Part Two: The True Cost of Foreign-Made Jeans {A Conversation with Lawson Nickol}

Lawson Nickol is an American maverick. At a time when most American clothing is made offshore--including Levi Strauss & Co's iconic jeans--Nickol's All American Clothing Co lives up to its name. It's absolutely, positively 100 percent Certified Made in the USA. Cue the fireworks. Play John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. Lawson Nickol deserves, at minimum, respect. Heck, in my opinion, he deserves a ticker-tape parade.

The company website explains how All American Clothing Co was born: "It was 2002; Lawson Nickol had a job he enjoyed and an income that supported his family…As a sales manager for a USA jeans manufacturer, he believed he was doing the right thing by selling a product that was American as 'Mom, apple pie and baseball.' One evening, while shopping in retail store, he discovered his own company's label on a pair of jeans; a style he had not seen before…the label indicated 'Made in Mexico.' With a frantic and disappointing call to headquarters he confirmed the tag was accurate. Suddenly there was a disturbing realization: His employer had begun to outsource."

"The thought of sending jobs outside our borders didn't sit well with Lawson and he was certain it would not be acceptable to the USA labor market where he had sold for years. His passion and reputation was built by offering quality USA Made jeans. The discovery was devastating. Within days he turned in his resignation."

See what I mean? Cue the fireworks. Start the parade.

The Arcanum, Ohio-based company sells jeans, shirts, and jackets. Online-only, in every other way All American embraces an approach that thrived during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, when companies touted their American heritage, cared about their workers (and kept them employed for decades), and believed their customers were, as the adage went, "always right." The way things used to be in this country prior to offshore manufacturing.

After a challenging beginning, Nickol is proud to report the company grew 60 percent in 2010 and now supports 500 jobs. Nickol reasons there should be no end in sight. "There's a demographic that wants to buy USA-made. They know they need to. They know why. They know what it costs in unemployment."

If the average American really understood the true cost of a pair of cheap, foreign made jeans, Nickol says, they would jump at the chance to buy a pair from All American Clothing Co instead. "You have to figure everything in. How do you justify what buying [that foreign-made pair of jeans] costs in unemployment, in cuts to schools, police, firemen, hospitals, street maintenance, social security. In the end those $20 Wal-Mart jeans cost much more."

Nickol wishes other American companies would return home, join the fight to revive American manufacturing. As the situation currently stands, 97 percent of all American clothes are foreign made. Nickol longs to have competition right here in the USA; to have other companies jockeying for his subcontractors' services, to see a healthy, vibrant manufacturing base. There's plenty to go around, and besides, he says, it's about more than him making money. "If it was just about the money, I'd move the business to Mexico. There's 25 to 50 percent more profit there. But it's about my family, their future, their ability to make a living right here." Nickol co-founded the company with his son. "He's a marketing, Internet guru." Sounds like a win-win. "He needs a job. I want him to live in this environment."

So, what's the real difference between a pair of genuine Levi's jeans and one from All American Clothing?

"Levi's jeans are no different than ours," Nickol says. In fact, one of the subcontractors that builds jeans for All American Clothing Co used to make 50,000 pairs of jeans a day for Levi Strauss & Co. "In the last 10 years, 81 percent of the cut and sew employees lost their jobs." Nickol is justifiably proud that he's put former Levi's subcontractors back to work.

But there are, of course, huge philosophical differences. Levi's buys its cotton from many sources all over the world. And other than the relatively small number of 501's made in Los Angeles exclusively for Brooks Brothers, Levi's jeans are manufactured entirely offshore. All American Clothing Co, by contrast, buys all of its cotton from American Cotton Growers (ACG) and manufactures all its products here in the United States. As such, All American Clothing Co has "field to closet" traceability. The company has a close and loyal relationship with its cotton growers, as well as with the workers who cut and sew its apparel.

"We don't want to be Levi Strauss & Co," Nickol adds. "We want to have fun. What we do puts Cheerios in the bowl in the morning."

Asked about his company's greatest challenges, Nickol doesn't miss a beat: "China is my biggest competitor. They pay their workers 82 cents an hour. Here, workers make $8 an hour, minimum, and we pay more than that."

Nickol is frustrated, as well, by our own government's failure to address issues which give China an unfair advantage. "We need to level the playing field with China. Terminate businesses that cheat." Protectionism, he stresses, should work both ways. "We pay tariffs to go to China, and then China adjusts the value of its currency. It would be simple to say 'We're going to play the same game as you. You charge a tariff, we'll charge a tariff.'"

Sounds reasonable to me. And here's one last Lawson Nickol quote, found on bxbusinessweek.com: "Statistics indicate if every American cared enough to buy just one garment made in the USA per year, the impact would be nearly $9 billion. That creates an amazing amount of jobs for just one article of clothing per American."

So, is Lawson Nickol a maverick or a hero? Either way, our country needs more businesses like his, and more business people with his commitment to doing the right thing. Like I said, the man deserves a parade. Just be sure the ticker-tape is made in the USA.