On the Closure of the American Factory
A few weeks ago, prior to Brooks Brothers’ bankruptcy announcement, while reading about the shuttering of their Garland, North Carolina shirt factory, I turned to my wife and said, “Could we save it?”
This post will mainly comprise context, however I do hope it’s injected with some of my lifelong considerations. I do not purport to be any kind of expert in how to run a business (RIP Buckshot Sonny’s, Made Right Here, and my once lucrative Alfred E. Newman caricature business of fifth grade, circa 1991), nor do I understand all the inner-workings of factory work, not to mention small town politics.
On the other hand, I have devoted most of the past ten years to sharing with the world stories of the American manufacturer, the maker, the craftsperson, the artisan, the artist, the farmer… the list could continue to include any facet of individuals who work as much with their head and their heart as they do with their hands, with their bodies to take one thing and turn it into something else entirely. From this experience, I’ve garnered one bit of knowledge: these folks are wildly under-valued.
I begin here because it was something that struck me almost at the very beginning of my journey with Made in America, a journey that began on All Plaidout in the early spring of 2009. I was 28. I’d rented a car down the street from where I lived in Brooklyn and drove it to Maine. I took off from my work as an editor for the day that Friday, and early that morning I just drove, straight to the L.L. Bean boot factory. The post that followed my visit set the course for what my life’s focus would be. It wasn’t until later that day, after leaving L.L. Bean while walking around Quoddy’s factory floor filled with five or six highly skilled hand sewers that I acknowledged no one was wearing hand-sewn leather moccasins. They were all wearing cheap, synthetic tennis shoes that’d seen better days. “Can’t afford it,” was how I quoted one of them in the subsequent post.
It didn’t make sense then, and sitting here eleven years after that moment, it makes less sense now. Idioms like, “the cobbler’s children have no shoes” hold a lot of truth in tales like the fate of the American craftsperson.
Now, I was born in a small town, but I haven’t lived full-time in a small town since I was eight. I went to college in a small town, and I spent my fair share of time traveling between small towns while working a twelve state territory as a traveling shirt and tie salesman and later all fifty states as a brand ambassador for a bourbon company. I cannot personally relate to the fate of the small town, but if my fondness for the memories I have of virtually every experience in small towns is any indication, I can empathize.
It is empathy that is most required in moments like this, and for some time I have found myself befuddled by the utter lack of empathy, a decline that is as reflective of our societal shift away from community as any I, and others like me, have encountered.
Many on my journey have pointed out that NAFTA is partly to blame for the decimation of the small town, and the small town dweller doesn’t seem to care. From my vantage point, residents of small towns have been relegated to minimum wage service jobs. Trades have largely gone away and with them the skillset, the training, the know-how, and the by-product of all this is a lack of real pride: of self-ownership, of company, city, county and state pride.
My mind shifts between meetings with Made in America company heads in high-rise buildings in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles to encounters with the administrative assistant whose break room was literally in the pea green tile bathroom of the one-time apartment of Sheldon, one of the Gitman brothers, to the hard-working folks roasting tons and tons of coffee beans on a daily basis for Maxwell House, and to the small artisan craftsperson working in tool shed but selling their wares to the largest department stores in the world.
I recall women at Gitman sitting three to a row, daughter handing to mother, handing to grandmother the working parts of a shirt sleeve. I recall mother, daughter and cousin working side-by-side on the assembly line at Schutt, the football helmet factory in southern Illinois.
Thinking of these instances in my life, this is why I felt compelled to ask my wife if we could save one of these factories.
Six years later, returning to Quoddy, this time as a bourbon ambassador, many of their employees had moccasins on their feet. I don’t claim to know how or why, but that small change was indicative to me of the efforts they’ve made to better support their people, their community.
If trades die, they will not come back.
During the course of my career, even before I was the traveling salesman and the bourbon guy, and certainly afterwards, I have developed into a branding expert. Given my experiences in branding, I contemplate what I would do if given free rein to save a place like Garland. I would band together under one seal of verified high-quality American-made products. It happened for Fair Trade, it needs to happen for American-made. But it can’t just be anything, and it’s not a union. It’s a certification, a seal of quality. It’s a series of benchmarks. It’s something not everyone will qualify for, but every American manufacturer should strive to qualify for. It’s a statement that fair working conditions, diversity and inclusion initiatives, certain standards of practice, of cleanliness, of benefits, of company ownership are made available to employees just starting out and up-and-down the food chain. Let’s put in place education efforts that ensure these oral traditions don’t die on the vine. There needs to be something, somewhere for these folks to go to know that they’re being taken care of in the same way we’ve taken care of tax breaks for others in our country. I’m not talking about a bail-out, I’m talking about the development of programs, of certifications, the development of a lobby for the efforts to re-invest in the rundown, the out-of-the-way, the small, the under-represented. Let’s invest time, sweat, tears, muscle… anything we can to help protect those of us outside the large metropolitan areas. Towns, counties, regions used to be known for what they made, their specialty. Could it be that way again? As with everything in my life, it always comes down to the people.
How will this pandemic change things? Will people want to focus on Made in America? What are these people going to do now that they’re out of work?
In the time since I last focused on updating this blog with any regularity, I met and married a wonderful woman who, for a time at the beginning of our relationship, worked for an interior design publication. Among her clients was American furniture manufacturer, Lee Industries.
We’ve talked often over the course of the last four months about how Americans are going to begin investing in their homes, their interiors. “As quarantine has [made] all nonessential workers more intimately acquainted with the confines of their homes,” my wife correctly indicated to me that as we invest in higher-quality, well-made pieces for our home, places like Lee Industries will become more of a focus than they ever had been before.
During her visit to Lee, my wife met Marketing Director Bondi Coley. They walked the factory floor together, as Coley explained that she tries to do this every day. She stopped and introduced my wife to every employee by name, pointing out married couples at the company. “It’s a family,” my wife told me after visiting.
After pausing to realize how lucky I am to have met and married someone who is as passionate about this as I am, I thought, “That’s it. That’s the point. Family.”
On this issue, you may read splashier takes, more informed takedowns, but I haven’t read about anyone considering the folks at the bottom of this issue, and that says a lot about the American priority.
At a time when our sense of community hangs in the balance, doesn’t it make more sense to do everything we can to maintain our relationships, to keep the family together, so to speak? I want to know how to do it, and I’m here to help anyone willing to take my pleas to heart. I don’t have the financial resources to do this myself, but I have the heart, passion and brand know-how to support any effort that values the protection and development of industries in our small towns and tight-knit communities that once were the foundation of our country.