Other than the novelty of having a product made in the U.S., there’s another benefit to shifting production to an American supply chain: sustainability.
Take Hilos, a Portland, Ore.-based company that operates with an on-demand model, creating and shipping 3D-printed shoes to customers within 72 hours of an order placement. It aims to avoid the overproduction and manufacturing waste that is common in the months-long cycle it typically takes to produce a pair of shoes overseas.
Or Psudo, a U.S.-made sneaker brand that creates its shoes made from recycled water bottles in a 5,000-square-foot factory in Vernon, Calif., in a system meant to help it avoid production excess.
For these brands, sustainability is top of mind. And manufacturing on American soil helps them achieve this goal. At the most basic level, U.S. production means avoiding carbon emissions that can result from shipping from factories in Asia.
“The most obvious sustainability feature of building closer to where your customers are is that you don’t have the carbon footprint from overseas transportation,” said Sean Scott, co-founder and CEO of Comunity Made, a footwear brand that produces out of Los Angeles.
Sean and his wife, Shannon Scott – both footwear industry veterans with experience in mass production overseas – founded Comunity Made in 2017. When they chose to manufacture in the U.S., they considered the sustainability benefits that would yield, as well as the ability to have more control over their factories.
“Our philosophy is not anti-Asia. Our philosophy is anti-far away production from wherever you are,” said Shannon, noting how producing closer to home means shorter lead times and the ability to be more agile throughout the process.
But with great benefits also come great challenges. And when it comes to making footwear in the U.S., the obstacles abound. Labor and raw materials are more expensive, which can drive up the final price on a pair of shoes. Another issue is a lack of resources for a local supply chain that is still very limited.
“The footwear ecosystem doesn’t really exist here,” said Pepper Harward, head of strategy at Okabashi, which mainly produces its own footwear in its factory in Buford, Ga., but also has contracts with other brands. “It’s hard to build out our supply chains.”
That’s where companies that can support this supply chain become important, especially if they integrate sustainable methods. For example, Blumaka supplies domestic manufacturers with a more eco-friendly alternative to virgin foam (used for midsoles and insoles), with products made from recycled factory foam.
“We’re building out what I would call the supply chain to support whatever those domestic manufacturers want,” explained Stuart Jenkins, CEO and co-founder of Blumaka. “Not only are we giving footwear manufacturers the opportunity to buy recycled components, if that’s what they desire, we are giving them a true opportunity to have circular content in their shoes.”
In November, Blumaka signed a five-year lease on a 3,500-square-meter manufacturing facility in American Park Free Zone industrial park in Santa Ana, El Salvador, to create these recycled components closer to the U.S. market.
While many brands may be interested in producing in the U.S. in theory, these challenges are often enough to sway them from a firm commitment.
Until recently, Okabashi manufactured the Yeezy Foam Runner style through a contract with Adidas before the company ended its Yeezy relationship in October. Since then, Harward said its factory vacancy has been attractive to other brands looking to use its existing infrastructure to make footwear in the U.S. But brands are still hesitant to put a stake in the ground.
“We’ve had conversations with a lot of brands,” Harward said. “Everybody’s interested in U.S. manufacturing but very few people are fully committed to it or have solid justifications for making investments there.”
In the wake of the supply chain turmoil that occurred throughout the pandemic, some brands have expressed interest in near-shoring from a protection standpoint. That is, if factories shut down due to a pandemic or geopolitical issues or ports became bottlenecked again, they would have a product pipeline to rely on at home. However, this motivation often isn’t enough to push a brand to invest in U.S. manufacturing. A focus on circularity, or a product’s lifecycle and regeneration capabilities, seems to be a stronger motivator, Harward said.
As a key element in the sustainability picture, circularity means looking at where all pieces of a product goes, from production to after a consumer is finished using it. For Okabashi, this mean operating in a closed loop manufacturing system that recycles excess scraps from the factory for new products and incentivizing consumers to return their old shoes to be recycled.
“If you’re committed to circularity, or even just interested in it, you’ve got to look at manufacturing closer to where your consumers are,” Harward said.