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American Manufacturing Doesn’t Have to Die

But will businesses make the choice to try and save it?

The Enfield Cotton Gin in Enfield, North Carolina.
Meredith Haggerty is the senior editor for the Culture section at Vox. Before coming to Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked.

In a time when no one agrees on anything, some vague consensus can be found around the idea that more American manufacturing would be good. Rarely does someone say publicly, “Actually, I think there should be less American manufacturing.” (Although it happens.)

Politicians, particularly our current president, love to talk about American manufacturing. Donald Trump tried to make the deal he struck to save factory jobs at the Carrier HVAC plant in Indiana a synecdoche for his professed concern over the welfare of the American worker. The deal didn’t stop jobs from moving to Mexico, and when a union leader complained that the arrangement hadn’t improved the lives of the employees as much as it had garnered positive press for the new president, the commander in chief bashed him on Twitter. Between the election and January of this year, the president made 31 claims of adding or saving jobs by intervening with companies; ProPublica found that 90 percent of those jobs were not saved or never materialized. But while the scale of these claims was questionable and the results were missing and the actual effect was actively pretty bad, nearly everyone was able to agree that, in a vacuum, saving those jobs would be a nice thing. More American manufacturing: good.

And yet, there is less. Twelve-and-a-half million Americans worked in manufacturing in 2017, down from 14.1 million 11 years earlier. There’s been some growth since the sector dipped to its lowest point in 2010, as a result of the Great Recession, but American businesses are rarely moved by the common public sentiment to make the change and bring their supply chains (and all the jobs they represent) to the US.

As is often the case when there’s agreement that something should change in the United States and still it doesn’t, the answer to the obvious question — who wants to keep the status quo? — is “business.” Or, more and more of late, “capitalism.” If a decision doesn’t cut costs, it’s understood to be bad for business, in violation of the indomitable will of capitalism. And if a decision were to increase costs, well, who would dream of making a decision like that? Not a business person. Basing a supply chain in the US is more expensive than moving it — or, more likely, much more expensive than moving it back from — abroad, thanks to our rules and regulations and unions and minimum wage and child labor laws. Thus, we conclude, it’s impossible to change.

Roy Parker cuts fabric from an American Giant pattern at Eagle USA.

There’s an undercurrent of futility to conversations about American business, a presumption of inevitability to the often-devastating effects of capitalism in its current stage (you know, late). It makes the topic exhausting. You might want to want to read a story about American manufacturing; you might say, “Hmm, yes, American manufacturing, very important” and nod if asked about it in a social setting, but the reality of it — how cotton is grown and yarn is made and fabric is dyed and finished, how factory workers do their jobs to maximize efficiency and how plants and mills adapt to innovation and how companies are structured to make the margins possible — is complex and, frankly, boring.

So you might see a story like this and click it but realize you also need to get started on making dinner or finish those other tabs you have open, and also there are a lot of other really important concerns in the world, and how about that stuff, huh? And anyway, good luck with that American manufacturing thing, you’re really rooting for them, you’ll definitely try to read it later, but you know what they say: Business is business. Business, like the heart, wants what it wants.

Bayard Winthrop, CEO of American Giant, wants you to know that it is not that simple.

Thelma Agular is more relaxed at work now that she stands up. Agular sews clothing — sweatshirts, pants, T-shirts — at Eagle USA in Middlesex, North Carolina. She used to be a batch sewer, which meant that she sat at one machine and put together whole garments, but now she works with a team of women on so-called bump sewing, which requires the group to stand and work together to sew sections of whatever they’re making in a mini-assembly line, bumping one another along to the next machine as they work. It’s an involved process, but Agular says that moving and working in a team is good for her physical and mental health. She feels less stress.

Thelma Agular at a sewing station.

Agular is 47, and has been sewing in factories since she was 20. She’s worked at Eagle for two decades, and has been bump-sewing for American Giant for three and a half years. American Giant, a brand that makes high-quality, US-made basics like leggings and T-shirts and a very popular zip-up hoodie, is a client and part-owner of this particular factory.

Agular was one of the first people on the floor, most of whom are women, to learn the process. She and two other workers were sent to Atlanta by the company, plant manager William Lucas explains, to train in and build excitement around the new technique. When the group returned and the other women in the factory saw them standing and, crucially, earning more money, people wanted in.

