U.S. apparel brands are working hard to improve working conditions in overseas factories that manufacture their products. But when should a brand invest in U.S. jobs instead?
Instead, the paper settles for a political hit on Ivanka Trump that largely falls flat. Under the simple headline, Ivanka, Inc., the story trumpets,
"The first daughter talks about improving the lives of working women. Her father urges companies to "buy American." But her fashion line's practices collide with those principles – and are out of step with industry trends."
The author's real objection is that Ivanka, Inc. manufacturers offshore, at all. In related video content entitled ‘Here's what Ivanka Trump has been doing in the White House', the paper boasts,
"A Washington Post investigation revealed that Trump's clothing line relies exclusively on foreign factories in Asian countries. That's despite the administration's call to "buy American."
But most apparel companies rely on foreign factories in Asian countries and couldn't manufacture here even if they'd like (many would like). Some investigation.
Kelly and Will Waters of Telluride's homegrown brand Western Rise are navigating a global supply chain to build an apparel brand. I asked Kelly about her operations -- Western Rise manufacturers offshore -- the Post's story, and the challenges of manufacturing onshore.
"It's a complicated, multifaceted issue," Waters begins, "in that a lot of manufacturing jobs can't come back because we don't have the factories available, we don't have the fabric suppliers here, we don't have the workforce available, to sustain that level of manufacturing -- and also to sustain it at the price the American consumer has come to expect as reasonable for their apparel. I think that's one part of it."
She continues, "One of the other things that can be difficult for apparel manufacturers, and I know this was mentioned in the article, is that very few manufacturers own their supply chain, and because of that, it can very difficult to regulate that supply chain, and the ethical practices in the mills and factories doing work for you. It becomes even more difficult when you use a third person, as was mentioned in the article, a 'middleman' you hire to negotiate rates with all these mills and factories. It's another degree of separation between you and your supply chain, which makes it that much more difficult to check in on things like labor, and environment, and work hours, and the sustainability of the fabrics, or water consumption and environmental footprint of the factories you use, and all of the things that get looked at. It's very difficult when you have that degree of separation."
Waters has eliminated the middleman. "We source all of our fabrics directly with our mills," she says, "and we contract work directly with our four different fabric and apparel factories."
But bringing production to the U.S. is no simple task. "Short of billions of dollars in investments and state of the art facilities," she adds, "it's going to be hard."
Who better than Ivanka Trump to invest in apparel infrastructure? If only the Post would have asked.
Where Ms. Trump shouldn't be held to a different standard despite her high-profile father's exhortations, Ivanka Trump, the company, can reasonably be expected to invest in U.S. manufacturing infrastructure, in keeping with President Trump's message. The company has resources, influence, and a bully pulpit to effect change.
Waters has an idea where to begin. "I think the place you start is workforce training, but I would hesitate to say workforce training in the traditional cut-and-sew manufacturing process. I think we'll see manufacturing come back to the U.S. is in the areas we excel, which is creative problem solving and technology, and things like 3D knitting, which we could house here in the United States, and what we need to run them is people who are familiar with code, versus people that are familiar with flat lock stitching. You're talking about building an infrastructure from the ground up. And to be honest, we're not going to be able to compete with Bangladesh and Africa on cut-and-sew prices and hourly wages for employees. We need to compete in areas where we have strength."
Can Ivanka, Inc. evolve to where it's a change agent in fashion apparel production? Trump's low-cost, mass-merchandising product strategy also feeds the very offshore production system that U.S. brands view as unsustainable. It's a brand strategy that Hap Klopp, founder of The North Face, calls the 'race to the bottom' -- high volume, cheap products for the consumer and low margins for the manufacturer. Up and coming U.S. brands embrace the opposite.
If not Ivanka Trump's company, Colorado and the region are home to a cadre of brands and entrepreneuers reimagining the global apparel supply chain. More are on the way. Of the thousand or so brands coming to Denver this January for the city's first Outdoor Retailer, most manufacture overseas. As a regional blueprint for apparel production evolves, the possibilities for growth are intriguing. We'll dig deeper into the concepts and people leading the discussion next time.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.