Two excellent articles in the December issue of the Atlantic magazine (www.theatlantic.com) highlight an encouraging trend — the re-shoring of manufacturing for some consumer goods. Over the past several years we’ve heard about a handful of contrarian small scale manufacturers who have decided to start or return manufacturing to the US. These pioneers have largely been driven by altruistic motives, and while any individual’s enlightened actions are always welcome, those efforts were unlikely to reverse a 30 year decline of American manufacturing. Now we learn that GE, along with Apple, Whirlpool, and a number of other large companies are taking a second look at the benefits of bringing their production back to the US for reasons that are purely economic and strategic. GE’s Jeff Immelt is investing $800M to revitalize a largely abandoned appliance factory complex in Kentucky. He stated, “I don’t do that because I’m running a charity… I do it because I think we can do it here and make more money.”
As Fallows and Fishman outline in their companion articles, the reason we may finally be at the end of our long manufacturing nightmare is simple: the cost efficiencies gained by off-shoring are no longer enough to offset the significant structural and competitive disadvantages over the long term. Automation, the intellectual property concerns, tighter product cycles, higher shipping costs, and 3 to 6 week delays from factory floor to store shelves have all been contributing factors. As units of labor become an increasingly lower percentage of the overall cost of a given product, the advantages of low cost labor become less relevant. Immelt stated “I think the era of inexpensive labor is basically over… people that are out there just chasing what they view as today’s low cost labor – that’s yesterday’s playbook.”
Consumer expectations for constantly refreshed products are on the rise. The need for design, engineering, and production collaboration under one roof has intensified. With the lower costs of natural gas the in the US, the costs and delays to ship finished products from halfway across the world no longer provide the same competitive advantage. In a related development, Walmart recently announced its intent to substantially increase the number of products it offers bearing a “Made in America” label. Whether this move is in response to increasing pressure by consumers and the media, or simply to take advantage of lowered manufacturing and distribution costs stateside is an open question.
While none of these factors alone would be sufficient to cause a change in behavior on a large scale, their collective impact (along with rising wages and increased environmental regulation in previous low-cost countries) have served to refocus the thinking of industrial leaders just enough to allow us a sliver of hope. It is unfortunate that we have not been able to reach a thoughtful and balanced bi-partisan approach to tax and trade policy that encourages a re-investment in domestic manufacturing, but for now we’ll take progress any way we can get it.
January 24, 2013
Of all our traditions in the United States, Thanksgiving Day has always been my favorite. No blaring commercialism, no expectations for giving or receiving gifts, nothing tied to the acquisition of material things.
Instead, Thanksgiving Day quietly asks us to engage in small but profound acts of thankfulness and personal accountability. It is a day that we strive to be the best we can possibly be — to show a generosity of spirit and a willingness to forgive what is in the past. It is a day to give thanks for our families and friends, to accept them into our hearts fully and without reservation. It is also a day to consider our responsibility to others in our community and to recommit ourselves to actions that will help those around us in need.
No matter the fractures that exist across this nation, we are on this one day united — collectively mindful of our many blessings and shared obligations, and deeply thankful for the company of people who we care about and who care about us.
Happy Thanksgiving to all,
November 21, 2012
Today I went shopping for new sheets for my son’s room. As I was wandering the aisles I kept thinking how sad it is that we don’t make sheets and other household fabrics like we used to here in the United States.
I remember how much of a luxury it was to buy new towels and sheets when I was growing up. Curtains were mostly made at home of fabric you found at the local fabric store. Some people made their own sheets, but we bought ours ready-made and kept them for what seemed like forever. If your sheets were torn, you repaired them. I can still remember their patterns and the smell of sunshine when they were brought in from the line.
Now, we buy sheets that are made in India, China, and Turkey by people who can rarely afford a set of their own. Our linen closets are jammed with textiles that we toss at the slightest sign of wear- sometimes not even taking the time to cut them into rags or put them into the donation box. Like so many of our possessions, they are too plentiful to cherish.
Here in New England many of us live in towns where a clothesline is a sign of poverty, something to be frowned upon by neighbors and restricted by covenants. Meanwhile, the towns that were once home to busy textiles mills have porches and yards crisscrossed with clotheslines because the people who live there now are too poor to afford a dryer.
I will put those sheets on my son’s bed tonight, wishing he could smell the outdoors in them like I used to when my mother put fresh sheets on my bed. I will also be thinking about those clothesline towns, and the thin bedding of the textile factory workers overseas.
We have so much abundance. How did we lose so much in the having?
October 23, 2012
Most of the time, the news we hear about a small town labor-intensive New England manufacturing company is bad, but sometimes, the news is both good and inspiring.
The 180 year old Bevin Brothers Manufacturing factory located in East Hampton, Ct. has been making bells since the 1830′s. All kinds of bells – cow bells, dinner bells, sleigh bells, and bells for ringing over Salvation Army kettles were produced in a small factory that dated back to the first half of the 19th century in a town the eventually came to be known as “Bell Town”. That historic factory was destroyed by a massive fire this past May. Anyone who sees those photos could reasonably assume that this little business would never return.
When we heard that the 5th generation current owner Matthew Bevin had pledged to rebuild the facility, well . . . we thought it was a well-intentioned but ultimately futile promise. We were wrong! Last week we learned through an NPR report that Bevin Bells had resumed production at an alternate facility located nearby, and with help from the local community and the state of Connecticut, efforts to rebuild on the original location were well underway.
Matthew Bevin was quoted in a Hartford Courant article right after the fire: “The Bevins have been making bells on this spot for 180 years, I’m a Bevin, I’m on this spot, and I’m going to make some bells.” This is an astonishing expression of accountability, commitment, and resolve in the era of easy abandonment.
Since that statement, Bevin has made good on his promise. After work to salvage as much as the equipment and as many of the original molds as possible, the company is producing bells again. Fourteen people have returned to work filling the order for the Salvation Army.
Sometimes, we just need to look a little closer to home for our role models.
October 7, 2012
September 29, 2012
Every year, our town opens its agricultural fair with a parade. It is a parade so local, so grounded in community, that everyone who attends is connected in some way to the marchers. Everyone participates– from nursery school children to the kids in the high school band. The library ladies, the peace activists, volunteers from the food pantry, the fife and drum corps, local farmers, the boy scouts, the girl scouts, and the little league teams all march around the green. Even the local llamas make an appearance. Then, its off to the fairgrounds for the opening day of the fair. The tents filled with farm animals, the displays of prize pumpkins, blue ribbon pies, quilts, jams, and artwork from the first grade class are all there waiting for us, year after year.
There is something so reassuring about this tradition. I love the ordinariness of it, the celebration of everyday life. I read in our local paper that the first year our fair was held, Abaraham Lincoln was running for President. I can’t help but imagine what that first event must have been like, here in this familiar place I call home.
We are entering our glory days now, here in New England – fall festivals, agricultural fairs, farmers markets overflowing withe the season’s best bounty, hand-crafts exhibits, antique shows, corn mazes… If you do a quick web search the list of is endless. Here are three web sites to get you started: www.visitnewengland.com/fairs-and-festivals , www.discovernewengland.org/new-england-events , and www.boston.com/travel/explorene . There are also many local events that can be found by checking your local newpaper or local events web site. Something is available every weekend now through Thanksgiving. We hope you will get out there this season. Go to a local fair, get lost in a corn maze, and enjoy everything our region has to offer this fall season.