A New, Sustainable Model for Apparel Manufacturing in the U.S.

Oct. 17, 2013
As Manufacture New York is demonstrating, 'Made in USA' has become cost-competitive thanks to smart sourcing and sustainability practices.

Sometimes an industry simply can't move forward without changing and embracing more sustainable business models.

Consider America's apparel industry. In the last two decades, the U.S. has lost 90% of its apparel manufacturing jobs. The post-recession picture hasn't been very encouraging either, with emerging designers lacking the infrastructure, resources, and industry support needed to make substantial gains in domestic production.

The smartest way forward for apparel manufacturing may be one that runs counter to the conventional wisdom. Essentially, the time has come for a return to 'Made in USA.'

Sound surprising? Well, it's already happening in New York City.

In the last decade, a number of industry veterans grew tired of designing quality merchandise extolling the virtues of New York City, only to have it produced in China. A consensus began to emerge of completely Made-in-USA labels that could utilize local sourcing from the Garment District and all five boroughs of the city. But how to achieve this?

It's a matter of matching up existing skills and resources. Right now, there are old factories sitting empty in Brooklyn at the same time that industrial space in the Garment District is being rezoned for residential and commercial use. And, there are excellent, hard-working production managers and sewing operators who are now working out of their homes, have had to change industries, or are simply unemployed. And then there are the talented fashion entrepreneurs who have built loyal followings for their brands, but have woefully limited options when it comes to making their product available to a larger audience.

The solution is underway in New York City thanks to the nation's first fashion design and production incubator. A pilot program launched in the Garment District by Manufacture New York has begun providing space for local designers to conceive, develop, and manufacture their own domestically produced lines.

As Manufacture New York is demonstrating, "Made in USA" has become cost-competitive thanks to smart sourcing and sustainability practices, including:

Cooperative Sourcing. Collaboration has become the new byword. By partnering with progressive organizations, U.S. fashion sourcing has become accessible to a new generation through virtual maps of manufacturers, fabric/trim suppliers, printers, and more. And thanks to smart networking, independent designers can enjoy the real possibility of establishing healthy businesses from the start.

Sustainable Manufacturing. 21st century designers have learned that harnessing sustainability as a driving force for innovation and reducing financial and ecological waste in the production process isn't just a noble cause. It's also a smart, practical way to do business. By reducing transportation costs, eliminating international legal and customs fees, and negotiating partnerships with other local sourcing suppliers, NYC-made fashion has become advantageous. The great byproduct of this is the creation of new, fair wage jobs supported by the collective buying power of dozens of independent designers.

Public Awareness Campaigns. Consumer spending offers a powerful voice for change. Americans want to buy Made-in-USA, and the advantages offered by safe production are obvious. Designers are taking on a greater role in educating buyers about the real impact of "fast fashion" and unchecked consumption. Public awareness campaigns can offer a smart sales tool, especially through increased transparency during the production cycle. It's simply smart business to encourage fashion lovers to buy local, to research brands, and to be practical with their money.

So what's next?

Manufacture New York is currently renovating an industrial manufacturing space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and converting it into a 160,000-square-foot, LEED-certified, centrally located production facility. The space will serve as the keystone of a new Brooklyn Garment District, and will create more than 280 jobs and $60 million worth of annual economic impact for New York City. The major advantage will be a vertically integrated design, production, and technology incubator that includes cutting edge manufacturing facilities, a fully-equipped sampling room, a classroom space (open to the public), private studios for rent, and a state-of-the art computer lab equipped with the industry's best software for design and production. The next generation of apparel designers and producers are already lining up to take a place.

Manufacturing locally is becoming a reality, and one that's an imperative. The advantages are obvious: consumers will have greater options for locally made attire, independent designers will have the resources and space available to make their vision a reality, and sustainable materials and eco-friendly products will be produced easier and faster than before. And who knows -- when smaller designers demonstrate the successful bottom line of local sourcing, larger corporate brands may begin to move some production back to the U.S. Where fashion is concerned, the time is now for a sustainable, "Made in America" resurgence.

Bob Bland is Founder and CEO of Manufacture New York.

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