Look at the label on the shirt you’re wearing. Or the boots on your feet. Or the tent, pack, and bag in your closet. Odds are, they were made overseas. No surprise, right? Manufacturing started chasing cheap labor decades ago. But the odds are changing. A recent resurgence in American-made gear has reversed the migration of factory work. From high-performance wool to ultradurable backpacks, more and more outdoor products are made in the U.S. Here’s why you can expect the trend to continue—plus a few choice picks to look for if you want a trail kit as local as your tomatoes.
You’d need about 70,000 frenzied Seahawks fans to equal the energy of one thundering stomp of the mattress press at Cascade Designs, located amid a sprawl of flat-roofed warehouses south of Seattle’s CenturyLink Stadium. You feel the three-story-high press in your gut, not your ears. Nearby, steam irons bigger than city buses gasp and sigh as they meld swaths of fabric into Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pads. Next up: snowshoes, camping stoves, trekking poles, and hydration reservoirs, all made right here.
Just a few years ago, Cascade Designs looked like a holdout from the bygone era of American manufacturing. Now, it’s surfing a groundswell. From boutiquey apparel brands like Voormi and Duckworth to established footwear giants such as Chaco and KEEN, an increasing number of outdoor companies are choosing domestic, rather than foreign, manufacturing. Even behemoths like The North Face are dabbling in homegrown and U.S.A.-made: This winter TNF debuted the Backyard Hoodie, which turns a heritage strain of California-grown cotton into a plush, American-made sweatshirt. They join brands such as Ford Motor Company, which onshored 8,100 jobs in 2012 and pledged to hit 12,000 this year. In fact, more than a third of large U.S. manufacturing companies plan to return some production to the U.S., according to a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group.
Why have outdoor brands embraced the stateside migration? Changing buying habits, for starters. Local is the new buzzword, and many companies are betting that if you care about where your apples are grown, you’ll care about where your jacket is sewn. Indeed, Cascade Designs intends to make the most of its Seattle heritage by relocating its "Made in the U.S.A." labeling to the front of the packaging. (Federal Trade Commission guidelines dictate that the "Made in the U.S.A.” label only applies when a product is “all or virtually all” made here—including labor and parts. Other claims, like “American Built,” aren’t as strictly regulated, and generally mean that only a portion of the product is sourced or made domestically.)
“Just 10 years ago, buyers didn’t care where their stuff came from,” says Chip Coe, Chaco’s general manager. “But Millennials are very aware of the origin of goods.” Chaco quickly sold out of its “From the Vault” line of Michigan-made sandals priced at $125 (compared to $100 for Asian-made versions). “We’ve proven that consumers are willing to pay a bit more for U.S. goods, provided they’re of good quality,” Coe says.
That’s exactly how apparel startup Duckworth plans to succeed. “The new luxury is to understand where your product comes from,” says Duckworth founder Robert Bernthal, who sources the Rambouillet wool for his company’s baselayers from a single Montana ranch.
But culture trends aren’t the only factor driving the return of U.S. manufacturing. The era of cheap Asian labor is ending: Recently, Chinese labor costs have grown 15 to 20 percent each year. Trans-Pacific shipping costs have become increasingly expensive. And political instability can also threaten production—witness the May 2014 riots in Vietnam, during which 20,000 protestors stormed factories in Binh Duong. The effect on gear companies was tangential, but the protest revealed how vulnerable foreign factories can be to social and political upheavals.
Politics plays a role on this side of the water as well, thanks to the 1941 Berry Amendment. It obligates U.S. armed forces to equip troops with American-made gear. Brands such as Outdoor Research, Mystery Ranch, and Gerber maintain domestic production to serve military contracts, but civilians see benefits from these deals as well. OR’s cut-and-sew facility in Seattle stitches sophisticated gloves for the Navy Seals and Army Rangers, and also serves as an R&D lab for consumer designs. “Even though consumer items are later produced offshore, we can work out the glitches in Seattle so that we know it’s a viable product for mass production in our partner factories,” says Jordan Wand, OR’s vice president of product and marketing. And with an anticipated expansion to include footwear, the Berry Amendment may soon give U.S. manufacturing yet another shot in the arm.
But challenges remain. Few U.S. factories have kept pace with new construction techniques such as plastic injection and seam-welding. For now, high-tech ski boots and outdoor apparel will still be imported. Overseas manufacturers also developed unmatched expertise in specific categories. “Asia has a handful of factories that unquestionably produce the best tents in the world,” says NEMO founder Cam Brensinger. “Should you try to make those same tents here, they’d be 70 percent as good and cost twice as much.”
But the most significant bottleneck choking the growth of American manufacturing is the lack of skilled labor. Workers laid off in the 1980s and '90s either found other jobs or retired. “Talent for non-automated production is gone,” says Chaco’s Coe.
So how do brands tackle that challenge? Companies such as KEEN and Princeton Tec have established processes for redeveloping the labor force, assigning apprentices to work alongside masters before those workers retire and take their know-how with them. “Some skills have died out in the broader manufacturing picture, so we maintain them here by creating our own talent pipeline,” says George Chevalier, Princeton Tec’s marketing manager. “Guys come in, start doing basic stuff, and eventually they pick up the skills needed to make or rework the molds we use in our manufacturing process.”
But it's not clear if such efforts will work for all categories of gear. “How many teenagers do you know who want to grow up to be sewers?” asks NEMO’s Brensinger. Instead, he says, Americans should pioneer labor-saving innovations like computer-controlled seam-welding. “Let’s advance the technology and be creative instead of going backward and onshoring jobs we’ve already proven weren’t sustainable in this country.”
In order to pay sustainable wages and maintain competitive pricing, stateside manufacturers must trim other expenses. Easton Mountain Products and Cascade Designs save money by making their own parts. Black Diamond prioritizes cheaper manufacturing methods: Making crampons from stainless steel (instead of aluminum) bypasses the need for paint or other surface treatments that add cost. Mystery Ranch sells direct to consumers, cutting out the middleman.
For the moment, at least, it appears these efforts are working. And the outdoor-industry jobs that are created—or preserved— come with a fringe benefit: the satisfaction of helping people do what they love. At Orvis, which builds its premium fly rods in Vermont (and just re-shored production of its hallmark CFO model reels last spring), a third of the “Thirty-Year-Plus Club” members hail from the factory floor. “I feel proud when I see someone—especially a child or first-time angler—using an Orvis rod that I built,” says Brian LaRose, a 30-year veteran. “It’s very rewarding knowing that something I helped create brings people so much joy.” ■
These U.S.-built products earned our backcountry stamp of approval.