Unless, of course, you’re making fancy cowboy hats.
The great irony of the Trump administration’s Made in America week is that, in attempting to showcase great U.S.-based businesses, it illustrated just how hard it is to make anything in the States.
Made in America week was meant to kick of with 50 brands—one from each state—on the White House lawn to celebrate “each state’s effort and commitment to American-made products.” Noticeably absent? Any Trump family brand, disqualified because they’re largely manufactured in places like China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. When reporters brought this fact up with press secretary Sean Spicer, his defensive reaction spoke volumes: “There are certain supply chains or scalability that may not be available in this country.” Spicer and the Trumps know that producing clothing on such a mainstream level while keeping prices low for a mainstream customer simply isn’t possible.
Of the 50 brands, only one is officially categorized as an “apparel” company: Campbellsville Apparel Company. Other clothing-adjacent brands include Milton Manufacturing, a fabric company, and Dakota Outerwear Co., self-explanatory. What do all three of these companies have in common? They have juicy deals with the U.S. military.
The deals are a result of a law, The Berry Amendment, that requires the Department of Defense to purchase items produced in the U.S., which is why these companies are getting these contracts in the first place. Campbellsville Apparel makes undergarments like T-shirts and underwear for U.S. soldiers. These deals are lucrative and the company has been awarded contracts worth $125.6 million since 2007 and $8.5 million last year alone, according to InsideGov, a database that tracks government contracts. Dakota Outerwear has racked up contracts worth $9.9 million. Milton Manufacturing brought in the smallest amount, just below $900,000 since 2007.
Let’s focus on Campbellsville Apparel because it’s really representative of how difficult it can be to survive as an American-made company. For starters, the company is seemingly completely reliant on its business with the government to remain in business—a pretty damning fact when you consider the traditional view of Republicans is that small businesses should be able to stand on their own without dipping into the government’s coffers. In 2012, it was forced to fire a fourth of its employees—36 people from a workforce of 145—because “demand for tee shirts and briefs has decreased from the Defense Logistics Agency.”
It’s safe to say that the company simply wouldn’t be able to continue operations without its military contracts. The Associated Press reported in 2012 that if Campbellsville Apparel lost its contract, it would be forced to lay off 115 of its employees. That sounds a whole lot like “almost all its employees.”
The moral of the story is that it’s hard to survive as a Made in America brand. And rather than spotlighting small independent business, the Trump administration is highlighting a company that is bankrolled by the U.S. government. It’s not a business model that anyone can just replicate.
The idea of Campbellsville Apparel laying people off came up because the company was facing an adversary that is able to stamp “Made in the USA” on its products while paying nowhere near the wage requirements in this country. Prisons got into the habit of sponging up these lucrative contracts by undercutting the prices of other government suppliers that have to fulfill pesky requirements like living wages. Unicor pays inmates somewhere between 23 cents to $1.15 per hour.
It highlights a very interesting conundrum: many consumers and the Trump organization want well-made products, but a Reuters polls show many people are unwilling to pay for the costs that come with affording workers a living wage, fair hours, and health benefits and for a factory with livable conditions. It’s not a coincidence that the one time Campbellsville was getting attention in the “fashion” press was during the #menswear movement. It was featured on sites like A Continuous Lean, which was all about American-made products.
Campbellsville would have surely lost its contract had UNICOR not bowed out amid pressure from—guess who!—then-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. The irony here is that Trump has only been a boon for the prison system, and private prisons in particular have seen their stocks rise under Trump.
Made in America week already felt like lip talk to distract from the ongoing Russia investigation but it’s exposed Trump in unexpected ways. It put a spotlight not only on his own brands, but on the few ways American-made brands are able to survive—and how his policies might work against those companies in the long run.
The one exception in this whole thing is Stetson, which was championed by the administration and makes luxey $200 cowboy hats. It’s a weird mix, but the message is loud and clear: supporting the troops or the rich cowboys is really the way to be American.