Last week I went to a sock factory. The interwoven maneuverings of a factory floor always make me feel as though I’m in the midst of some muscular, over-sized game of Mousetrap. Hundreds of knitting machines, each programmed to use just the right amount of yarn, at just the right time, created sock after sock. Completed socks were sucked into pneumatic tubes, transported overhead, and dropped into bins for inspection and sorting. Workers machine-stitched the socks’ toes and each pair was washed, dried, ironed (yup, they iron your socks!), folded, labeled, and stacked in the warehouse, ready for shipping. The entire process was a carefully choreographed ballet, pairing workers and machines in constant motion. I am in awe at the way socks are made.
And though I’m no economist, I can recognize that one of the ongoing concerns about U.S. economic woes is the loss of manufacturing jobs like the ones at the sock mill. Twenty years ago there were about 400 similarly sized mills in the U.S. Today there are 100. America’s desire for cheap goods, along with expanding markets in other countries, has driven a lot of manufacturing overseas. Some argue that the abundance of safety and environmental regulations and the high cost of health care and pensions make it impossible for America to compete on a global scale, and that manufacturing will never return to the U.S.
Photos by Hither and Thither
But Allison Arieff, a design and architecture writer, thinks otherwise. In a recent blog post in The New York Times Opinionator blog, Arieff writes that it may be time to shift our gaze from manufacturing as we know it — from the “monolithic, single-industry model” that’s produced cars, steel, and lumber — to something more “nimble and diversified.” That something is local manufacturing.
Taking advantage of the current interest in all things local, organizations SFMade and Made in N.Y.C. encourage manufacturers to capitalize on their region’s unique geography and culture as a way of differentiating their products. Arieff compares this to the way terroir imbues food and wine with geographically unique characteristics and believes that, while NY and San Francisco have a certain regional cachet, small manufacturers in other locales also could benefit from emphasizing these local connections.
Not everyone agrees with Arieff that local manufacturing can make a substantial difference— while most comments on the post are positive, some commenters call her naïve and suggest that local manufacturing can’t effect change on the large scale that’s needed now, when so many Americans are out of work.
What do you think? Are we ready to change our patterns of consumption, to pay a bit more for goods that are made in particular regions of the United States? Can small-scale manufacturing compete in today’s big-box world?