making michigan college apparel in michigan

I was speaking with Paul Saginaw earlier today. As you probably could have guessed, we were talking about Ypsilanti and Zingerman’s, and the possible marriage of the two, but that’s not what I want to talk with you about tonight. I want to mention a completely unrelated idea that Paul threw out during the course of our conversation. I can’t remember exactly how it came up. I think he just blurted it out, completely absent any context whatsoever. Anyway, he threw out this brilliant little idea, which, if it came to pass, would make all of our “shop local” stuff pale in comparison. And maybe it’s not a great idea. Maybe it’s too complicated. Maybe it’s impossible. But here it is. I’m paraphrasing Paul:

You know how the University of Michigan, and Michigan State, and all the other schools in Michigan sell massive amounts of branded apparel? Well, what if all of that was made in Michigan?

I’ve been searching around and I can’t find the numbers, but I seem to recall having read somewhere recently that the University of Michigan was the number one brand in college logo apparel. I guess it’s not surprising, given the fact that UM has the largest living alumni base of any U.S. institution of higher education. And, I’m sure that Michigan State doesn’t do too badly either. Or, for that matter Wayne State, Northern or Tech… So, it kind of makes me wonder, “What if those jobs were here, in Michigan?” Putting aside for the moment whether or not it’s feasible, I wonder how many jobs would be created.

I’m sure there would be significant obstacles to be overcome, but what if our three major research universities — UM, Michigan State and Wayne State — who have all recently indicated their eagerness to assist in the State’s economic development, made a decision to, over time, work in that direction? In addition to being a great PR move, I’m thinking that it would allow the universities a graceful way to save face in the whole sweatshop debate that has been plaguing them for years. And, with the price of oil going up, it may even make good financial sense.

The problem is, can it be done economically, and do we have the infrastructure to do it?

Up until recently, most U.S. textiles were made in the south — primarily North Carolina, I believe. (Prior to that, if I’m not mistaken, they were, for the most part, made in the New England states.) I wonder what it would take to create the necessary infrastructure here. And, I wonder, given the current contracts our universities are committed to, whether it’s even possible. Still, I think, it’s worth considering. We can debate it all day, but I think that ultimately manufacturing has to return to the U.S. And I think Michigan, given its history, is well positioned to play a major part. This, I think, could be a great first step in that direction… As for what to do next, I’m not sure. Hopefully someone from the press will pick this idea up and run with it. If not, maybe a petition of some kind is in order.

Am I naive to think that this idea might have legs?

This entry was posted in Special Projects. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  1. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 27, 2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Step one in moving it beyond fanciful naivety would be finding out what percent of Mich college apparel is purchased in Michigan. It’s more provincial, than buy local, to ship simply things nationwide from MI rather than NC.

    Still, it’s nice to encourage local institutions and/or businesses to focus more on supporting the local economy. As EMU is the biggest spender in town, I’ve wondered what the impact would be if they prioritized their bids for contracts from everything landscaping to screen printing with an edge Ypsi biz.

    I’d say more, but there’s a sudden noise in the house and I have to attend to it. G’night.

  2. mark
    Posted May 27, 2008 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Sorry. That’s me. I’m caught between your screen and storm window.

  3. mark
    Posted May 27, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    And, right now, it’s not an issue of NC or MI. Most of the manufacturing is done out of country. Anywhere in the US would be a considerable improvement in terms of transportation savings.

  4. egpenet
    Posted May 27, 2008 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Legs, yah!

    Some company near the airport area in Ann Arbor, near the “Z” bakehouse, handles all of the UofM stuff. I don’t think it is made there. It’s probably just shipped there for local distribution.

    This IS big time. Big money due to the licensing, not sales. The retail mark up from wholesale is standard, but the licnese agreement over time is worth boodles!

  5. Posted May 28, 2008 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    This is a damn fine idea Mark.

    I had a fantasy (well, maybe not!) years ago of converting all of the abandoned textile and other factories in the northeast into clothing manufacturers again selling clothes in actual factory outlets and having the people who were buying the clothes also be making them or making them for their neighbors. I envisioned this as a cooperative endeavor (naturally), but a vertically integrated model somewhat like American Apparel, but without the creepiness.
    This idea might be even better in an area like Michigan where the economy has been a factory economy for a long time, but not that long ago. But also, The South could adapt the same approach. They have large beloved universities, too.
    Univerities are a good place to start. The margins are big on this stuff, and they are making money off the association with the state (or are state institutions) so should (or at least could) be providing other positive economic benefit to the community.


  6. Sarah
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    There are actually a number of local printers that have licensing agreements with UM to produce logo goods…
    Maybe an intro approach is to encourage the local licensees to print on U.S. grown/assembled/union-made apparel and market their approach to the community.
    I’d buy those t-shirts.

  7. CKL
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    I think it’s one of your *less* naive ideas. LOL

  8. UBU
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Brilliant! The increase in manufacturing costs would be astronomical, especially at start up. And I’m assuming you would demand a union shop too? But I’m sure there are a lot of people who would buy a hundred dollar t-shirt if you and Paul think it is a good idea. After all Zingerman’s has been working the absurd overpricing angle for years.

