Global supply chains are in bad shape. Demand for everything has come roaring back to almost pre-COVID levels, but suppliers in all industries are having a hard time keeping up. This has led to supply chain bottlenecks all over the world that will likely last longer than anyone cares to admit. Unfortunately, this has also led to inflated prices in most everyday goods from used cars and lumber to ground beef at the grocery store. I link this mass shortage to the same sort of outsourcing that resulted in shortages of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks (remember the Surgeon General sharing a video on how to make a mask out of a t-shirt?) during quarantine. The status of our current supply chain woes is summarized well by American Compass's Executive Summary in the Symposium, "Moving the Chains":
After decades of looking away as America’s supply chains migrated overseas, policymakers are finally facing the reality that dependence on foreign producers has weakened the nation’s resilience, its security, and its economy. When factories leave, not only the jobs but also the suppliers, the customers, the expertise, and the innovation go too. When a crisis strikes, vital supplies are unavailable. When productivity growth and innovation are needed, they are nowhere to be found.
I believe we should give the same thought when contemplating how we fill our closets. In fact, I think it's one of the most impactful measures we can do to encourage U.S. manufacturing as individuals, besides voting for politicians who support similar policies.
To be clear, I've gravitated to buying from smaller companies from the U.S. because it's a much more transparent process. For example, I knew before buying from Boardroom Socks that they were made in the USA. Not assembled in the USA, and not imported as a whole product and stamped with a logo in the USA, but made from yarn in a factory in North Carolina. And a week after I received the socks, Nathan, CEO of Boardroom Socks, sent me an email detailing how to maintain my new socks. I responded with a "thank you." And was promptly surprised with another email from Nathan a few hours later offering further assistance if needed. I've never received anything close to that level of customer service from a legacy brand. They're just too big. Michael Williams from A Continuous Lean (ACL) goes into that a bit here describing Brooks Brothers in, "What is the Measure of a Good Company?" :
I want it to be clear that I really love Brooks Brothers. My first real suit was from Brooks Brothers and the brand’s historical significance has had an immense impact on global menswear for generations. It’s the American brand now and forever. But I look at Brooks Brothers in 2020 and have to wonder why it has fallen to this point? I have to question the decisions that have been made and the path that has been followed to get here. I think a lot of these problems were obvious long before COVID-19 was floating around. Please forgive me for being a bit of a Monday morning quarterback.
Claudio Del Vecchio made a lot of smart moves in the past and should be given some credit for what he did with the company under his ownership. He’s also got a lot of money on the line which shouldn’t be overlooked. I also think at the same time through his ambition or desire to make a ton of money he pushed the brand into strange and ultimately risky places. This quote below is especially ridiculous to me.
“There are a very small percentage of our customers who told us they really care about ‘Made in America,’” he said. “The vast majority of customers care more about quality and service than where a product is made. When we look at the sales, we really don’t see a lot of reason to believe we would be penalized. I think we — I — am more sorry about closing the factories than the customers will be.” Claudio Del Vecchio in The New York Times
The reality is Brooks Brothers wasn’t delivering any of these things except Made in America. You have to give Del Vecchio credit for buying Southwick and keeping these factories going in the face of what must have been massive pressure. To his point, it’s very hard to have big clothing factories in the U.S. now. There are a lot of people who will spend money on quality and a lot who do care deeply about buying a suit made in Massachusetts or a shirt from North Carolina. But when you are trying to just move units at an outlet mall in Orlando or appeal to people with Targus briefcases shopping in an airport the whole made in America thing is probably not going to work out.
I agree with Michael calling Del Vecchio's quote above ridiculous. And I believe "Made in America" has an opportunity to return with a vengeance if supported from a grass roots level through purchasing power, and state & national level through public policy. But in the end, I'm not calling for a purity test where everything you buy must be sourced locally or you're burned at the stake. It's impossible in this day and age. My home is filled with decor from Home Goods and large furniture chains. I get it. What I'm simply asking is when we can buy from a face we can see, and build a relationship in the process, do it.