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Carhartt: The End of An Era

Outsourcing in the American Apparel Industry

Sometimes the outsourcing trend, which has only gathered steam over time, really hits a nerve. When Levi’s ramped up foreign production in the 1990s, you felt the end of an era approaching.

In 2009, when Carhartt Inc made the decision to mix their Made in USA and foreign-made inventory (so customers and wholesalers can no longer request the Made in USA or Union Made label), you started to feel that things couldn’t get much worse for the American apparel industry.

The USA Label Does Not Guarantee “Sweatfree” Productlon

Indeed, things are looking pretty bleak. Apparel production has been steadily declining, and those factories still in operation face overwhelming competition through a global “race to the bottom.” Many U.S. factories have become bona-fide sweatshops. The “Made in USA” tag alone, without the union label, is often no guarantee that workers are being paid the legal minimum, much less a decent, middle-class salary.

The closing down of Carhartt’s domestic line is an opportunity to reflect on where we are.

Outsourcing Equated with “Staying Competitive”

Although it’s difficult to find a mention of the shift on Carhartt’s website, they did have brief blog entry from 2009 stating, in part, “To remain competitive in a global economy, Carhartt upholds a balanced approach to manufacturing by owning, operating and sourcing through facilities in the United States, Mexico and globally.”

The dozens of customer comments on that post contain a lot of venting from customers — and unanimous disappointment that yet another long-standing U.S. brand would succumb to outsourcing. As one commenter put it:

“Carhartt use to be American made. Too many Americans are unemployed. I am not interested in helping foreign countries [sic] economics. We need to keep Americans working. No foreign clothing on this American.”

Call on Consumers to Unite for Tangible Change

All of the comments express betrayal and anger. And that’s completely understandable and unsurprising.

It is interesting to note, however, that while everyone takes the opportunity to cast blame, no one gives any apparent thought to solutions to the problem. Here we have 44 individuals, each equally committed to the value of having decent manufacturing jobs within the United States. And yet, each individual speaks only to the company, and not to their fellow customers. Instead of one room with 45 people in it (44 commenters plus Carhartt), there’s 44 separate rooms.

It seems to me that this post demonstrates both the promise and the failure of Web 2.0. Instead of offering a platform for unified, constructive action toward a common endonline threads are often just an echo chamber for finger-pointing.

Sacrificing Labor Standards for the Sake of Growth

Carhartt SHOULD be called out for sacrificing labor standards for the sake of continued growth. But those who care about global labor standards, environmental standards, and growing the American middle class, can’t stop there. We need to begin uniting around solutions. In the same breath as we deride the bad actors in our economy, we need to be singing the praises of those who are holding out to do what’s right, AND those who steadfastly budget more for products made justly.

When it comes to Union Made in USA jackets, there are still alternatives to Carhartt and more alternatives. Hopefully, we can begin to use all that the web has to offer to stay positive, stay in touch with each other, and grow our movement.

UPDATE 09-28-2012:  As of Fall of 2012 Carhartt Clothing will now offer five of their most popular jacket products as made in the USA.  These items are specific to the Fall 2012 line and will be made exclusively in the US.  When questioned as to the union label for these USA made items- we were informed that some of the items are from unionized factories and some are not, but that there is no definitive way to tell before an item is in hand.

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