The Economic Oversight in Manufacturing (Part 1)

10/10/2012 09:49 am ET | Updated Dec 10, 2012

Politicians, economists, analysts, writers, bloggers, reporters -- everyone has an opinion on how to fix our economy. One common, almost over-discussed yet not explained factor is manufacturing. With endless articles, reports, theories, blog posts, and tweets that examine its value on the U.S. economy, there is no doubt the manufacturing industry would create jobs, keep money in the U.S. economy and perhaps stimulate our economy in a way that we've yet to see.

However, the big question now is how?

Beyond just suggesting that consumers buy more American-made goods or that we adjust our trade deficit, but logistically speaking, how can manufacturing really save our country? How does this create more jobs and stimulate the economy, exactly?

Well, there is an established automobile Industry that once led our country's manufacturing job sector. But depending on that alone is too risky. With expensive machinery, high operating costs, and massive recalls, it's difficult to compete and see real growth. American families struggle to support it and we're already doing what we can.

iPhone? Impossible. To re-shore such an incessantly inconstant product, with such high technological demands, simply doesn't provide the sustainable impact our country needs.

Food and beverage? Possible, but this has already happened organically. Restaurants are taking pride in serving mainly locally grown, fresh ingredients and the number of farmers markets are increasing even in the smallest of towns. The trend of local breweries and wineries distributing nationally, even internationally, is emerging without any initiatives or over-analyzing on how this benefits our economy. This proves that we are a smart country -- we've known for years that buying local is the better choice. But, we can also admit we're a country that has become dependent on convenience and instant gratification.

However, we're still overlooking one huge industry: apparel.

It's one main product that we all have it in common. We all wake up every day and put on clothes. Whether you're a doctor, police officer or an architect, a kid going to soccer practice, or a twenty-something-year-old who just bought a Groupon for yoga class and buys workout clothes, you need it.

And history proves that it is a valid solution.

During WWII, who manufactured every soldier's uniform? Americans.

Every prisoner and every police officer? Americans manufactured their uniforms, too.

It was all made by American people, meaning that your uncle or grandfather clocked in and out at a factory every day to make that one commodity. We depended on our own country to provide a product that we needed. When the WWII effort needed more men in the military, untrained women took entirely new jobs in factories, including apparel manufacturing. We began educating, training and putting the unemployed to work. Sound familiar?

Even the fabric was made from America.

For the past 200 years, the U.S., specifically the Southern region, was known for growing cotton -- from start to finish. All across the South were endless fields that employed families, towns, and entire regions of people to plant, harvest, and pick the cotton.

From the fields, the picked cotton was then processed by a cotton gin, a piece of machinery created by Eli Whitney. Does that name ring a bell? He was an American. In fact, an innovative American who knew cotton so well that, in 1793, he created an advanced technology to progress the system of cultivating a major crop of the U.S. -- cotton. Perhaps today, he'd be on's Top 30 Under 30.

Cotton was an economic driver for the Southern economy, providing capital for the continuing development of the North, where most textile mills were located. In the New England area, great technologies to spin, weave and print on the fabric emerged, and they began experimenting with various textiles. In 1873, when miners couldn't find fabric tough enough for the mines, Levi Strauss created the All-American blue jeans -- American because we made it more innovative.

By 1930, there were approximately two million cotton farms across America.

Today, there are 18,605, and which states topped the list with the highest unemployment rates in 2011? Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, where cotton farms were once abundant. Now, those textile mills are shut down, farms are left to deteriorate, and the textile industry is vanishing from our economic landscape.

No less than 60 years ago, we were completely sustained in meeting our country's demand for apparel. Today, we rely on the cheapest possible option, yet question where the jobs have gone.

Apparel is the one thing we all have in common and use everyday, regardless of income, status, or employment. It's the simplest product, but most absorbent in middle America job creation. From the cotton farmers and workers at the textile mills to factory workers and apparel designers, the number of jobs that could accumulate with a well-designed government program of apparel manufacturing is infinite. Again, the facts are there, it's the strategy that's missing.

When you research (I mean Google) apparel manufacturing, you find endless articles, profiles and spotlights -- mine included -- of American made companies. You'll also find hundreds of blogs and 'Made in USA' product listings, economists, and reporters all proclaiming their opinions about whether or not manufacturing can save our economy. But don't ask politicians, economists, or bloggers about it, because they don't know about the small deteriorating industry of apparel manufacturing. Ask someone who is experienced enough to know about apparel manufacturing, yet young enough to see the bigger picture. Ask me.

Why listen to me? I work at an apparel factory everyday. I'm one half of Jolie and Elizabeth, a company founded by two young women that design, manufacture and wholesale apparel to retailers. To the public, I'm a glamorous fashion designer with a spread in Southern Living, feature in Forbes, and a dress that can be seen on Fox about every ten minutes on the New Girl second season ad campaign. However, does anyone know that dress Zooey Deschanel's wearing in Fox's national ad campaign is made in America? Nope.