Lucas and Agular both tell me that the bump system — which American Giant brought to Eagle — is more efficient and, thanks to an incentivized pay structure where bonuses are given for exceeding productivity goals, more profitable for both the company and the workers. The average compensation at Eagle is $10 per hour, Lucas says, but some people make $15 or $16, more than double North Carolina’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. All around the factory, teams are surpassing 100 percent productivity, earning up and over their base pay.

Agular walks me through making a T-shirt. She starts with the torso, sewing the back and front together at the shoulders at one machine and moving to the next, attaching the collar. At a third machine, she covers the rough edges of the collar with a small strip of fabric, trimming away any stray threads. On a fourth, she attaches the sleeves and hands it off, so a member of her team can stitch up the sides, hem the bottom and, finally, stamp the logo and size below the neck hole. I had been warned that she might be shy, but she obliges my questions, even though they (slightly) slow her impressive productivity. (Her team hovers above 125 percent.)

Eagle USA is the last stop on my tour of American Giant’s Carolina-based supply chain. Bayard Winthrop has left me here, with Agular and Lucas and company, so that he can catch a plane back to San Francisco, telling me to stay as long as I want.

We’d driven, a day earlier, from the Parkdale Mills plant, where cotton is blended and spun into yarn, in Gaffney, South Carolina (home of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood and a giant steel peach that doubles as a water tower), across town to Carolina Cotton Works, where the fabric is dyed and finished, and then to a cotton field in Enfield, North Carolina, four hours away, where we met farmer Jerry Hamill as the sun set and the pickers picked. Finally we headed over to the Enfield Cotton Gin, which was out of commission the evening we visited, sitting silent though it pounds with noise for the seven to 12 weeks a year it runs. We didn’t even have time to see the step where the yarn is knit into fabric, which happens in Clover, South Carolina, and comes between the two steps in Gaffney. Eagle is the place where fabric finally becomes shirts and joggers and the sweatshirt that Slate once called “the greatest hoodie ever made.”

I’m not the first reporter to take this tour with Winthrop. Fast Company took it in 2015, TechCrunch in 2014, the New York Times in 2013. Winthrop takes it himself every two or three months, but here he is, asking more questions than I can, and learning, as if for the first time, how the raw material is spun into yarn. He’s heard and told the story of American Giant a lot, but he wants to hear and tell it again.

This kind of supply chain transparency is unusual. Many CEOs can’t name all the factories and facilities that it takes to create their products (please, ask Ivanka Trump where her dresses come from), let alone make seasonal pilgrimages to touch recently blended cotton and hug people who don’t work directly for them, but are responsible for say, step six out of seven in their vast supply chain. And customers certainly don’t know how or where the clothing they buy is made — not just because no one knows (although that’s certainly a huge part of it), but because, as discussed, it’s pretty hard to care.

The reality of most supply chains is grim and, because most pieces of a given chain are independently owned and subcontracted, easy to brush aside when it comes to both corporate and consumer responsibility. Supply chains are far-flung (in India, where 45 million people work in textiles alone; in China, where the president made his ties and the first daughter made her shoes; in Bangladesh, where the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse killed 1,100 people, mostly women) and hard to picture. While everyone has a vague awareness of factory disasters and low wages and child labor, it’s easier and more comfortable not to know. Along with the similarly knotty and deeply related question of what people can afford, these upsetting truths are part of why upper-middle-class Americans will shake their heads about how terrible H&M is and then quietly shop there. It’s why we at Racked publish stories about sustainability alongside recommendations for Zara sales.

When a supply chain isn’t unimaginably bleak or impossible to know, you have a story about how cotton becomes yarn — a set of facts just dry enough that your mind might drift to how horrifying and opaque the rest of the system really is.

Bins of American Giant garments at Eagle USA.

So why is this the unsexy, complicated message that Bayard Winthrop wants to tell me, and for me to tell you, this story about American manufacturing? Why does he want you to read a story about how cotton is grown and how factory workers work and how yarn is made, when he could tell me an easy-to-digest, consumer-centric story about the greatest hoodie ever made?

