Maybe it’s a lingering Independence Day hangover, but it seems that everyone in America has jumped on the patriotic bandwagon over the United States Olympics uniforms. On Wednesday, Ralph Lauren — arguably one of the most iconic American fashion designers — released images of the opening ceremony uniforms designed for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. By Thursday, besides drawing criticism for the garments’ sartorial shortcomings, consumers, politicians and the media were gasping over another jarring detail: our elite American athletes are going to appear on the international stage wearing clothes manufactured in China?
Both sides of the political aisle immediately went on the attack, blaming the U.S. Olympics Committee for outsourcing the team’s garments and mementos — even though they did the exact same thing in 2008. “You’d think they’d know better,” House Speaker John Boehner said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went even farther, telling reporters, “I am so upset. I think the Olympic committee should be ashamed of themselves. I think they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again.”
(MORE: Our Real Blind Spot About China)
But would Mr. Reid and other politicians who have shared their disappointment in these China-made uniforms care to throw their own clothes in the fire, as well? It’s no secret that the majority of American-designed clothes we wear (myself included) are not actually produced in America. Where’s the outrage over that?
According to Erica Wolf, executive director of Save the Garment Center, an organization that seeks to preserve New York City as the capital of American fashion, just 5% of the clothing sold in the U.S. is actually manufactured here. In 1960, that number was 95%. That’s a significant statistic that should garner attention on its own, especially with all the debate about job creation and the flailing U.S. economy. Politicians are quick to get outraged about the importance of “Made in America” for the Olympic Games, but in reality, Save the Garment Center and other organizations have pushed congress to prioritize legislation that supports U.S. apparel manufacturers. So far, however, the issue hasn’t come to a vote. “The controversy over the Olympic uniforms has given [Made-in-America manufacturing] much more of an awareness to the national level,” Wolf told me in a phone interview. “But it’s not enough. We need more.”
U.S. manufacturing is on the rise overall — it increased 5.7% since June 2009, creating some 330,000 jobs — but there is much progress to be made in the fashion industry. According to ABC News, if all the clothing and mementos from the Olympics had been made in the U.S., it would have kept $1 billion from going overseas. So imagine the economic impact that producing all (or at least more) of the American-designed clothes in the U.S. would have. As New York Rep. Steve Israel said on the House floor Thursday morning, “‘Made in America’ is not just a label, it’s an economic solution.”
Rep. Israel and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who have both been supporters of American manufacturing, wrote a letter to the Olympic Committee on Thursday morning asking that it “take immediate steps to guarantee that this embarrassment does not happen again by voting that any future contracts for Olympic uniforms are made in America.” But why stop there? We can start by buying American ourselves — it does exist. A 2011 Moody’s Analytics report found that if consumers spent an extra 1% on U.S. goods, it would create 200,000 jobs. That would be no small victory.
Friday evening, the Lauren company issued the following statement:
For more than 45 years Ralph Lauren has built a brand that embodies the best of American quality and design rooted in the rich heritage of our country. We are honored to continue our longstanding relationship with the United States Olympic Committee in the 2014 Olympic Games by serving as an Official Outfitter of the US Olympic and Paralympic teams. Ralph Lauren promises to lead the conversation within our industry and our government to address the issue to increase manufacturing in the United States. We have committed to producing the Opening and Closing ceremony Team USA uniforms in the United States that will be worn for the 2014 Olympic Games.