Can Clothing Be Made in the US Again? Osmium Says Yes

(Justmeans/3BL Media) - When we think about consumer goods, it’s hard to think of a category that is less inherently sustainable than clothing. The very notion of fashion encourages us to discard clothes at the end of each season in order to “keep up with the latest” trends. On average, every American buys 64 garments and throws out the equivalent of their own body weight in clothing each year. A full 98% of clothing purchased in the country was produced in China or Bangladesh where labor is cheap and laws regulating working conditions and environmental practices are far more lax. Incidents like the building collapse in Rana Plaza are the result, along with massive pollution, not to mention the exploitation of millions of child laborers.  

Much of our clothing is made of cotton, the crop that receives more pesticide treatment than any other. Others use synthetic fabrics and chemical coatings like flame retardants that cause pollution both during production and disposal. The Clean Clothes Campaign, which specializes in supporting textile workers and exposing abusive practices that keep people trapped in poverty, wrote a paper on the respiratory health hazards in China’s factories.

Then there are the second order effects which are not often considered. For example, China currently generates 69% of their electricity using coal. That’s almost twice as much as the US, which is now getting only about 36% of its power from coal. That means significantly more GHG emissions when an item is made overseas.

Another impact that has gone under the radar is the way that the drop in employment here in the US has reduced the buying power of the middle class. This means lower sales. People have focused on the idea that the poor economy has led to massive unemployment, but it actually works both ways. This is something Henry Ford recognized a hundred years ago when he decided to pay his workers well enough so that they could afford to buy the cars they were building.

These are some of the reasons that clothing made in the USA is making a comeback.

Mark Paigen, the founder of Osmium, a maker of durable men’s clothing, thinks that maybe it’s time to move from a fast food mentality to a slow food mentality in the world of clothing. You could spend the same amount of money or less on a small number of domestically produced quality items as you would on a large number of cheap ones that will wear out in a season. How much clothing is enough?

Paigen has had an interesting journey. After bouncing around as everything from a farmer to a shoemaker to a whitewater rafting guide, he gathered up his collective experience into a design for a water sandal that eventually become the basis for Chaco. He built the company and managed for 18 years to produce a successful and competitive product in the US, despite the fact that all of his competitors were producing in China. Eventually competitive pressures grew to the point where, in order to save the brand, he too, moved production overseas, selling the company a few years later.

Now, he’s back with Osmium, quality menswear brand for men “who look twice and buy once.” The clothing is stylish, traditional, with a bit of an edge, and very well made, right here in the USA, mostly in New England. Paigen thinks he can make it work, selling online, eliminating the middle man, putting that money in the pockets of his labor force instead. That’s a model that is starting to pick up steam in various markets. It’s what allows Dock to Dish, for example, to sell super-fresh seafood for the same price you’d pay for fish that’s been frozen and shipped around the world and back. A drive towards quality turns out to be a drive towards sustainability.  Prices are not cheap, but neither is the clothing. If a shirt will last twice as long, what’s wrong with it costing twice as much? And if going for American made quality means strengthening our communities in the process, what in the world is wrong with that?

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