We want to hear about how things will be good for us, not how — if we even trust a company to tell us the truth — they might be incrementally better for some people in an industry that many write off as doomed. And anyway, he’s told the story again and again and again and again. For his efforts, he’s been celebrated and his company has been profitable, but is there anything new to say?

Carolina Cotton Works is very literally a family business. It was founded in 1995 by Page Ashby, who now runs it along with his sons, Hunter and Bryan. The facility, with huge machines that dye and soften the fabric, feels warm and kind of homey; employees wear T-shirts with holes, pajama pants, oversized tank tops. CCW has been with American Giant since the startup’s very beginning, and that long relationship is evident in the masculinely affectionate relationship between Winthrop and the Ashbys.

In a conference room at CCW, there’s a framed copy of the New York Times article about the American Giant supply chain on the wall. It’s there in that room, on stop two of this in-depth tour, that Winthrop says he feels that the media is missing “the real story of American manufacturing.” As the person who’s been stressing about how to make this story feel fresh when it’s been told so often — when the New York Times is literally hanging over us — I’m surprised. What’s not in there? I’m excited to ask Winthrop directly once we finally sit down one on one; it will surely make my job easier.

Page Ashby at his Carolina Cotton Works facility.

Walking the floor, workers approach the Ashbys and Winthrop alike with handshakes, greetings, a joking familiarity. Winthrop asks a passing man how he’s doing and the guy replies that he recently fell out of a tree. At another facility, workers I spoke to didn’t necessarily know American Giant by name, but here everyone is intimately familiar with the brand. Roger Putnam, who has worked at Carolina Cotton Works for six years manning a machine that naps and plucks the fabric for maximum softness, goes out of his way to tell me that while his wife shops for most of his clothes, he had gotten himself an American Giant sweatshirt.

I’d asked Putnam and a small, poorly representative handful of other workers along the way where they buy their clothing, because there’s something complicated about employing American workers for an American-made and American-labeled brand that they likely wouldn’t choose to spend their money on. They mostly reported shopping at big-box stores: Walmart, Target. American Giant sweatshirts are only sold online — the lack of distribution a hallmark of the business model — and they aren’t cheap. The emblematic full-zips are $89 a pop. Compare that with American Apparel’s hoodies, which have a similar (if uh, formerly hornier, less quality-focused, and generally more tainted) pedigree and retail for $38, or Target, where they can be as inexpensive as $20.

But that question of price isn’t just “expensive” versus “affordable;” there’s also where it fits in the market. If we’re talking about the mall, this particular sweatshirt is solidly upper-mid-priced at $11 more expensive than J. Crew’s, but $9.50 less than Banana Republic’s. Winthrop’s goal is to be able to price American Giant’s clothing so that, as he says, the “gap between virtue and action is nonexistent.” If a customer is shopping for virtue, he or she is probably able to afford these mall brands, which don’t have the made-in-America pedigree American Giant has. “I would like to think that if Levi’s is getting you $99 for a sweatshirt, a luxury sweatshirt,” Winthrop says, “we are at minimum competitive with them. I would like to think we are out-competing their value system, most importantly maybe.” He adds that they’re certainly competing when it comes to quality.

That quality is due in part to constant innovation at all levels of the chain, including CCW. As the Ashbys tell Winthrop — who then explains what they said to me, making sure I understand (I don’t) — they’ve recently added a tenner frame to the dyeing process for slub fabric; it reduces twist and torque, as slub fabric tends to twist and torque, which is bad. What I do understand is that adding the tenner frame is pricey and not strictly necessary, but that the team at Carolina Cotton Works has chosen to do it anyway. And according to Winthrop, the cost of the addition isn’t passed on to American Giant nor the American Giant customer.

Later, Winthrop expands on the work being done at CCW. “He’s adding huge amounts of machinery into his facility now,” he says of Page Ashby, with an obvious respect. “That takes a certain amount of courage to invest in the time when the market doesn’t seem to necessarily be behaving.”

As soon as I have the chance, I ask: So, what’s the media missing about the story of American manufacturing, in Bayard Winthrop’s opinion? His answer is about the nature of the apparel industry. It’s about the fact that American businesses have choices, and how we pretend they don’t.

