Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Real Cost Of That Chinese T-Shirt -- continued

Early in October I posted a note about my annoyance at being unable to find any clothes that were not made in China or some other Southeast Asian country. Everything, from underwear to topcoats seems to come from the same factory deep in the heart of China.

I threatened to go around barefoot wearing a barrel until I could find something that was actually made in the country where it was sold. The closest I could come is Italy. Now, the Italians make beautiful clothes, but, unfortunately, they all seem to be made for someone with the figure of a No. 2 pencil. I once went into a shop on the Via Gesu in Milan where the salesperson took one look at me and sadly shook his head as if to say “We don’t do industrial tents.”

Well, winter has approached and it’s getting cold. Out of desperation I wrote to the iconic American retailer L.L. Bean expressing my problem and wondering if they had anything, anything at all, made in the USA.

This is obviously a sensitive subject for L.L. Bean, and within a couple of days I received a very polite email that I will share with you:

Dear Mr. Edgerly,
Thank you for taking time to write to L.L.Bean and express your concerns.
Our policy is that we will always buy USA-made merchandise whenever we can get the quality that we require for our customers.
Our experience, unfortunately, is that so many of our long-term factories are closing their doors that most of our products are no longer available in the USA. As our suppliers have closed we have been obliged to search for new suppliers in other countries, and we continue to do so as necessary, to meet our customers expectations.
Below you will find a link of the items that we do carry that are made here in America:
If L.L.Bean can be of any further assistance, we are happy to help you 24 hours a days.

If you click on the link you will find about 170 items in the store that are made in America. Unfortunately, not one of this is an item of clothing. While I might look just grand wearing a Christmas wreath or perhaps a down comforter or small throw rug I doubt those items would really do the job.

But beyond the ‘Made in America’ items the email dodges around the main point. It’s sort of the ‘chicken-and-the-egg’ scenario. What came first, the suppliers closing or retailers like L.L. Bean taking their business elsewhere in search of the elusive profit margin? Of course the suppliers are going to close if their biggest customers rush to Asia. It’s hard to imagine U.S. suppliers closing if the large retailers made it a goal to purchase at least 50% of their clothing from the United States. Missing in this email is any discussion of just how much more the customer would pay if 50% of the clothing items came from America? 5%, 10%, 25%? I also wonder if the American consumer would bear this cost if he knew that he was helping keep his neighbour in a job, helping his community afford decent schools and other public services.

It’s probably asking too much, but it would nice if the retailers were at least honest with consumers and explained just how American communities as a whole are benefitting from their rush to foreign suppliers.