Bringing Shoe Manufacturing Back To The United States Poses Challenges Footwear companies face big costs in potential new tariffs on more Chinese imports. Almost all shoes sold in the U.S. are made overseas. Only about 200 factories remain. One man tried to change that.
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Why The American Shoe Disappeared And Why It's So Hard To Bring It Back

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Why The American Shoe Disappeared And Why It's So Hard To Bring It Back

Why The American Shoe Disappeared And Why It's So Hard To Bring It Back

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NOEL KING, HOST:

If President Trump follows through on his threat to impose more tariffs on imports from China, one industry that has a lot to lose is U.S. footwear companies. That's because most of the shoes sold here are made in China. Even more of those shoes have parts from China. NPR's Alina Selyukh has been wondering could America ever make its own shoes again?

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Douglas Clark has been asking this question for decades. In the '80s, he worked for Nike as factories closed all around him in the Northeast.

DOUGLAS CLARK: I'll tell you, one of the darkest parts of being at Nike was when I watched domestic manufacturing evaporate and everything go to Asia.

SELYUKH: Where labor was much cheaper. What followed was a mass exodus. If you chart jobs in footwear manufacturing in the U.S., the graph has the curve of a stiletto, a steep slope through the '90s before it levels out around fewer than 13,000 jobs in the past decade.

CLARK: As a true Yankee, (laughter), and my father was the colonial historian, you know, it was heartbreaking.

SELYUKH: Clark would go on to a long career in footwear - at Converse, Reebok, Timberland then his own line of shoes at New England Footwear - and eight years devoted to one mission.

CLARK: Not only can we create a model for how footwear can be made back in the U.S. in a profitable way, but that that model could transfer to all the other lost industries that have left the U.S.

SELYUKH: This was a tall order. At a time when the president speaks of rebuilding American manufacturing, footwear is a telling example of how hard it is to turn back time. These days, 99% of shoes sold in the U.S. are imported from countries like China, Vietnam, Indonesia. And that's the number that Clark was going up against when he went after the main reason why shoemakers left in the first place - labor costs. Here's Mike Jeppesen, head of global operations at Wolverine Worldwide, which owns brands like Merrill, Sperry and Keds.

MIKE JEPPESEN: Our actual cost price in making the shoes is somewhere around $16 an hour. When we are sourcing from China today, that price is about $3 an hour.

SELYUKH: More than five times more, a cost that ends up quadrupling after wholesale and retail markups.

JEPPESEN: So that's a $50 price difference between a pair of shoes made in the U.S. and a pair of shoes made in China. Simple as that.

SELYUKH: That's why the mass market companies, especially athletic shoes and women's fashion shoes, have focused their U.S. operations more on design and marketing, leaving all the cutting and gluing and stitching to manufacturers overseas. So Clark focused on automating and simplifying this labor-intensive work.

CLARK: Instead of a shoe being made of 55 parts, we had a shoe that was made of 10, or 11 or 12 parts.

SELYUKH: To be clear, shoe-making never entirely left America. But it's down to some 200 factories. The majority of them employ fewer than 10 people. For many, the U.S. military is the main customer, which has to buy made-in-the-U.S.A. But outside of that, large shoe companies will say there's little commercial reason for them to manufacture here. Smaller ones say they stay because they found a unique niche, or want to carry on the tradition or take a stand against the environmental impact of trans-Pacific shipping. To make it work, these firms rely on their shoppers choosing to pay more for bespoke quality and the made-in-America brand.

NANCY RICHARDSON: We know that we can't make a $19 shoe to be sold at Target or Walmart. That's just not going to be possible for us.

SELYUKH: Nancy Richardson is CEO of SAS.

(SOUNDBITE OF FACTORY MACHINERY NOISE)

SELYUKH: It's a mid-sized company that's been making shoes in San Antonio since the '70s, still starting the traditional way, carving the shape of a foot into wooden block called the last.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING ON WOOD)

SELYUKH: SAS shoes cost around $150 to $200. And the biggest challenge for SAS is finding workers.

RICHARDSON: At one time in the U.S., you might have put an ad and gotten 200 resumes. Today, you might get a handful of people.

SELYUKH: U.S. factories rarely get applicants under 40. Arthritis is a common struggle. As shoe-making jobs disappeared, so did the support system. Suppliers of things like metal parts or colorful leather followed the industry overseas. Doug Clark, on his mission to return mainstream manufacturing to America, knew all this. But he also knew that history was already starting to repeat itself in China, too. Wages have been going up. Footwear companies have been moving, again chasing lower costs. This could be the opportunity for America's comeback, Clark thought. But for it to work, you need robots. A few years back, he got a contract with a big brand and a grant to make shoe manufacturing less manual starting with the top parts.

CLARK: The first thing we did was we basically developed ways to make uppers that didn't involve a lot of labor.

SELYUKH: Footwear manufacturing has long included machines cutting or gluing soles. But higher-level innovation? Ironically, factory owners I spoke with said that's happening where the industry is, overseas. Major brands like Nike and Adidas have been developing new technologies, including in the U.S., but they still rely heavily on factory workers abroad. Because unlike humans, robots aren't nimble. They can't notice imperfections or quickly switch to a new fashion style.

CLARK: Robots are not forgiving.

SELYUKH: For Clark, the story had a frustrating end. Developing automation got very expensive and slower than expected. He ran out of money and sold his factory to a technology company which knew a lot about robots. The factory is now closed. Clark hoped his legacy would be reviving American shoe manufacturing. Instead, he's now in real estate. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

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