Everyone, he says, acts like we have to make clothes in Bangladesh or Honduras, because it’s good for profit margins, and what’s good for profit margins is what business demands. But it doesn’t have to be that way, he argues. A brand can make money by doing things well and right.

Fabric is dyed and softened at CCW.

He points to the “explosion of wealth” on the coasts — “this explosion of innovation” in New York and San Francisco (where American Giant, despite its supply chain, is still based) that comes “at the great expense of mainstream America and towns and smaller cities all over the country.” And more than that, “it’s compounded by the fact that many of those business are not creating jobs. They’re creating huge wealth, but not creating jobs.” It’s the fundamental flaw of trickle-down economics, codified into a business plan.

“I’m just more interested in raising awareness about the larger conversation, about the vitality and the capability of the manufacturing base,” he says. The message Winthrop wants to communicate doesn’t begin and end with our ability to buy a sweatshirt. It’s a message for people in their capacity as people who make decisions and care about more than what to buy; they care about how their country looks, how viable their economy is, how their fellow citizens are faring. The audience for this message is made up of the capable, thoughtful human beings with agency and influence inside of the systems they populate: business, politics, media, America.

And the message is as simple as an ad campaign: We need to do more. We need to change the level at which we’re each willing to engage in all of this incredibly complex stuff. That’s the only way it gets easier.

One of the often-told narratives about American Giant is that Winthrop is spearheading an American manufacturing revolution. Entrepreneur said as much, calling him “the man behind the hoodie that started the made-in-the-USA apparel movement” in 2013. Forbes did too, marveling at how he was able to “revive hopes for American textile manufacturing” just last year.

It’s a nice idea, but in 2018 it doesn’t seem to have borne out. American Giant has found success and profit through a US-based supply chain, but the textile industry has not notably followed in the company’s steps. Page Ashby still says that “at its largest,” onshoring — the process of businesses bringing manufacturing back to America — “is small-scale.” It takes a little bit of prodding through his optimism and talking points, but Winthrop also admits this is the case.

While you (meaning me, at least) might think that a good capitalist would be happy to be alone in the “American-made” space for marketing and brand-individuation purposes, Winthrop isn’t. If anything, he seems uncomfortable and disappointed being one of so extremely few companies making clothing in the US, and he tries, for large swaths of our one-on-one conversation, to pull others into the arena.

He points to activity on the “boutique level” (although he also stresses a desire for American manufacturing to not be exclusive to high-end brands making “$230 selvedge denim”), and refers to larger, unnamed brands having an “increased fundamental wrestling with this question.” We might not have yet seen it in the marketplace, he’s saying, but the question is being asked.

But in practice, the movement hasn’t headed in the right direction. In 2017, US textile exports were at $22.6 billion, down from a peak of $24.3 billion in 2014.

Still, American Giant’s CEO is determined that more is possible. He’d love it if larger competitors in his space were to suddenly build US-based supply chains. “Even though it might not be the best thing for my business,” he says, “I think that would be a good thing for us.”

Workers at CCW oversee the facility’s dyeing process.

This idea of “us” being not American Giant but America is a theme for Winthrop. “There’s a certain amount of like, can’t we all just do a little bit of this? All of us?” he asks. “Whether it’s Facebook and Google and Apple. Or whether it’s Jerry Hamill,” referring to the North Carolina farmer who grows his cotton. “Can’t we all come together a little bit and solve it?”

When Winthrop talks about “a corporate moral component,” the phrase can feel like an oxymoron to most consumers and anathema to most companies. But his proposal isn’t that unwieldy, and it seems almost laughable in its reasonableness. “I’m not saying that Levi’s needs to return to the US, but I am saying that brands need to begin to think about, is the answer just binary?”

Parkdale Mills is a much slicker operation than Carolina Cotton Works. At Parkdale, plant manager Robert Nodine shows off an app on his phone that tells him how productive all of the machines in the plant are. He says it’s the first thing he looks at in the morning and the last thing he looks at at night. It’s his Twitter.

