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Can Consumers Bring Manufacturing Jobs Back to the U.S.?

A handful of leaders from the worlds of fashion, manufacturing and advertising gathered in a stylish New York City boutique on Tuesday to discuss how to revive manufacturing in the United States. The answer, they said, is for consumers to be more mindful of their purchasing habits and for brands to educate customers about the value of American-made products.

Kicking off the event was Alex Bogusky, a former advertising executive who helped launch Made Movement, a Boulder, Co.-based marketing agency that supports American manufacturing. Bogusky showed a promotional video for Made Movement's Million American Jobs Project.

In the video, Bogusky says that if enough people in the U.S. simply bought five percent more American-made products, it would create one million new jobs. Better yet, he told an audience of a few dozen people assembled in Chelsea boutique STORY on Tuesday, "Every time you buy something, make sure it was made in the U.S."

The made-in-the-USA movement was once powered by unions and patriotic principles, Bogusky said, but now it's "more inclusive," appealing to the ideals of liberal locavores and green activists because of its potential to reduce the environmental impact of global manufacturing. He pointed to Google's production of Google Glass in the U.S. as evidence that manufacturing can return to America's shores.

After the video, a panel discussion took place between Bogusky and two women from industries where manufacturing concerns are paramount. One was Nanette Lepore, a fashion designer who lives and produces her clothes in New York City, and the other was Sheryl Connelly, head of global trends and futuring for Ford Motor Co.

Lepore shared the story of starting her label more than 20 years ago, a time when she was "very dependent" on factories in New York's Garment District to produce her clothes. Now those factories, and the careers they support, are under threat, she said. "If you don't have these small, homegrown facilities to manufacture small amounts of product and then to grow organically, you limit the opportunity [in the fashion industry] to those with money," Lepore said.

Connelly, a lifelong Michiganer, has seen the devastating effects of outsourcing firsthand. The recession only accelerated a process that was already underway in Detroit. To reverse it would not only help factory workers in the U.S., but would also create jobs in other industries that interact with the factories and their labor force.

"For every factory job that we create, our numbers suggest that it creates nine other ancillary jobs," Connelly said. "This movement isn't altruistic. People know it will help them and their communities."

One way brands can begin to turn the tide is to emphasize what sets them apart. As consumers, says Bogusky, "we're constantly projecting our identity by where we shop, who we do business with." For that reason, made-in-the-USA brands can highlight their heritage and craftsmanship to woo discerning customers.

In addition to producing quality goods and using their story as a selling point, brands will need to educate customers about the reasons to buy American, as people have been trained to want cheap stuff, Bogusky said. That might include anything from reducing one's carbon footprint to preventing the exploitation of foreign workers.

And that would mean a less disposable way of living for all of us, perhaps especially for those with limited incomes. "My grandfather used to say, 'We don't have enough money to buy crap,'" Bogusky said.

Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com. He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.

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