Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Produce locally, think globally

Localization in the slow food, slow fashion, and slow architecture movements does not imply protectionism and should not be confused with the current push to “Buy American.” Rightly, in an editorial today in the New York Times—“The Peril of ‘Buy American’—the editors note:
. . . as the states and municipalities start spending stimulus money, the idea [of Buy American] is starting to look as counterproductive as it should have looked from the beginning. It is sparking conflict with American allies and, rather than supporting employment at home, the ‘Buy American’ effort could ultimately cost American jobs.

What is at issue is the simple fact that both domestic and foreign manufacturers cannot ensure that every piece of the products they make—including all of the components, the manufactured and raw materials—are made in the United States. Many producers of products are bowing out of bidding for projects funded with stimulus dollars simply because of the provisions in the “Buy American” clause. Efforts on the part of Obama to persuade local and state municipalities to be flexible about this clause or his assurances to the World Trade Organization and our international trading partners that we would not pursue a policy of protectionism go largely unheard.

Again, we have jumped to an emotional solution, not a reasoned one. Buying 100% American-made products is nearly impossible because we have surrendered our role as manufacturers through mismanagement, greed, and/or outsourcing, to name a few of the many reasons that turned the world’s greatest manufacturer at the end of WWII into the world’s largest importer of manufactured goods.

Take the once thriving American apparel industry. It now barely exists. Most apparel companies manufacture off shore although they retain a few domestic manufacturers of some items, primarily to ensure quick turnaround of popular choices. Increasingly, however, offshore production is becoming as expensive as domestic production when you factor in the high cost of transportation and energy, which now are beginning to offset the high cost of American labor. The high cost of American labor is itself becoming somewhat of an outdated concept as more and more Americans are now living in tents and asking to work for food.

Looking back when I was growing up in Oregon—hardly a manufacturing mecca—three apparel manufacturers dominated the region—White Stag, Jantzen, and Pendleton Woolen Mills. The iconic White Stag Sign that proudly displayed the “Made in Oregon” tag at the entrance to what is now Old City has dropped the “made in” to display only Oregon. Its use: to announce the Portland campus of the University of Oregon. Except for the sign and the recent controversy it engendered, White Stag is barely a memory in most Oregonians’ minds.

Jantzen—“just wear a smile and a Jantzen”—similarly was a well known national swim suit brand that was manufactured in Oregon. On the way downtown on the 33rd Street bus from Northeast Portland where I grew up, you could peer through the windows into the orderly factory where women (mostly) stitched away making the suits that bathing beauties wore. Still a thriving brand owned since 2002 by Perry Ellis International, Jantzen has long abandoned its Oregon facilities.

For localization to become meaningful in fashion, as it has become in the slow food movement, which has acted as the germinating force for hundreds of new, small truck farmers in the United States, we have to devote ourselves to job creation, training, and the rebuilding of our manufacturing infrastructure before we can ask Americans to even consider buying American. We need to encourage domestic production—local and regional—while taking into account the global implications—economic, environmental, and social—of all of the decisions that we make, not as some kind of knee-jerk patriotism, but as responsible citizens of our country and the world.

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