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Why We Still Make It in the USA

From baseball gloves to bikinis, plenty of American companies manufacture products right here at home.

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Flying high: Companies still find success with the The world is flat, we've been told, and globalization has sent many once-American products overseas for production. You might remember the Etch-a-Sketch? Now it's made in China. And Levi's jeans, an American staple, are made in Latin America and Asia. Heck, even 1.5 percent of American flags are made outside U.S. borders.

The Federal Trade Commission mandates that "all or virtually all" of production must occur in the United States for a product to earn the official "Made in the USA" seal. Each year, the number of products made here seems to dwindle. America's current trade deficit is $49.9 billion and we've been running one since 1976, as manufacturing has been offshored to countries with cheaper labor. But the reality is that we still make a lot of, well, stuff -- and if you look closely enough, you'll find more than a few companies that are holding true to their American roots.

Believe it or not, many companies that produce goods for baseball -- America's pastime -- no longer do it in the United States. (Rawlings baseballs, for example, are stitched in Costa Rica.) But glove maker Nokona in Nocona, Texas, prides itself on being "the American glove," for America's pastime. Sales director Gary Bethea says that producing in the States affords Nokona's team the "opportunity to have very tight control and involvement" in the production process. And even though imported baseball goods are becoming the norm, Bethea believes players will continue to value the connection of American-made goods to the signature American sport so long as the quality remains high. As one of the lone American glove producers, Nokona is in a unique position to reinforce the American heritage of the sport, even if it comes at a higher price.

"Looking from a broad perspective, we hope that the benefits outweigh the increased cost" of domestic manufacturing, Bethea says. Nokona has been producing baseball gloves since 1926, and though the dynamics in the industry have changed since then, Bethea says the company remains committed to top-quality, American-made products.

And quality is a top priority for iconic American retailer L.L.Bean, which has two manufacturing facilities down the road from its flagship store in Freeport, Maine. Since Leon Leonwood Bean started the company in 1912, the famous Bean Boots, canvas Boat and Tote bags, dog beds, and other items have been made right there in Maine. While the company has outsourced some production of its goods, last year it made a $1 million investment to keep Bean Boot (a.k.a. the Maine Hunting Shoe) production stateside and the factory's 200 workers employed. It was, after all, the product on which the L.L.Bean brand was founded on.

"We are closely associated with the state of Maine," says Carolyn Beem, an L.L.Bean spokesperson. "We use Maine imagery in our catalogs. Our products evoke a feeling of Maine -- rugged, outdoorsy, dependable, practical, quality. Maine is part of our brand. We were founded here, our headquarters are here in Freeport and it is where we continue to invest and grow."

In a global economy, Beem admits it can be difficult to remain 100 percent "Made in the USA." She says L.L.Bean is "partial to U.S. manufacturers," but must deal with "the realities of available capacity for quality manufacturing" in both the United States and the wider world. Nonetheless, L.L.Bean employs 2,000 people at its call centers and order fulfillment centers in Maine -- a number that nearly doubles during the holidays. These numbers make L.L.Bean one of the largest employers in the Pine Tree State.

But it's not just storied American brands that choose to keep production at home. Startups like Soy-Yer Dough, which makes a gluten-free competitor to Hasbro's Play-Doh (you may have seen it on Shark Tank), are steadfastly committed to American manufacturing. Founder Sawyer Sparks says he's found incredibly cheap prices in China and elsewhere, but insists on having Soy-Yer Dough be homegrown in America's heartland, just like him.

"I can have it made for pennies somewhere else, but that's not what my values are," says Sparks, who recently drove down to Florida to pick up a piece of equipment that was produced in Chicago. Yes, even his machinery is made in the USA. (Play-Doh, by contrast, is made in China.)

"I want as much money as possible to stay in this country, because we need it, and we need the jobs, too," he says. Sparks has plans to expand the gluten-free concept to other toys and games, and he remains committed to producing these future products in America. Although a U.S.-based assembly line and his gluten-free ingredients are more expensive, he plans to buy components in bulk and mass-produce the dough to defray the cost of each unit.

American-made quality is something American Apparel -- the irreverent purveyor of basic T-shirts, leggings and other hipster wear -- takes seriously. It's also a central focus of its marketing strategy. The company makes a point to announce that its manufacturing is "vertically integrated in Los Angeles," an international shipping hub and cultural mecca. The factory in the City of Angels employs 7,000 people, who typically make $12 to $18 an hour and have access to health insurance, making them the highest-paid garment workers in the world, according to Ryan Holiday, a rep for the company. American Apparel's vertical integration is designed to give the company advantages over outsourcing -- speed to market, reduced shipping, quicker product development cycles and quality control. (Although American Apparel stock has dropped precipitously in recent weeks amid rumors of bankruptcy, founder Dov Charney blames the financial troubles on a lack of immigration reform and not the company's commitment to domestic manufacturing.)

"American school T-shirts were iconic, unique and in most ways better than the T-shirts we had access to in Canada," Charney writes on his blog. In 1989, Charney started producing his own line of tees with 10,000 pounds of yarn from North Carolina and moved to L.A. in 1998. American Apparel is an amalgamation of Charney's Canadian roots and love of the United States, of which he became a citizen in 2009. But his pro-Americanism isn't an argument for protectionism.

"I am not a protectionist," he adds. "I really believe that free trade is positive. With a little innovation, anyone can win, especially in fashion. Simple, less expensively made garments can often be more valuable than more baroque and expensively made products."

Motivated by frustration of "not being able to find anything American-made in stores anymore," Stephanie Sanzone launched StillMadeinUSA.com in 2005. The purpose of her site is to help consumers find and buy American-made products -- from baby gear to sporting goods -- online. Sanzone, a working mother, is big on the Red, White and Blue because of "jobs and the sense of pride that workers and communities have in producing well-made goods." She also points out the environmental concerns -- if a product is poorly made in China, it costs a lot for it to travel around the world to a suburban American town only to break and end up on the curb days later. "How can we justify that?" she says. She adds that there's a perception (whether it's right or wrong) that foreign-made goods are more subject to recalls for safety defects, like toxic levels of lead or cadmium.

"The bottom line is that 'cheap imports' aren't really so cheap," Sanzone says, "when I consider the impact on our manufacturing sector, in terms of jobs and technological competitiveness."

Tags: American Apparel, American Apparel bankruptcy, American manfuacturing, Dov Charney, L.L. Bean, Made in the USA, manufacturing, Nokona, Nokona gloves, Sawyer Sparks, Soy-Yer Dough, StillMadeinUSA.com, trade deficit, U.S. manufacturing

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