  9. Brackache
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Hahaha UBU, you totally beat me to the punch about Zingerman’s and higher prices, but I was going to be all nice about it like so:

    Usually the highest expense of any business is labor costs, which is why many local manufacturers are being out-competed by foreign businesses that keep their labor costs low due to lack of unions and minimum wage laws. They can therefore offer their product for less. However, there is a growing spirit in much of America (not all of it yet, of course) that it is worth the extra price to purchase even an inferior (not that it would necessarily be inferior) product without the money-saving implications of immorality (organic, free range, fair trade, local, vegan, etc.). I believe if that market force can be tapped into, you might have something there, and could make a killing.

  10. Fernando
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Ubu. I just left American Apparel in An Arbor and they have plenty of t-shirts under $20. They’re made in America and they’re high quality. Not sure where you got the $100 number from. Guessing that you’re just an ignorant asshole.

  11. Gleblon
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    American Apparel t-shirts high quality? Good god! They beat most foreign sweatshop products when it comes to shoddiness of material and manufacture. Not that we shouldn’t support them, I suppose….hmmm, gotta think about that.

  12. egpnet
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    What is “quality”? Whatever it is, or whatever the various elements of “quality” in one’s mind … most persons surveyed year to year by pollsters claim that they will pay more for higher perceived levels of “quality.” Price is often rated near the bottom on lists of shopper considerations.

    Zingerman’s labor costs are within the upper range of their location, market and industry. What their prices reflect, unashamedly, is the higher price they pay for what they believe to be the “best” or “finest” or higher “quality” products.

    No way to objectify it. Ya’pays for wa’cha gets.

  13. Posted May 28, 2008 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Apparel production is largely a low-capital-intensive industry (4 walls and some sewing machines, basically), finished products are relatively cheap to ship and skill level required is pretty low, which is why the apparel industry tends to blaze trails into to new, cheaper labor markets and has the “sweatshop” reputation. There was a complex international regime of quotas at some point that kept a significant amount of production in the western hemisphere but IIRC this has been largely dismantled and most production is moving rapidly to China. The only things that stay close to the US are things that are time sensitive.

    Also, there’s the supply chain to consider. Are we looking at what are essentially assembly plants or also textile production (e.g., making the fabric? processing the raw materials?)? Where will the materials come from?

    If the U gives a licensing break to local businesses along with the “made in michigan” label, a business might be able to compete in a business driven primarily by cheap labor, but I don’t think it’s something that you could build a big industry on. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe American Apparel is proof of that (though hopefully founders of Michigan-based companies won’t be sex freaks).

  14. Teabag
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    I find my MIchigan apparel from parks, Value World and soccer fields.

    Or maybe it finds me.

  15. mark
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    You people – or at least you, Ubu – have so little faith in the American people. The truth is, we can do manufacturing in the U.S. and we can do it well. American Apparel, as others have pointed out, is a good example of that. (And to your point, Scott, I’d happily put our Michigan sexual deviants up against theirs any day.)

    As for what Paul said, he wasn’t “telling” anyone what they should do. He just mentioned that it would likely have a measurable impact on the state’s economy. I agreed, and went the further step of suggesting that they be encouraged to look into it.

    Like it or not, rising energy prices are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. and Michigan would be smart to get ahead of the curve. Unfortunately, it always seems as though we’re late to the game, like when we announced that we were a leading “Life Sciences” state after 20-some states had already done the same thing.

    And you raise good points, Scott. Certainly those are all things that would need to be taken into consideration.

  16. William
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    What country is your auto from?

    You people.

  17. William
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Zingermans uses Hondas

    So much for buying local, regional, or even continental.

  18. mark
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    I drive a Honda. I wanted a hybrid in 2003 and there were two companies making them – Honda and Toyota. I chose the Honda. I wrote about it quite a bit here on the site at the time. I knew I’d never make my money back on it, even with the gas savings, but I wanted to show that there was a market for fuel-saving technologies. I can’t speak for Zingerman’s, but I think I did the right thing.

    As for Paul’s idea, I know it’s hard, but I wish that people could consider it without making it about Zingereman’s. Regardless of where Paul works, I think it’s an interesting idea with merit.

  19. William
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Anywhere in the US would be a considerable improvement in terms of transportation savings.

    The truth is, we can do manufacturing in the U.S. and we can do it well.

    it would likely have a measurable impact on the state’s

    economyMichigan would be smart to get ahead of the curve

  20. William
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    If you buy 1000 Michigan made sweatshirts your karma scale might just balance according to your logic.

  21. Doug
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Excellent point William.

  22. freeman
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink


    Interesting idea. I like it.


    Zingermans uses Hondas

    So much for buying local, regional, or even continental.

    What seems more relevant to me is where the cars are made. There are Hondas being made here in America by American workers, and cars from “big 3” “American” companies being built in Mexico, Canada, etc.

    If I were buying a car and placed value in buying local, I’d be more interested in where the car is made rather than where the executives reside.

  23. mark
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I follow your logic, William. Are you suggesting that I should have bought an American car that didn’t exist at the time?