I learned my trade in NY, as many of us have, at the corporate offices of various apparel companies -- Betsey Johnson and BCBG, to name a few. I've worked in design, production, factory logistics, merchandising, sales, and at a company as big as BCBG with 22 brands and five factories overseas, you quickly learn what works and what doesn't work. More importantly, you learn why.

You learn that factories overseas require minimum orders of 600 units; major retailers require new merchandise every two to three weeks. Retail partnerships develop and it's just margins, numbers, boxes of apparel shipped in and shipped out. The majority of apparel ends up on the sales rack, excess inventory levels continue to grow and most chain retailers, like Dillard's and Macy's, are all sitting on hundreds of boxes of excess inventory. Go in the back of Macy's Herald Square and see it for yourself. From Nike's warehouses in China to our own national retailers, excessive inventory is beginning to surface and it isn't pretty. When twenty apparel corporations overproduce to meet a demand that just isn't there, the impact a garment can make has been forgotten. Call it overproduction, a global macroeconomic imbalance or corporate carelessness; the ironic result is unemployment and generic apparel.

I ditched my corporate job to DO something, to make an impact. Three years later, Jolie and Elizabeth grew from a small entrepreneurial start-up company to quite the success story -- two twenty-something-year-old apparel designers who helped an apparel factory double in size after Hurricane Katrina.

In real life, I'm calculating yardage, coordinating production runs, carrying bolts of fabric across our factory, and packing and shipping boxes to retailers and customers across the country. It's a real job, in a factory -- tough and sweaty, just as it should be. The other half of my job is at a desk, finalizing orders from retail buyers, updating inventory counts on our website, HTML coding, editing the latest photo shoot in Photoshop and utilizing the many tools of social media to connect with our customer base.

It's not exactly a job you can fit in a description or college degree program.

My business partner and I are fortunate to be in this unique position, yet driven to make a change. We've experienced enough to know the apparel manufacturing industry, factory management, and what exactly goes into costing a garment, yet young enough to see, if not experience firsthand our economy's real problem. A lack of expertise in apparel manufacturing, as outsourcing this product has existed now for over twenty years, combined with a lack of new ideas on how it could successfully save our dynamic economy directly parallels the profit driven minds of Generation X and Baby Boomers who say it cant be re-institutionalized.

The solution doesn't lie in building a better car, changing technology or redesigning an iPhone to be made in America. It's the simplest of answers: apparel. And, while every politician, economist, analyst, writer, reporter, or presidential candidate endorses manufacturing as a possible economic solution, it takes a younger mind -- one that doesn't look at the profit margins but at an actual solution, an outline, a plan -- to fix our economy.

The Answer

Apparel manufacturing -- and not on a young contemporary level like American Apparel, whose trends fluctuate far too fast to compete, or Ralph Lauren, who proved to be inconsistent with their tragic Olympic oversight. A commodity that gets back to the basics, beginning with industries that are fixed, maintain a stable level of growth, and our economy will always fundamentally support.

Take the medical industry, for example. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, there are currently 691,000 physicians, 3.1 million nurses and, as a whole, the health care industry is slated to create 5.6 million jobs by 2020. The median growth, nor required uniforms of health care professionals, fluctuates greatly and the demand is measurable.

What's important to note is that those 5.6 million professionals will be wearing the same exact uniform everyday -- medical scrubs. It's made of the most basic and cheapest of fabrics -- cotton. In design, it's the simplest -- a basic top with pocket and drawstring waist pant. Cost wise, it's the cheapest and easiest to manufacture, and it's a necessary commodity. A doctor or nurse goes through approximately five pairs of medical scrubs every two weeks, or about 130 per year, so can you imagine if we could get that product made in America, every single year?
A government contract or initiative requiring all hospital, clinic and lab employees to purchase their uniforms through a mandated program of American made apparel manufacturers would cause an impact so great, it would be astounding. Hospital workers are among numerous industry professions whose standard everyday uniforms could and should be manufactured in the U.S.

I will admit that there are existing economic issues that would hinder the progress of the plan I propose, of which will be detailed in Part II of this series; there are also existing economic factors that greatly support and complement -- to an almost eerie extent. Neither of the presidential candidates have presented a promising plan of action, nor a concrete strategy as to how exactly manufacturing can stimulate our economy and create jobs. So while politicians, economists and reporters will continue to comment on how to fix our economy, I will continue to prove how the industry of apparel manufacturing can be the catalyst for our country's economic recovery.

This article is the first of a series, focusing on American manufacturing and its potential as a catalyst for economic recovery. Jolie Bensen can be reached at or at