How to be sustainable, protect your IP and still make loads of money

ostrichMy favorite books aren’t about sewing but about building things sustainably. Like how to dig a well, build a water pump to plumb a home, pull stumps, how to make your own tools, sanitize drinking water with leach fields you build yourself -all without electricity or fossil fuel dependent machinery. There’s a danger in being chained to the reliance of a complex power grid that could be withdrawn at any moment. I feel the same way about sewing. Wait too long and the low prices we’ve become accustomed to paying will evaporate. Asia can charge what they like, we won’t have the choice of doing for ourselves once we’ve forgotten how or worse, no longer have domestic supplies to do it.

By way of illustration, Vesta sent me a link to a disturbing story about the mining of rare earth minerals, elements used in everything from hybrid cars to smartphones. We used to mine those in the US but in a “cost saving” gesture, we passed it off to China along with the intellectual property and tooling to do it. Last year, China implemented dramatic quotas to limit their rare earth mineral exports, now they’re keeping the minerals for themselves. Meaning things like smartphones and hybrid cars will only be manufactured in China or locations they dictate and at the prices they charge or else. And it’s not even that there’s something nefarious behind it. With rising wages and living standards in China, they need materials to meet increasing domestic demand. Our problem is that we’ve forgotten how to mine the stuff cost effectively and we’re sitting on 15% of the world’s supply.

Why does anyone think it’ll be any different with sewn products? People who can still do it for themselves will clean up, not that it will help the US economy at large. The supply problem remains paramount though. The only sure way to control the means of production is to control the supply of inputs like fabric -and rare earth minerals. In war, the best way to vanquish the enemy is to destroy their supply lines. It’s much cheaper, easier and fewer causalities ensue by destroying supply resources than by shooting people or grappling in hand to hand combat. The enemy can’t fight without food or bullets -or as in our case now, we’ve paid our suppliers competitors to bomb our own telephone and transportation supply lines.

If I had another lifetime at my disposal, I’d buy and learn to operate a domestic fabric mill, become a thread spinner or maybe even a tanner. I wouldn’t have anyone to leave it to but I suspect its value would increase and someone in the next generation would buy it. By then I think more people would be eager to get their hands dirty -need would drive that. Why doesn’t anyone see we have the need now?

It is delusional for anyone to worry about intellectual property if they’re sending work overseas. To think you own anything is a fantasy your vendors encourage because it’s profitable for them to do so. Possession is 9/10ths of natural law. If China now controls rare earth IP mining technology originated by very powerful rich nations, expropriating your designs isn’t worth a yawn. Nobody will care about enforcing a law to protect a stupid dress if we can’t build cars or maintain critical communications. To assume anything less is simply not rational.

I don’t advocate isolationism, exporting is a tremendous opportunity for growth. The number of Chinese millionaires has increased over 30% since 2008 and with all that money, they’re looking for more stuff to buy and less low cost stuff to make (wages and minimums have dramatically increased). I think doing business with China is a jolly idea; US made goods have a lot of cachet there. Sure, somebody might buy your stuff and copy it but at least you didn’t send a wire transfer to have them do it to you when you sent your specifications and labels on a silver platter. I have faith in base human qualities like covetousness. It’s dependable regardless of culture, politics and religion. No different from us, they want exclusive and rare stuff their friends don’t have. So sell it to them.

If the potential gains of exporting your product are increasing -and they are- why does no one see that there is an equal and opposite effect? Namely, that the liabilities of importing your products from abroad are increasing too.

Note: Ostrich don’t bury their heads in sand -but they’re much cuter doing it than we are.

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  1. Esther says:

    It is less a brain drain than we think. Sure, its a contributing factor that we are loosing basic, essential skills in product manufacturing. I would argue that oppressive government and environmental regulations are shutting things down before they start. My state has a tremendous resource in Cobalt, another important element in technological gadgetry. The mining company has been trying to get permission to mine it for almost two decades. There is no lack of knowledge, just stupid bureaucratic government red tape.

  2. oriole says:

    This was on NPR last night. Not only are we giving away our technology, for cheaper manufacturing. Government is demanding that we go green while India and China don’t have to. While we go green with electric cars, we need the rare earth magnets to power those cars. With the Chinese putting quota on the magnets, the cost of manufacturing products using them will sky rocket, so manufacturing will eventually be forced to move to China where they will again have our technology and jobs.
    After NAFTA was put in place, all the sewing plants in the states closed down. My old boss had 5 plants, the company I worked for before that had 7. They still believed that made in America meant something and didn’t want to manufacture overseas. This was their demise, because they couldn’t compete.

  3. sally says:

    So, what one does, knowing this and we all know and have known this for decades, is to seize the opportunity to invent and circumvent. Get solar panels, geothermal power, ride your bike, spin your thread, stop replacing electronics so frequently, anything productive. I like Kathleen’s approach, take charge of what you can.

  4. Million says:

    I’ve been thinking about these things too. It’s only a matter of time before North American manufacturers are in a really sweet position again. People who have the skills to make goods that we all need are going to be in demand; whether that’s people who make clothes, tools, bicycles, or sustainable homes.

    I like your suggestion about not overlooking China as a possible marketplace. I am considering hiring one of my many Asian friends to translate my website into Cantonese when I can afford to do so. Thanks for another brilliant post!

