Friday, November 16, 2018

As yet untitled... (and "Death By Pastrami")

Originally publishes 6/22/15

*Make sure you read the comments on this post, too.  The comments really expand this post, and really give great additional food for thought! (Originally posted in 2013, I have realized that posts have their moments of popularity, and my stats tell me that this is a post that is igniting a spark right now.) Visit this blog post for more recent thoughts on the same topic!

"I find it interesting that you call your blog 'Shop the Garment District', considering..." he said, tapping the glass table deliberately, "that the Garment District no longer exists."

Leonard Bernstein, author of a collection of short stories featured in an earlier post, was ready to school me on the garment district.  And I was an eager student. I initially wanted to meet him because of his fiction writing, and his unique garment district stories. What I didn't know, was that I actually needed to meet him.  His knowledge of the Garment District is vast, valuable, and needs to be shared.

I met him in the office of his family business, Candlesticks Inc., where he has been at the helm since 1953.  Candlesticks is a well-established company, in business since 1928, selling to the biggest retail chain stores whose names we all know. In a glossy, formal, garment center building, his company produces childrens' pajamas and swimwear.  Leonard, a smartly dressed, happy man, ushered me over to the big glass table in the showroom, and promptly offered me a perfect cup of coffee. "This is a real Garment Center business." he announced.  He was right. There was no sign of the dingy, rough places I have seen and imagined.  This place was corporate and clean.  Efficient and quiet.

With a garment district family history that stretches back as far as his great-grandfather who owned a pushcart on Hester Street at the turn of the 20th century, and a grandfather who owned an apparel company with a factory in New York City, Leonard's unique perspective allows him to understand both where the district has been AND where it is going.  Better yet, his warm, open personality allows him to share this information with us.

And now?  His company produces lots and lots and LOTS of garments, overseas of course, and selling in the biggest retail chains we know.  Macy's, just across the street from his office, is among them.  Quickly, the conversation turned to the topic of apparel manufacturing. We're not talking about the hobbyist, or the little guy/gal who just wants to make a few items here.  We're talking about the businesses that help people buy houses , cars, build savings, and put their children through college.


Myth #1: Greedy capitalists won't produce in America, making it impossible for others to compete.

Here's the thing: Can you still buy supplies, manufacture, and sell goods you make in NYC's garment district?  "Yes, you can - if you do boutique-type stuff.  You can find a small shop to make 27 dresses, or some artistic handmade ties, and yes, you can sell them.  But... you wanna sell to Macy's Target, WalMart, Sears? Then, you've gotta go overseas." Leonard tells me.  "Why not produce it here?"  I ask. "Why not, you ask?  Where are the factories?" He elaborated on this point, explaining  that it's fine when you're just starting out, since at most, maybe some loft in Chinatown will produce the small lot you need, but, eventually you have to be competitive.  If you want to sell to the big stores, the factories in China, Bangladesh, and Cambodia can produce the quantities you need quickly, using workers who are paid $1/hr.  And guess what?  That's a living wage in those places!

Mythe #2: The foreign garment factory workers are being abused and exploited.


Bangladesh factory fire - locked exits - read here...

"We love to believe the story of the poor, abused foreign worker.  The children, the enslaved, the hungry and lame. Making pennies an hour."  The fact is, he goes on to explain, if you tell a factory manager near Shanghai that you hear many of these factories hire or enslave children, he will tell you that he has a MILE LONG line of able-bodied, capable ADULTS who would be happy to work for $1 and hour, compared to the $.50/hr the hard physical labor alternatives offer.  Working in state-of-the-art, efficient factories for a good wage. He has a WAITING LIST of eager adult workers. "Why would I hire a child?"

My brain is spinning now.  This is not what I expected to hear. What I'd been led to believe. "So, can't you use a 2nd class factory somewhere, and pay workers far less?" I asked.  "Well, you can..." Leonard explains, "But when you sell to a store like Macy's, they will only buy garments produced at approved factories, and you (the manufacturer) must have a certificate that states they are manufacturing your goods.  Without that certificate, the big stores won't talk to you."  The big stores send inspectors to those factories, both announced, and undercover, to see how things are being produced, and to check that procedures are being followed.  Without the kind of sales a store like Macy's, Target, or Sears can do, how would you sell the goods?

"But, I've been to stores like Conway," I protest, "and their prices are sometimes lower than I can even buy the fabric to make it myself.  Where is that stuff from?"  (I've always been SURE it was some sort of near-slavery work in a third-world country.) "The stuff you see in those stores are closeouts." Leonard tells me. "These things need to be sold for anything they can get.  Those are just goods they need to move."

We want to believe that the Asian factories have "grabbed" the apparel manufacturing, but we (USA) are a privileged, advanced, over-comsuming country. We open our drawers and closets to find dozens and dozen of garments - more than we need or even want.

So, it comes to this.  What should we have done differently/ What is our future?

"Well, " he confides, "You know those huge campaigns... Look for the Union Label, Buy America, etc...?  Well, they all failed.  Every one of them."

A decade ago, Leonard ran a factory in Pennsylvania, with 350 workers.  "You know what? Far more foreign cars in the parking lot than American ones.  The employees wore affordable clothes made in other countries - and these were American factory workers! The salesmen had to hide the fact that the clothes were made in America just to get appointments, and avoid getting laughed at!  Our wholesale prices weren't competitive."

He goes on to explain that he can make a sample garment, photograph and email it to the Shanghai factory at 10AM, and by 11AM, the factory can give him delivery and price. AND the fabric is already available there, where the factories are!

So... the future?

This was a much longer conversation, not easily summarized in a blog post... but a rising tide lifts all boats, you know.  In time, workers who make $1/hr now will be wanting to earn $1.25 at the new factory down the road.  Wages will rise, and labor will become more expensive for the manufacturers.  It will be at least 30 years before their wages are competitive with our own, though.  So, we move on to other countries.  Bangladesh, Cambodia... all they need are more factories to be competitive.  After that?  Africa can't be far behind.  There are workers in Africa who will gladly earn $.50/hr - and yes, still a living wage.


Rising labor costs in factories force manufacturers to look elsewhere... follow link


We can impose tariffs, for sure... but don't we want other countries to buy our goods? Due to advances in technology, we are more connected than ever.  This has made the other side of the planet as accessible as the office next door.  No one is to blame for this. We can grow exponentially, or we can change, OR can simply stop consuming.

The fact is, the world is constantly changing.

"Okay, so what should we have done differently?" I ask.

"Nothing." Leonard replies.  I believe him when he says that. This guy is no slouch, I tell ya.  Early in  our conversation, I asked him why he wrote fiction, before I had any idea what other pearls of wisdom he had to offer.  "I love to write, so I wrote." Simple as that.  And, by the way, this is his 6th book!







(note: added 1/3/15) And he has since written a new one!