from China. That number grows to 98 percent when we look at clothes. The low cost of labor is irresistible to most companies, especially the large ones with their large overheads and larger bonus plans. Workers are paid $14 a day in China versus $88 a day in the U.S.

Bob Bland is a New York-based fashion designer and entrepreneur who is trying to change all that. Her Manufacture New York campaign wants to bring textile manufacturing back to Brooklyn. She decided to make the move after visiting clothing factories in China.

“The fact that [workers] were making clothes for us that were beautiful, really high-quality pieces, while at the same time wearing discarded samples, was just unsettling for me. Being a part of that made me want to level the playing field for everyone.”

Her Brooklyn Royalty clothing label will occupy 20,000 feet in Brooklyn, half for design and half for manufacturing. For the names of other clothing manufacturers still producing goods in New York City’s famous Garment District, check out this story.

Another reason that making more clothes here than overseas would be more sustainable has to do with the economy. Even though it’s true that making clothes abroad allows companies to sell them at lower prices, there is a race-to-the-bottom mentality at the heart of that. Why? The reason why lower prices are so important to retailers like Wal-Mart is because people can’t afford to pay higher prices because they don’t have jobs. Henry Ford understood that paying his workers a decent wage would create a larger market for his cars. He was right. But today’s industry leaders are doing just the opposite, by cutting wages, busting unions and sending so many jobs overseas. Along with other distortions in the American economy that favor the wealthy over the rest, the once-thriving middle class is disappearing and, along with it, a large chunk of the market for consumer products.

I think it’s pretty clear that in an ideal world, making clothes, at least for the American market, over here would be more sustainable than importing them from overseas. This is especially true when the countries we import from have lax standards for worker and environmental protection. But this is far from an ideal world, which means that until corporate leaders recognize that their lowest-prices-at all-costs journey has been a dead end that has put our economy on life support, that will not change.

Yes, there will be a small but growing segment of domestic producers, selling to those who are willing and able to pay a little extra for domestically produced goods.

Until wages start going back up, the domestic market will be too small to allow for manufacturers to bring those jobs back home. So it’s kind of a Catch-22.

Keep in mind, though, that at the end of the day, these big multinational corporations work for us, in the sense that they can only stay in business if we continue buying what they are selling. So here is yet another opportunity to vote with your dollar. The top brands all have teams of MBAs watching the market like hawks, and if they see demand for made-in-USA products going up, you can be sure they’ll begin offering that too.

Image credit: Automotovated Cyclist: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • marsviking

    The root of the problem is that fashion is an industry, especially targeted at women.
    The cost of some designer clothing is incredible. They don’t cost any more to produce, as they use the same sweatshops the lesser brands do.
    Why do we need to change styles twice a year–often old styles being recycled, even
    as far back as the middle ages.
    If someone has a good dress that lasts, why not wear it till it wears out? We don’t need for walk-in closets that hold 500 items of clothing plus 40 pairs of shoes.

  • marsviking

    When you see prices slashed to 50% off, and they are still making a profit, you know the mark-up is something like 40–60%.

  • Sonia Best-Koetting

    With shrinking incomes, It may be elitist to think Americans would give up attraction to inexpensive clothes anytime soon. Could the average consumer ask about source of materials, especially promoting sustainable cotton in the U.S., since we have the most? That would be change for better. Also, isn’t there something positive to be said for growing economies of developing nations with textile industry?

  • A.J.

    The last paragraph speaks volumes… Not only can these businesses stay in business if we support them, but they’ll provide much needed American jobs.
    http://www.GiveAmericaAChance.com
    http://www.facebook.com/GiveAmericaAChance

  • Infiniteees

    Great post. You highlight some innovative and progressive manufacturers in the US, but just because it’s made here doesn’t make it green by default… I discussed it more on my post:

    http://infinitrees.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/green-shirts-how-sustainable-is-made-in-the-usa/

    And thanks for the resources on where to buy Sustaibable clothing!