ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Many of the sneakers you find in American stores are made in Asia. Chinese factories have been blamed for the death of New England's once vibrant shoe industry. Now in a twist on that global trade story, Chinese consumers are helping to keep some of New England's last shoe factories afloat. Turns out, the Chinese have a thing for American-made New Balance sneakers.
Murray Carpenter reports.
MURRAY CARPENTER, BYLINE: In an old brick mill building in Skowhegan, Maine, production line workers are cutting, stitching and gluing New Balance sneakers. The company calls them lifestyle shoes, better known for their looks than their athletic performance.
RAYE WENTWORTH: The lifestyle shoes have really been on fire, especially with a younger market that we've been after for years. It's more of an iconic fashion statement.
CARPENTER: Raye Wentworth is the plant manager. She's watching a steady stream of New Balance 1400s being assembled. They're classic-looking sneakers in grey swede and blue nylon with the letter N prominent on the sides.
WENTWORTH: The demand is there, and we have 285 five people that proudly make them every day.
CARPENTER: Another central Maine New Balance plant employs 365 people. The two factories will make more than a million pairs of sneakers this year. And the company also makes them in Massachusetts. And they are all labeled made in USA, which make them more valuable to many consumers in China.
JIANG YUJUN: (Foreign language spoken).
CARPENTER: Jiang Yujun is an office worker in Beijing. Speaking by Skype, she says she's bought New Balance shoes for her parents...
YUJUN: (Foreign language spoken).
CARPENTER: ...And for her children and herself. She says her coworkers also love New Balance shoes. And when she walks the streets in Beijing, she sees lots of young people wearing them. And Jiang says she prefers to buy New Balance shoes that are made in the United States...
YUJUN: (Foreign languages spoken).
CARPENTER: ...Because she thinks they're much better made. John Frisbie of the U.S.-China Business Council says that perception of quality is part of what's driving the demand for exports to China. And it's not just shoes.
JOHN FRISBIE: It's been the fastest-growing market for American exports since China joined the WTO, the World Trade Organization, in 2001. So U.S. exports to China - we're talking manufactured goods, we're talking agricultural products, services - U.S. exports to China have grown over 600 percent in the last 15 years.
CARPENTER: U.S. exports to China are still dwarfed by our imports. And Frisbie says heavy taxes and other market barriers make American products expensive in China. But he says China's fast-growing middle class is now estimated 300 million people, and that creates a lot of consumer demand. Steve Gardner is a manager of the lifestyle division at New Balance headquarters in Boston.
He wouldn't disclose the percentage of its U.S.-made shoes being exported to China. But he says demand is strong all over the world.
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STEVE GARDNER: Whether it's Europe, the U.S., Asia, I think there has been an incredible embrace that, in the first case, probably came from the Japanese market much earlier than a lot of the rest of the world. But now we're seeing a very global embrace of made in USA.
CARPENTER: At the factory in Maine, automated sewing machines are embroidering oversized patches for the tongues of the shoes. In big letters, red and white on a blue background, they read New Balance made in USA. For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.
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