  24. William
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Are you suggesting that I not buy a “Michigan” sweatshirt because it is not made “locally” yet?

  25. mark
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    No. That’s not at all what I’m suggesting.

    All I’m saying is that this might be something for our Michigan universities to consider. I didn’t mention boycotts. I didn’t attack them for their current practices. I just said that the idea was compelling.

  26. Posted May 29, 2008 at 7:43 am | Permalink


  27. American
    Posted May 29, 2008 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Ford went foreign before I did. The last Ford I bought was assembled in Canada using Mexican parts. Their engineering is largely done in India. Anyone know of an American company that sells cars made in America, by Americans, using American parts and engineering? The major corporations are leading the way to destruction of our economy and reduction of our standard of living.

  28. Posted May 29, 2008 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Ford’s engineering is done in Dearborn, thank you very much, NOT INDIA, American. I know, I work here…with engineers who are doing ENGINEERING!

    The reason to buy American and not Japanese is that while some Hondas and Toyotas are built here, they are engineered in Japan and all money goes back to Japan. The Big Three employs thousands of Americans to build a car. The Japanese companies that build here employ a hundred or so.

    My car was designed and built by Americans in the metropolitan Detroit area.

  29. bee
    Posted May 29, 2008 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I had a dream about this last night… that abandoned auto factories were being taken over by the unemployed masses and operating as textile factories. ‘Made in Michigan’ was as coveted a label as 100% organic free range virgin made.

    also spawned some idea in the waketime about VG Kids printing shirts that promoted Ypsi Flavor which represented a festival of food & entertainment about town.

    also spawned from talking to Pete over at Bombadill’s about him successfully kicking the smoking habit which he referred to as ‘kicking the butt’ and I saw a t-shirt with a chuck norris-like character karate kicking a pack of cigarettes…

    what if cotton grew in Michigan? does it?

  30. American
    Posted May 29, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    O.K. Kathleen – Tell us. What kind of car do you drive?
    I didn’t say there weren’t engineers working for Ford in the USA, just that the engineering work is largely done in India.

  31. ypsilanti cycle llc.
    Posted June 1, 2008 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I’m sure, the VERY local, HEIKKS, Express Printing above Ramones, and VGKIDS would have a lot of knowledge to input with this discussion.
    They know apparel business.

  32. ypsilanti cycle llc.
    Posted June 1, 2008 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    “the” goes after “know,” and before “apparel business.”

    sorry, long days.

  33. doug
    Posted June 6, 2008 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    Perhaps if more people bought American cars, Ford, GM and Chrysler wouldn’t have to rely as much on foreign production. It somewhat sickens me when I see how people in our area driving around in their foreign automobiles. Don’t these people understand how much our current and future economy rely on these companies. But a lot of fuckers out there don’t care, yet they’ll continue to piss and moan about the current conditions we face yet only have their selves to blame.

  34. Cali
    Posted June 6, 2008 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    What makes me sick are the Michigan auto workers who shop at Walmart.

    We could go around and around on this shit, Doug.

  35. Posted June 11, 2008 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    As one of the students at U-M who was part of the sit-in you linked last year, I was glad someone shared this post/your blog with me…

    Through a student org here, we’ve been promoting sweatshop-free and organic apparel options for student groups and businesses that need t-shirts. Unfortunately right now the union-made apparel in the US (found at isn’t made with organic cotton, although it does use less energy to ship to universities than other options. Another source we’ve worked with is a women’s cooperative in Nicaragua, which Maggie’s Organics, (a Ypsi business), is familiar with ( There are others if you do a little research- the Sweatfree Communities website has a great resource list.

    That said, the idea of bringing production jobs to Michigan through securing university licenses is sweet. I don’t think it’s easy to attempt competition with the dip-wad class A corporate CSR folks defending their production standards in Bangladesh and Kenya. However, if anyone out there has the competitive ambition to take them on, I’m pretty good at logistics and I know the bureaucracy of universities all too well. Or, if you just want an organic, cooperative-made tee, I can help you out there, too!

  36. mark
    Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your thoughts, Aria. I’ll send you an email.

  37. Roger Gienapp
    Posted July 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this myself for several years after seeing the label in my MSU hat which said “Made in bangledesh”. Why couldn’t someone set up a not-for-profit company with several regional manuufacturing plants around the state to employ some locals to make logo merchandise? A not-for-rpofit could probably compete with Bangledesh and the Dominican republic for cost and provide at least a minimum wage job for people who might actually aspire to send their kids to a michigan college. Many of our colleges have programs in industrial management so perhaps internships could be set up with the Universities to give students some practical experience. The skill level can’t be all that high if 13 year old illiterates can make hats, why nott us? Also, I’m sure there are plenty of empty manufacturing plants in Detroit, Flint, lansing, Grand rapids, Muskegon, Jackson, etc. that could be leased pretty cheaply. Maybe even our new “job creator” Governor and his business first legislature could REQUIRE state colleges to license the stuff at less than the going price for the license as a condition of recieving state aid. Wouldn’t it be great to see a laabel on a piece of apparel that siad “Made in Michigan by Michigan taxpayers”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Ruth Marks