Things that for years we have taken for granted—medicine, semiconductor chips, cars, clothes, and electronics—are all suddenly unavailable, caught up in a supply-chain mess that has us all at its mercy. It’s hard to believe that it’s happening, but easy to understand why: We don’t make anything in America anymore.
For the past 40 years, we’ve steadily given up the capability of making the things we need most. We were promised by the “experts” that if things cost less, everyone benefits. Big Tech, Big Pharma, and Big Apparel, among others, have all benefited massively, driving their costs down by chasing the cheapest means of production overseas.
This highly complex, multinational supply chain is vulnerable to fundamental disruption. And when something breaks, the entire thing collapses. Maybe it was meant to be broken.
The system isn’t just fragile. It calls into question our values and independence as a country. If China stumbles or decides it wants to slow down supplying America, it can. If we believe in protecting our environment, but send a large part of our dollars to countries that don’t, do we really care about our planet? If we believe in defending human rights, but look the other way when those rights are violated to make sneakers, do we mean what we say on Instagram?
If we decide that making things here is important, there are critical questions we need to answer and steps we need to take.
Cheap isn’t cheap. Cheap shouldn’t be the North Star for all our decisions. The real cost is lost jobs, terrible environmental consequences, hollowed-out communities, human rights violations, and a loss of control. Product quality often goes down, sales are lost due to delays, mis-forecasting becomes common due to long lead times, and excess ends up in landfills or discount bins. There is also a huge loss of knowledge around the design and production that is the basis of a company’s (and country’s) value and long-term resilience. It’s time we looked at the full cost of the way we make the things we buy.
Make policy make sense. Our policymakers like to talk about a “level playing field” but make it easy for big brands to send their production to places with different rules. If we require domestic manufacturers to pay their workers a living wage, comply with American environmental laws, and be OSHA compliant, we should hold our trade partners to similar standards. Elected officials need to start asking basic questions about the implications of their trade decisions. If they reward big brands for moving production overseas and evading American laws, we should vote them out of office until they start representing America’s interests.
Improve our infrastructure. Our leaders need to join forces and invest in modernizing domestic manufacturing abilities. This means the technology, automation, financing, infrastructure, digital networks, and training necessary to put us on a more competitive footing with the world. This is a bipartisan issue that requires we come together and begin the work of reclaiming our position as a leader in manufacturing.
Just get started. Unwinding a complex global supply chain and rebalancing with a domestic one isn’t easy, but business leaders need to understand the strategic benefits of making things in America. This can’t happen unless companies start taking steps at whatever scale they can. Imagine if the Gap started making its T-shirts in the Carolinas? Or if Apple redeployed some of its huge cash reserves toward building a world-class facility in Texas? Or Nike decided to deploy its Flyknit technology in American factories? Every segment of our economy is in this predicament. We share the blame and the opportunity, so let’s get started.
Making things here has advantages far beyond the balance sheet. It impacts real people. Communities benefit from better jobs, neighboring businesses improve, and towns get long-term, committed residents who sit on school boards and park commissions. As we look to the future, we need to also think about what a truly dynamic economy means for us as a nation.
Bayard Winthrop is the CEO and founder of American Giant.
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