Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Is Shoe-Making Experiencing a Revival in America?

July 18, 2014
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Is Shoe-Making Experiencing a Revival in America?
China leads the world in selling shoes to Americans, so one company decided to make them in the US. Guang Niu/Getty Images
Only about 2 percent of the footwear sold in the U.S. is made here. But thanks to these companies, that is changing.

When you’re out shoe shopping, do some sole searching. We bet that you can’t find a single one that reads, “Made in USA.” That’s because just about all footwear is made overseas — in Italy, Spain, China, and a variety of other locals.

Which is why it seems downright strange that a Hong Kong manufacturer of a variety of products ranging from kitchen towels to holiday decorations is now operating a boot factory in Tennessee. But its founder thinks it makes perfect sense.

In order to streamline the process of making industrial work boots, the Merchant House of International Ltd. is now making them at a factory in Jefferson City, Tennessee, the Wall Street Journal first reported.

Founder and chairwoman Lorretta Lee told WSJ it is “ridiculous” that the manufacturers ship U.S. cow hides across the world only to have them processed into leather shoes and sent back to the U.S. to be sold. In fact, our country shipped about $1 billion of cow and horse hides to China last year — most of which returned in the form of shoes.

Currently, the Merchant House shoe factory employs 50 workers, but Lee plans to increase her investment in the next two years, presumably expanding operations and hiring more employees. The Craftsman work boots now being produced will be available in Sears department stores, retailing for $130. (Chinese-produced boots sell for $50 to $75.)

Footwear manufacturers are likely to continue to outsource smaller components such as laces and eyelets to suppliers in Asian countries, even for those shoes produced here in America. Case in point: Lee’s company still plans to import Chinese shoe boxes, Quartz points out, because sourcing boxes in the U.S. could cost up to five times more.

The Hong Kong-based company isn’t the only major manufacturer to reconsider the American market. Walmart recently announced support for a Georgia-based manufacturer of polyurethane sandals and clogs while German company ISA TanTec is planning to open its third tannery in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

TanTec, which owns tanneries in China and Vietnam, selected the Mississippi location because of its proximity to animal hides suppliers in Texas and South America, which is populated by cattle farms and shoe factories. The company purchases half a million hides from Texas annually, according to Quartz.

Meanwhile, American brand L.L. Bean increased its Brunswick, Maine-factory staff by 25 percent, totaling in 500 employees to deal with its boost in demand for its iconic “duck boot.”

These examples underscore a greater trend to logically invest in separate components of the supply chain, which could be a boon to the dwindling American manufacturing market.

MORE: Making ‘Made in America’ Cool Again

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