The mill is where, after being picked and ginned, cotton is blended (like a “cabernet,” Nodine explains, so that the various textures are evenly distributed and consistent) and then spun into yarn. The facility doesn’t only make yarn for American Giant — far from it; it services hundreds of companies, over 25 plants in six states. It owns US Cotton, LLC. It makes your Q-tips. It’s an enormous operation, and eerily clean, with an elaborate filtration system. It processes 750 bales of cotton every 24 hours, and the bales, to be not-so-scientific about it, are super-huge.

Much of the work at the Parkdale plant is done by machine.

Nodine is an efficient man with a big white mustache; much of the day-to-day workings of this $100 million plant rest on his shoulders. The cavernous 370,000-square-foot space only employs 132 people total, only needs 25 or so to run it at any given time. By contrast, Carolina Cotton Works, the fabric-dyeing facility occupies a notably smaller space but employs 200 workers. This is because, like the machines the app on Nodine’s phone is monitoring, much of Parkdale is robotized.

As Nodine explains what kind of jobs are held at the plant (technicians, shippers, receivers), he notes that some jobs have been eliminated. When he points this out, we’re watching forklift operator Jose Villanueva lift the gigantic bales, and Nodine says that the eliminated jobs were ones “no one wanted,” often lifting very, very heavy objects in small teams.

At certain points in the tour, it’s intimated to me that Parkdale has not always been open to media attention. The New York Times piece, for example, was an unwelcome surprise, with its headline “US Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People.” There’s a downside to letting people get up close — the chance that you could come off badly, that people will care more about the jobs you eliminated than the jobs you saved. It’s an especially difficult path to navigate in this moment when people feel particularly comfortable judging things as beyond redemption. It’s what’s sometimes called cancel culture.

This national attitude makes the world seem pretty straightforward: Bad things are bad and good things are on notice, but the actual ramifications vary wildly. Being capital-B “Bad” or “canceled” or “over” can happen to anyone or anything, from a gymnast like Gabby Douglas to a company like Papa John’s to an entire year — although despite our best attempts, no one was able to put a stop to 2017. For small entities, like humans, this has the potential to be devastating, but when you’re as big as a corporation or as intractable as a system (*cough cough, capitalism*) or as unstoppable a force as time itself, being canceled is ultimately meaningless. After the outrage passes, it’s easier to just go back to the way it always was.

So, possibly worst of all, this black-and-whiteness discourages nuanced discussion. It throws out the small problems and allows the big ones to continue to suck without ever digging into how they could suck less.

Oh, damn it, where was I? Parkdale.

While some jobs have been eliminated at these mills, others remain and some new jobs have been added — robot technicians, spinning operators, encoders. Walking the floor, we meet a man named Roger Moore, who tells us that he’s been working at Parkdale for 40 years, and his current job is to scan the bales as they arrive to be processed. Moore doesn’t look like he could be 40 years old, much less that he has worked for that long. We make him repeat the number a few times, in case it’s him who is confused and not us. (It’s not.) Later, outside the break room, we see a bulletin board where the company boasts about the impressively long careers of its staff, and there’s a picture of Roger still looking approximately 35 years old, with the word “40 years” written underneath.

A worker checks the spinning machine while standing on a robotized cart.
One of Parkdale’s 132 employees is Roger Moore, who has worked there for 40 years.

As we tour the factory, a lot is explained to me — by Nodine, and by Winthrop, and by members of the American Giant team we’re traveling in a little caravan with — and to be extremely straight up about it, there’s so much that I don’t find myself able to hold onto most of it in a meaningful way. How the bales are marked and why, where the cotton comes from, why there are different varieties of yarn and what they mean. I ask follow-ups when I learn that workers found a snake in the baler; I take down that Villanueva mostly shops at Target; I write “just finish crop change orange bands” in my notebook, even though I know I won’t know what to make of that later — not literally, not as a metaphor. Each piece is true, but I worry each alone might seem to indicate something that the whole doesn’t bear.

This is a place where many jobs have been replaced by robots; this is a place where Roger Moore has worked for 40 years. Parkdale is both bigger and smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s a lot of moving pieces, a lot of work. In the end, it’s a place that makes yarn.

American Giant’s real secret in many ways isn’t the well-made sweatshirt or the PR-friendly American supply chain or the loyal customers — it’s the luxury not to be run like other businesses.