  5. Kelly says:

    The US does have textile “fiber” programs who are teaching weaving, knitting and dyeing. When students graduate they hit the wall of disconnect between their studies in the dye pot or spinning and the reality of a tech pack to factory. The most courageous are sticking it out and DIY but that is on such a small scale-there is a real chasm between young designers with hands in dye pots or on shuttles and big Industry.

    Also, we are not wearing wool underwear…ahem. Factories elsewhere are excellent at the fine (the delicate jerseys..the stretch denims…) fabrics that we so love as consumers.

    Your thoughts are in the air-Revalorizing the Trades by Camille Paglia:

    Does your local university have a fiber/textile program? Invite students in to your industry and challenge them to innovate with feet firm in a strong “makers” foundation.

  6. cathryn says:

    I have a question about this very thing. I have heard many, many times from industry professionals that what we are teaching our students is pretty useless. Without comment, I can see their perspective….if I squint a little. I have recently worked with students from a Textile Institute in India in Apparel and Textiles. When I compare what they know with myself and my students…well…I don’t know what to think sometimes. No aesthetics, no hand/body knowledge, i.e. how to thread a loom, use a dye pot, thread a sewing machine etc…however, they can calculate, formulate and deal with data- seemingly with ease. They can’t make anything.

    I have also dealt with people who have good business backgrounds- and what look like innovative business plans – but who are failing or on the way to failing because they don’t know what they need to know (i.e. your book Kathleen) to keep from getting screwed by their contractors. Basically, they too don’t know how to make anything either.

    So, it comes down to this for me. What am I preparing my students for? There is a huge disconnect between students that have received technical training and/or business in the industry versus students who have received a more “craft” based training.

  7. Kathleen says:

    4/6/11 I had this in a text file on my desktop, don’t know why I never published it except that it is too wordy. But, I’m cleaning today so here goes:
    Kelly/Cathryn, you bring up some interesting points -and I have a bit of experience with this too.

    There’s another modern day nuanced gap between that of the artist vs the artisan. A lot of fiber artists recognize the need of rigor for purposes of replicating their effects but it is often difficult to bring them to it sooner, better or closer because this can largely only be done through the rigor of engineering -which is at its heart, all that this is. My post from the day preceding may give a hint of what I mean.

    I have tried to work with fiber artists to help them become more profitable but few (other than those who come from a formal textile engineering background) understand that it is possible or even desirable to introduce standards of best practices rather than chancing upon them without context, even haphazardly -and then once discovered, become part of their individual institutional knowledge which lacking the practices of documentation, become lost or arcane. It seems to me that much of any advice I offer is not only rejected but resented. It seems a common belief is that true artistry defies any attempts to document it (craftsman by contrast, have little such difficulty). Thus the gap between artist vs artisan.

    I think the production environment provides grounding and a lot of rigor. I think it makes for a well rounded individual and each gain from the experience. I would agree that some are creatively limited but we accept it without diffidence or resentments -and why we use designers to resolve the issue. The problem then becomes a designer who lacks a grounding in limitations that will always vary depending on the constraints of the given work.

    So, it comes down to this for me. What am I preparing my students for? There is a huge disconnect between students that have received technical training and/or business in the industry versus students who have received a more “craft” based training.

    I’d argue the problems are even greater than that. I do continuing ed for apparel industry educators. Part is to help them redevelop or refine curriculum to make student skills more appropriate for the workplace. Presumably, they have technical training which sometimes falls short. The basics, the unsexy skills, being boring or arcane aren’t taught either because it’s like pulling teeth to motivate students with it or instructors themselves lack proficiency sufficient to structure curriculum contextually. Absorption is another story altogether because most students are not seduced by minutia; they’re trying to find the minimum competency standard and to meet that, so they can go on to whatever it is that really excites them (being on PR or becoming a star).

    I don’t envy educators, I wouldn’t want their job. I only know that I cannot hire a graduate, no matter how “creative” they are if they cannot cut properly. If they cannot cut, they create more work for me, not less. I’m not suggesting that few educators know this only that the students I’ve met don’t, keeping in mind this is often beyond an educator’s control. They have to take whomever comes in the door and meld them to meet whatever expectations have been developed.

    The nature of being a student is that one is learning to discriminate and appreciate the nuance of skills -their senses have yet to become refined through experience. It is likely their priorities and values may be warped if they’ve been validated for things that are inappropriate. When a student is exposed to a palette of skills, knowing so little that everything is new and seems equally important, it is nearly impossible to discriminate to know which skills have the most value. In a word, they’re missing context. They could get context in production environment but with offshoring, these experiences are harder to come by. It is also likely that they would find these opportunities repugnant (ibid my post).

    Every week I get email from very enthusiastic students who purport to be immensely talented and skilled but if I can’t get them to see the value of learning something so basic as the seven minute cutting test much less do it, it is quite tragic. All of them have far better educations than I do but I don’t have time to teach what I consider to be remedial skills. In the end I think it is a matter of inappropriate expectations all around.

    4/6/11 Summary: Ya know, I think we are also guilty of inappropriate expectations if we expect our students to become successful in the field -whatever field. A goal of life enrichment is more reasonable, the fulling out of a person. I was supposed to be an economist, I was very promising -are my former professors disappointed I did not? I don’t know but I’ve applied those lessons in a practical manner to become all that this is, all that I do. Without it, who is to say what I would have done or failed to have inspired others to do.

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