L.L. Bean Christmas Stockings Made in China? A Fine Mess

Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers like human beings and they'll always come back for more.

--L.L. Bean's Golden Rule, 1912*

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Today maybe 20 percent of our items are made in the [United States], and the rest are offshore…

--Chris McCormack, President & CEO, L.L. Bean*

*Source for both quotes: L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon, 2006, Harvard Business School Press

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The Heirloom Needlepoint Stocking beckoned from page 59 of the L.L. Bean Christmas 2011 catalogue. I set my morning mug of coffee down, picked up the phone, dialed the 800 number. My fingers strummed the catalogue. I'd decided to give my seven-month-old grandbaby the stocking called "Snowman with Birds."

The snowman's needle-pointed coal mouth smiled, his carrot-stitched nose curved optimistically up. A red and green plaid muffler hugged the white roundness of his upper torso. And he wore a red cap with ear flaps. Too cute. In the moments between dialing the number and hearing the rep's voice on the phone, my heart actually skipped a beat. I was a living, breathing example of an impulse shopper, albeit one in a pink Costco bathrobe.

"Welcome to L. L. Bean. How can I help you today?"

The rep sounded sunny and bright, ready to take my order.

"Yes, hello, I'm interested in the needlepoint stockings on page 59..?"

"Yes, ma'am, no problem. Do you see the item number?"

"Let's see...it's GW211623."

"Ok, let me check that."

"Oh, and one other thing…can you tell me where the stocking was made?"

"Yes, ma'am, no problem, I'll check. Ma'am? It was made in China."

"Thanks for checking."

"Which stocking are you interested in purchasing today, ma'am?"

"The snowman, but…never mind…thank you anyway…"

"Oh ma'am? The snowman's sold out. Only the one with the train is left."

"Thanks, I'll think about it."

What's that Laurel and Hardy line?Well, that's another fine mess you've gotten us into. I closed the catalogue. Sighed. Paced the hardwood floor. Stared at the dog curled up in its cozy round bed. Sighed. Opened the catalogue again, looked at the train needlepoint stocking. It, too, beckoned. I picked up the phone. Put it down. Read the catalogue description again. "Handcrafted," it said. Translation: likely hand sewn by underage Chinese workers--their unlined fingers worn raw at the tips--who probably earned pennies per stocking, if that. I morphed into ABC's The View's outspoken host, Joy Behar: So what? Who cares? Who cares if American workers lose jobs? Who cares if unemployment is over nine percent? Who cares if the middle class is shrinking?

Only someone living in an alternate universe (see my last post), that's who. Only someone nutty enough to take on a one-year boycott of all imports the very same year her first ever grandbaby arrived. A fine mess indeed.

But there on my kitchen table sat a gentle reminder of why CAMJ began in the first place. A beautiful floral arrangement sent to me by my daughter and son-in-law marking the first anniversary of my Dad's November 28, 2010, passing. Pink and white roses, green foxgloves, white hydrangeas. Lemon leaves. I smiled. Dad used to drive us all crazy with his lemon obsession. Whenever he placed his food order at a restaurant, he'd find out the server's name so he could give his quirky request a personal touch: "Say Henry, when you bring my iced tea, bring me a whole bunch of sliced lemons, would ya? Thanks." At the golf course restaurant near his and Mom's house, the waiters all knew to bring a plate full of lemon wedges as soon as ol' Geno arrived. At the luncheon following Dad's funeral mass, my four sisters and I used fresh Christmas wreaths as centerpieces for each round table, and placed a mound of lemons in the middle of each wreath. Everyone chuckled. Gene would've loved this.

Dad believed American corporations owed loyalty to the workers who made their products, earned capital, and then spent some of that capital on the very products they had a hand in producing. There was a sense of pride in that. But when manufacturing left America, its workers lost jobs and capital. They could barely afford to purchase the goods that were now imported here for sale to them. Dad would tell us about this and shake his head. Kids, I'm tellin' ya, it just ain't right.

L.L. Bean used to be synonymous with American manufacturing. The company was founded in 1912 by Leon Leonwood Bean of Maine. According to its website, the founder's reputation for selling quality products at a good value was so well known that during World War II, "L.L. Bean was called to Washington to help the Pentagon develop and manufacture rugged products to support the troops in the field."

Based in Freeport, Maine, L.L. Bean is still family-owned. Some items, thankfully, are still manufactured in Maine. Canvas tote bags (high quality; I've given these as gifts and love them). Adirondack chairs and other furniture. Rugs. Men's and women's shoes called Rubber Mocs. But all apparel and most other items are made primarily in China. Now a "global organization"--anyone else sick of that term?--L.L. Bean's annual sales top $1.44 billion.

From L.L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon (2006, Harvard Business School Press; by Leon Gorman, Chairman, former President, and Grandson of L.L. Bean) referred to at the top of this post:

CHRIS MCCORMACK [President and CEO.]: To this day [sourcing] was probably the most successful thing to come out of the Strategic Review. Today maybe 20 percent of our items are made in the [United States], and the rest are offshore…We needed to learn really quickly about vendors located in different countries, the quotas and all those tariffs, and everything about bringing a product in here and we did that very quickly…That's when our business really turned around. It wasn't so much sales growth that drove the performance that year, it was improving margins that improved profitability…

JOHN OLIVER [Vice-President, Public Affairs]: Since the movement to offshore we've been out front in a leadership role on the human rights monitoring…

Here's a thought, Chris and John: Bring your manufacturing back home. Monitor human rights here. Create jobs here. America's ready to embrace that concept. From what I'm reading and hearing, cost increases in China coupled with our own improvements in production now make it feasible to manufacture products almost as cheaply here. L.L. Bean could lead the way, call its competitors together, push to bring manufacturing back home. America needs corporate heroes. Step up to the plate.

By the way, no worries: I didn't order the needlepoint stocking (sorry, L.L. Bean). Got dressed and went for a long walk in the blustery autumn air instead. And good news: two multi-talented friends (they write, they sew, they do many other amazing things) also happen to be needlepoint experts. With their help over the coming year, I'll make grandbaby's stocking myself. That's as it should be anyway, don't you think? Wish me luck.

PS: I'll send this post to L.L. Bean. Perhaps the company would like to respond. We shall see.