Last year, Bloomberg reported that U.S. manufacturing output has been declining for over three decades. Assembly lines, mechanized production, and outsourcing have replaced the majority of our most skilled craftspeople, with the productivity-cost equation driving factories to cheaper, lower skilled labor markets.
Mass production, which puts short-term profit at the center, lowered the purchase price of goods but also fueled a culture of overconsumption. Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, presents us with shocking numbers on the product life cycle of the fashion industry: the average American consumes 68 garments and 7 pairs of shoes, and throws away 10 pounds of clothes each year. When it comes to what Americans wear and use, it appears that most of the energy and resources invested in production goes to waste. The fast consumption of consumer goods creates stress on the long-term sustainability of the global workforce in addition to its high environmental cost.
Human-centered manufacturing is a movement that puts the human being at the center of the process. This approach relies on smaller-scale manufacturers who insist on quality and conscientiousness at every step of the production cycle and across their supply chain. The most successful amongst them show a compelling vision and establish a following that leads to a thriving business. Human-centered manufacturing, which is founded on the pillars of people, sustainability, and quality, can provide a long-term solution to the economic and environmental challenges that we face today.
Motivated by the challenges presented by the current landscape, a new generation of makers, who look to previous generations for inspiration, are advancing high quality manufacturing. Their approach values the knowledge and contribution of the individual making the object. Human-centered manufacturing understands the desires of the user, designs the product and its user experience, and creates a connection between the process and the consumer. This approach naturally lends itself to seeking environmentally sustainable materials, provides a high quality work environment to the people involved, creates products that reflect pride in craftsmanship, and gives back to the local community through economic impact.
Paul Trynka describes the revival of vintage denim at Cone Mills, an American clothing manufacturer. Cone Mills, due to pricing pressure, retired old Draper looms in favor of high-tech Sulzer looms that required fewer skilled weavers in the mid 1980s. However, it was the collaboration of passionate people at Cone Mills and customers’ love for vintage products that brought traditional denim manufacturing back to life. Today, the Draper looms are “the beating heart of Cone” and demand for vintage denim is higher than ever. The Cone Mills case study points to a growing, if latent, demand for something different.
Consumers, weary of the sameness of mass production and the ills of overconsumption have embraced small scale manufacturers who share their perspectives and who can provide something special. Consumer culture is shifting in this new direction, thanks in large part to the access and connectivity enabled by the information age that has enabled more adopters and has created a much more aware and informed consumer base. For the first time since the industrial revolution, the individual consumer has the power of choice to shift the direction of manufacturing. We might just start seeing a reversing trend on outsourcing: Bloomberg reported last year that U.S. manufacturing is gaining momentum and repatriating jobs, and the second most influential factor driving decisions on future locations is quality (41 percent). The role and power of the consumer is greater than ever before: in fact, the future will be determined by which type of consumerism we embrace.
Small scale makers, who are themselves customers, are already on board the emerging human-centered manufacturing movement. Some of them have survived thanks to close partnerships with the luxury industry, while others have sustained through loyal customer bases. But every day our cities lose manufacturing jobs, factories close down, and once thriving businesses go bankrupt.
We would like to ask the following question: what kind of consumers should we be, and why?
Bloomberg View: A Reality Check on American Manufacturing. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-09-06/bloomberg-view-a-reality-check-on-american-manufacturing
[The Slow Fashion Movement](http://www.notjustalabel.com/editorial/the_slow_fashion_movement)
[The Demise of Manufacturing is Killing the American Dream](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9vlNx-ggX4) (Carrie & Matt of Imogene + Willie, TEDxAtlanta)
[Joseph Pine: What Consumers Want](http://www.ted.com/talks/joseph_pine_on_what_consumers_want.html) (TED2004)