“There has been this next wave of brands emerging on the market today that relies on, by and large, institutional venture capital money,” Winthrop explains, “which comes with it a requirement of very rapid growth with a goal of short-term liquidity.” Many brands are funded by wealthy people who want to see money in return for their money, and fast. American Giant has been fortunate to work with wealthy people who are willing to see money in return for their money more slowly.

It’s not that hard to understand that supply chains are made up of workers who are people like you and me, like Thelma and Jose and Roger Moore. But we often forget that the seemingly unknowable people at the very top of the chain — past the factory owners and even idealistic founders — are people too. Shareholders, venture capitalists, and corporate presidents are just humans, making ultimately human decisions. And so moral capitalism necessarily leads back to a relatively benevolent billionaire.

American Giant’s particular helpful rich person is Donald Kendall, who Winthrop says is “90 years old, still going 100 miles an hour.” (In fact, he’s 96.) Kendall was the CEO of PepsiCo until 1986, an inductee into the National Business Hall of Fame, the recipient of the NAACP’s very first Equal Justice Award and a Medal of Friendship from Vladimir Putin. He was a friend of Richard Nixon’s and an enemy of Joan Crawford’s and arguably the reason Marxist President-elect Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile. His is a backstory at least as complicated as a supply chain.

Today, Kendall is American Giant’s lead investor, and Winthrop credits him with keeping the company on track. “I’ve got my own set of convictions about it, but I’m not sure that I would have had the confidence in those convictions to continue to do everything without his thumb in my spine as we went along.”

I ask Winthrop about politics, later in a follow-up call. As Kendall’s Nixon ties imply, the investor has been a Republican donor — and according to Federal Election Committee records, Winthrop has as well. Although not to our current president.

Elizabeth Chavez works on sections of an American Giant garment at Eagle USA.

Winthrop explains that he’s a “staunch nonpartisan.” Never mentioning Trump by name, he hints at his position, saying, “I have a particular lack of patience for politicians that are full of hot air.” Recently, the CEO met with a group of Democratic senators, including Amy Klobuchar, Chuck Schumer, and Tim Kaine, who invited him to the Hill to speak to the problem of, you guessed it, American manufacturing. He was impressed with the gesture. “I think it’s a lot more serious and worthy to ask me to sit in a closed-door session in Washington and actually try to dig into the problems than it is to try and grab a headline about some issues.”

American manufacturing remains a popular political talking point but lives in a sort of no man’s land when it comes to the current iterations of the Republican and Democratic parties. Neither party can claim ownership of the issue. For the GOP, being “business-friendly” has more to do with shareholders than workers; for the Dems, being “business-friendly” isn’t actually such great business. Winthrop suggests there’s lots to do on a policy level — “job retraining, tax policy, helping to offset capital expenditures for private businesses that are keeping US industries competitive.” He believes there’s one helpful task the Trump administration has achieved “in that small way”: centered the conversation. At least people are talking, even if that’s all it is for now.

Along with Kendall, Randy Komisar is also in AG’s corner. The co-author of Winthrop’s book, I F**cking Love That Company, Komisar is a general partner at the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (which was an early investor in Amazon, Google, Uber, Spotify, open your phone and pick a successful app and that too, most likely). Komisar is a “unique” kind of venture capitalist, according to Winthrop. At the very least American Giant is a unique investment. Winthrop says that Komisar is in his ear saying, “Venture capital is a bad thing in awful times.”

I get a chance to ask Komisar about this directly, and despite being in the VC game himself, he was not misquoted. He says that some of his best advice for a growing business is, “Don’t take venture capital unless you absolutely need it.” (This is, indeed, one of 100 rules he outlines in an upcoming book, Straight Talk for Startups.)

For Komisar, his work with American Giant is “an experiment in how to appropriately capitalize these businesses.” It needs the right investors with the right priorities to grow at the right scale “so that they don’t lose their mission.” He calls AG a “love brand,” and says the danger of scaling a brand people love is that you could “pervert” the business.

“One thing to understand about capitalism, in particular venture capital, is capital loves to scale,” Komisar explains. He describes investors pushing the scale of the business to get “an exit as quickly as possible and then kiss the company on both cheeks and move on.” While VCs want to get their money fast and get out, this doesn’t set businesses or their employees up for success long-term; scale is, as Komisar says, “orthogonal” to what workers — and customers — care about. “They care about their wages; they care about meaningful work; they care about value; they care about price.”

