History of shoemaking in America started at home by people making their own shoes and boot or trading other goods for ones made by their skilled neighbors. That all changed in 1750 when John Adam Dagyr arrived from Wales and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts. He systematized shoe production by housing four to six craftsmen in a small building called a ten-footer. This is the first record of large scale shoe-making in the U.S.
Fast forward to Henry Ford and the 20th century, shoe-making was such a large industry that in 1932, International Shoe Company was added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
By the early 1940s, nearly a quarter-million Americans were employed in the industry, many in Maine, which was the largest shoe-producing state in the country. The shoe industry started to slow down over the next 30 years and by the 1970’s, shoe-making jobs (along with many other manufacturing jobs) began falling sharply, primarily due to lower labor costs overseas.
As domestic shoemaking disappeared, so did the ancillary businesses and products that created the supply chain for the industry. Manufacturers of metal eyelets and certain types of leather also followed the industry overseas.
Nowadays, approximately 98%+ of all shoes sold in the U.S. are imported, primarily from China, Vietnam and Indonesia where labor costs are lower and production methods are less labor intensive. Workers in these countries earn $2-$3/hour versus American workers at $16/hour or more. When you factor in wholesale and retail markups, this translates into a difference of $50 for a pair of shoes made in Asia versus in the U.S. Ultimately, this cost or a large portion would have to be passed on to the U.S. consumer and because mass-market consumers’ purchasing decisions are primarily driven by price, you don’t have to be an economics professor to understand.
However, in the age of “fast-fashion” and competition, the larger footwear brands are always looking for ways to bring their products to market faster than the other guy. Yes, the cost of manufacturing their products in Asia is still cheaper as compared to in the U.S.; however, getting these products into the hand of U.S. consumers is still contingent on shipping them half way across the globe and that takes time, energy and money.
Could re-shoring footwear manufacturing back into the U.S. eliminate the time and cost of transporting footwear back to U.S. and get it in the hands of consumers faster? Theoretically, yes, and some larger footwear companies are starting to develop plans to do this.
Will this create more jobs for American workers? Perhaps, but automation in the manufacturing process is sure to be the focus, so even if there were to be a resurgence of shoe manufacturing in the U.S., that will most likely not translate into jobs.
While shoe-making will never be what it once was in the U.S., there are still smaller companies and factories who have never left or new brands who have come onto the scene.
Consumers will pay a higher price of course, but for the growing number of U.S. consumers who desire to know and understand the who, what and why behind the products they purchase, that is just as important as price.
As always Pierrepont Hicks is dedicated to responsible manufacturing practices without sacrificing product quality and consumer value.