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America’s Teachable Olympic Moment

Clothing is a means of creating and communicating an identity…That’s why the attire of Olympians is so important: on the biggest stage in the world, they are constructing an identity not just for themselves, but as representatives of their country.
Prof. Michael Mamp, Central Michigan University

Before the 2016 Summer Olympics fade from memory, the educator part of me can’t let a gold-medal-worthy teachable moment go unnoticed. To arrive at this opportunity for gained wisdom, let’s first travel back in time to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

As you may recall–and as I wrote about at the time–iconic American designer-entrepreneur Ralph Lauren (estimated personal net worth in 2012: $7.5 billion) suffered a public relations fiasco when  ABC News reported that all of the apparel Mr. Lauren’s corporation (NYSE: RL) had designed and provided for the hundreds of members of Team USA to wear for the opening and closing ceremonies had been manufactured in–be still our nationalist / protectionist / recession-and-trade-deficit-weary hearts–China. 

Remarkably, as if our awareness of globalization had awakened from a nearly half-century-long slumber, Americans across the fruited plain got up off our China-made Ikea sectionals and shook our fists at our China-made plasma flat-screen TVs. This cannot be. Who does Ralph Lauren think he is? Both sides of the political aisle, sensing constituents’ outrage, condemned the outsourcing. How dare the Ralph Lauren Corporation give manufacturing jobs to other countries, other workers? What message did it send to Americans, to the world?

The outcry must’ve confused Mr. Lauren. There he was, cruising along doing the usual multinational thing, shipping his Team USA uniforms in from China, getting his oversize-polo-pony logo out there on the global stage for millions of viewers to see, and this nonsense happens. 

It wasn’t as if the Olympic uniforms hadn’t been made in China before. But the citizenry had unpredictably, inexplicably reached a tipping point. Who knew? Imagine tanned, ruggedly-handsome RL arriving at his Bedford, New York manse, his normally calm demeanor ruffled, visions of pitchfork-and-torch carrying American mobs dancing in his marketing-savvy head. Would they trample his manicured lawns and hedges? Spray-paint his circular drive? Throw eggs at his circa-1919 stone manor’s Norman-style windows? What’s a billionaire entrepreneur to do?

And just like that–or so my educated hunch tells me–Mr. Lauren had an epiphany. He would embrace his home country and its workers, seek out the finest American sources, and create a 100 percent USA-made collection for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.  He would repair the damage done to his brand’s image and be hailed Keeper of the American Dream. Fine by me. Whatever it takes to revive manufacturing here in the USA, I say go for it.

So it came to pass that Dan and Jeanne Carver of Imperial Stock Ranch in Shaniko, Oregon, got the call from one of Mr. Lauren’s New York designers. After some discussion, it was mutually agreed that the wool for Team USA’s opening ceremony sweaters at the 2014 Olympics would be sourced from the sheep happily grazing on Imperial Stock’s 35,000 acre family owned and operated ranch. 

In a beautifully produced YouTube video posted by Ralph Lauren on November 1, 2013, Jeanne Carver describes her family’s ranch as “truly an American treasure,” and marvels at how, thanks to Ralph Lauren’s choice, business had doubled. In all, Imperial Stock Ranch supplied 6,250 pounds of wool. The wool then traveled to Kraemer Yarns in Nazareth, Pennsylvania where it was spun, producing 5,625,000 yards of yarn. From there the yarn was sent to Longview Yarns in Hickory, North Carolina–another deep-rooted family-owned and operated business–where it was dyed. Here’s Longview’s proud owner, Russ Perkins, with samples of the finished product.

The dyed yarn then traveled across the country to Ball of Cotton knitwear factory in Commerce, California. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ball of Cotton owners Eddy and Elizabeth Park, both South Korean immigrants, had no idea how Ralph Lauren & Co found them. “‘We were so shocked.'” 

The Parks’ industrial machines created each sweater’s knit fabric from the spun, dyed yarn. Their workers then hand-sewed each sweater’s 14 different parts together, “applied the USA patch and pressed the final garments.” And do the Parks have an opinion about outsourcing?  Of course. “Big believers in American manufacturing, [they have] never given serious thought to moving production to a low-cost country overseas.” Says Eddy Park: “‘I live here and give a lot of important jobs. I have a lot of responsibilities for my employees…That is very, very important.'” The Parks consider the 100 percent USA-made sweater “an American treasure.” Although not everyone loved the design–some said it looked too much like a kitschy Christmas sweater–the product quickly sold out online. In all, select vendors across the USA manufactured 650 uniforms and 65,000 items of RL brand clothing for the 2014 Winter games. 

Now let’s return to the opening and closing ceremonies of the recently-concluded Summer Olympics in Rio. Team USA again wore Ralph Lauren uniforms designed and 100 percent manufactured in this country. RL’s website continues to feature over 500 USA-made items for purchase, from Olympic-inspired flip-flops to t-shirts and tote bags.  RL’s commitment to source locally–meaning from businesses throughout our country–likely continues to stimulate our economy in ways difficult to estimate. In a 2012 letter to the US Olympic Committee, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) estimated that “manufacturing Olympic garments in America would bring $1 billion into the U.S. economy.” The uniforms manufactured by the Ralph Lauren Corporation represent only a small percentage of all the garments worn by America’s elite athletes. Imagine all the jobs created in this country if Nike and Speedo and Under Armour made the same commitment to American manufacturing, even if only for the Olympics. 

Oh, did I mention our country’s latest GDP numbers? A pathetic 1.1 percent. China’s GDP? 6.7 percent.

Back to our country’s Teachable Olympic Moment. It’s all about the power of the American purse. As consumers we wield tremendous power. The success of this country’s most iconic brands ultimately depends our respect for them. They need us to buy their products. They know perception is key. When gold-medal swimmer Brian Lochte admitted to lying about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio, his endorsement deals with Speedo, Polo Ralph Lauren, Gentle Hair Removal and Airweave evaporated.  Whether via social media or at the water cooler or in line for their morning caffeine fix, the public had spoken: the guy’s a loser. Drop him.

Economists and globalists may insist manufacturing (especially low-skilled apparel manufacturing) is dead in this country–nothing to see here, folks, move on–but I refuse to believe it.

How about you?

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