Overleveraged businesses owe too much to too few, and not enough to anyone else. Winthrop believes consumers, especially younger ones, know this and that it rankles them. This opens up the opportunity for me to ask Winthrop the question I’ve wanted to ask a successful and seemingly morally-driven capitalist: Is it just too late and too pointless to be a “conscious capitalist” (™ John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods, which recently sold to Amazon)? As late-stage capitalism transitions from a phrase used mainly by Marxist academics to a popular meme, as socialism becomes cooler and cooler with the kids and membership in the Democratic Socialists of America more than triples in a year, is the very audience that might be most likely to respond to ethical business already closing the door on capitalism?

Raw cotton is caught on the side of a truck at the Enfield Cotton Gin.

“I think part of the reason why there’s justified skepticism about capitalism is there’s a growing sense and reality of, that does not apply to me,” Winthrop says. We know our purchase is “enriching some far-off person that doesn’t understand me or who I am or what my life is.” It’s not someone whose life looks like ours who makes the items we buy; it’s not someone whose life looks like ours who ultimately profits off of them. We might not consider this consciously when we buy our Levi’s or our Ray-Bans or our iPhones, but we know it, deep down, and it’s alienating. Capitalism, which we’re told is supposed to benefit all Americans who work hard, mostly only touches our lives when it’s taking our money.

But he argues that alienation isn’t innate to the system. “What you are witnessing here and yesterday is capitalism hard at work. Hard at work,” he tells me, “And I would argue its benefits are real and tangible. There really is an opportunity here to have your dollars participate in a way that actually is relevant and it does apply to you.”

Winthrop believes that his customers see this application, and it informs their affection for the brand. He talks often about American Giant’s impressive sales figures, but declines to provide them for this piece. Regardless of whatever market success or customer excitement the company achieves, it might just be, as Page Ashby says of onshoring, “at its largest, small-scale.”

Therein lies the issue for the consumer. While you can individually choose to make a purchase that supports American manufacturing, there’s also the question of all the other purchases you make, of all the other consumers not making that same decision, and ultimately of the wealthiest few deciding if those companies even get to exist. It’s the same seemingly no-win situation as environmentalism. It’s good if you recycle, but what about your long hot showers, and your neighbors who don’t recycle, and the mega-corporation dumping toxic dye into the rivers? It’s hard to feel like these small choices add up to anything meaningful at all.

We’re standing in a cotton field at sunset when slavery comes up.

Jerry Hamill, who owns and operates the fields with American Giant’s cotton is grown, is showing us a boll (not ball) of the stuff plucked straight from the ground, and how full of seeds it is. Hamill explains that, before the invention of the cotton gin, a slave was expected to produce a shoeful of seeds.

“I didn’t do it,” Hamill says, and starts to say something about his parents, and how they didn’t do it either, and “it” I understand is “enslave people,” which considering Hamill’s age (advanced but alive in 2018) is almost undoubtedly true but beside the point. Winthrop interrupts him, asking about what happens to the seeds after they’re picked. Moments later Winthrop has a seed in his own mouth, eating it like Hamill says cows do. “Not tender,” Winthrop tells us, chewing. We all laugh.

Jerry Hammill’s cotton field at sunset.

But even if Hamill had said nothing, it would already be too late. You can’t stand in a cotton field for the first time, no matter how oddly perfect and beautiful the light is, and not think about slaves working there, picking these bolls, filling their shoes with seeds. Cotton, in America, is inextricably bound up with the country’s proverbial original sin (although calling it original possibly ignores what was done to the Native Americans, another complicated topic for another time); it’s a part of the story just like the yarn-making and the fabric-dyeing and the job creation.

Hamill started to point out how world-changing the cotton gin really was, and he’s right. The invention took a task that required dozens of people — people who plantation owners weren’t just unwilling to pay, but whose very lives and humanity they were willing to quash for their own profit — and automated it, eliminating the need for people to do that work.

At the same time, with the increased ability to gin cotton, more people were needed to grow and pick it, and those people were also slaves. Some of their work had been eliminated, but new and more work was being created. The cotton gin was invented in 1793. In 1790 six states were slave states; by 1860 there were 15.

In Enfield, we visited the Enfield Cotton Gin, a marvel and at the same time, a lint-covered, gerry-rigged contraption. The oldest pieces of the machine are from the 1950s. It can be called the Enfield Cotton Gin because it’s the only one in town, but there used to be five in Enfield alone.

The problem of the gin recalls, in an uncomfortable way, the jobs at Parkdale, and Nodine’s claim about the jobs that no longer exist that “no one wanted.” The question of if such a job exists — a job so taxing that no one would want to do it — haunts manufacturing, especially as these are jobs that so often do still exist, even in the face of innovation. They just exist in less-developed factories in less-developed countries across the world, or robots do them for the low, low price of buying a very expensive robot in the first place.

Bayard Winthrop at the cotton field.

The understanding of any job as something “no one wants” elides the question of compensation: For a fair price, most jobs are very doable. If people don’t want to do a job, you pay them more, not less, not none. Or you innovate past that job and call it progress, but that doesn’t answer the sticky question of what happens to the people who used to do the work.

No type of work requires slavery, no matter how unappealing, whether it’s picking seeds or picking cotton. It’s work; as soon as you pay people for it, it’s a job. Cotton didn’t create slavery, the cotton gin didn’t end it or even solidify it, and white supremacy — a cause of slavery that is regarded strangely often as a byproduct, the way a cow, if you asked her, might consider the cotton just a byproduct of the seeds she eats — still thrives in America.

When you consider the national mood as overwhelmed, and ponder the incredible complications of a supply chain that takes you through the dying livelihood of the American worker and the moral questions of capitalism and then drops you off at slavery, it’s not hard to see why dealing with the realities herein is not something people are clamoring to do.

This is all so tricky: supply chains, the yarn-making process, job creation, growing cotton, whether or not to change how you do your job, being an ethical consumer, living as a person in America and the world and the year 2018 and any year. It’s crushing, how many decisions there are to make, how ineffectual or catastrophic they could be, how we can’t know which are which. How dirty you have to get your hands to get something done. There are so many places to make mistakes or give up trying not to make mistakes because we all agreed something is hard.

But cotton isn’t entirely bad because of slavery; Parkdale Mills isn’t entirely bad because jobs have been eliminated. Of course it’s better to not salt the earth; of course we still try to make use of the tools and even the systems that have inanimately played their part in human tragedy. Anything less would be wasteful and dishonest. Things are just things; how they’re used is up to people.

We believe the invisible hand is making businesses behave soullessly; that under capitalism, especially late-stage capitalism, there’s an inevitability to every sad-but-profitable situation. Unfettered, this is true. But capitalism is still full of people — not just workers, who might all be robots someday soon, but the shoppers, the CEOs, the shareholders, the venture capitalists, the former presidents of multinational corporations who fund businesses as a retirement pastime. They make these decisions because they are still decisions.

And the unsettling part about Winthrop’s question, “Can’t we all just do a little bit of this?,” is that no matter how relatively small you are, you’re still implicated in it. It can be maddening and deflating that people at the top don’t make decisions that lead to more American manufacturing, to better-paid and more secure workers, to a less inequitable world, but it doesn’t absolve you of your own choices. As impossible as it might seem, each individual’s choices do add up.

The story is about doing something instead of doing nothing because doing nothing is easier. It’s about worrying less about determining if something is Good or Bad than finding the pieces that could be improved and trying to improve them.

It’s doing that scary and maybe difficult thing that you hear will be good for you, and letting it be good for you, and letting it change you for the better. Standing instead of sitting down, like Thelma Agular. Spending the money to add a tenner frame, like Page Ashby. Allowing one of your investments to be less profitable in the short term than it theoretically could be, like Donald Kendall.

If the message is to be an engaged human citizen, regardless of the shirt on your back, that seems like something that’s worth saying again and again. And, looking around, like something we need to hear more and more and more, to combat the deafening buzz that says it’s not worth it. I know I need to hear it. I think I even believe it.

Either way, they do make a very nice sweatshirt, right here in America.

Meredith Haggerty is a senior editor at Racked.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Heather Schwedel


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