When I was in school, I used to buy a new bag every year because they would just tear and fall apart within 12 months. Eventually, getting tired of this, I went online looking for a good bag. I found out about Tom Bihn. Both their management and their production is done in Seattle. The prices are steep, but I decided to take a chance on them, given the good reviews on various sites.
I've now had that same Tom Bihn bag for five years, and it looks exactly like it did the day I got it - not a single tear. I don't think you could say that about any bags produced at an overseas sweatshop.
Fast forward a few years, and I picked up one of their bags at a Mountain Equipment Co-op (not quite a chain store, like REI in the States). This bag also wasn't cheap, but when I checked the label it was made entirely in China. The quality is not bad, but I haven't had a chance to abuse it for a few years. I was mostly disappointed that they seem to promote the pro-American rhetoric while the majority of their channel goods seem to be produced abroad.
I'm impressed with those Tom Bihn bags, because they seem to be uncompromisingly made in America. I'm going to keep them in mind when I need a new bag.
Price-minimized, zero-margin, off-the-shelf crap for big box stores are a different story. Then they can trade on their brand equity built with embroidered logo bags and sell trash to the mass market.
- turn-around for custom goods from China is not 6-weeks. It took a solid 2 weeks to get the bag, which is what I would expect. The cost to ship expedited versus the labour cost is a wash, especially considering they stil had to post the bag to me anyways.
- The goods in-store are still marketed as premium goods; to use an HN appropriate analogy, this is like me telling you that your Mac is crap because you bought from a 3rd party retailer. For reference, this was $150 for a laptop messenger bag. Not a ton of money, but not cheap considering there's no leather, etc involved.
- If you look at the store I mentioned, they're not really big-box. They're in some awkward in-between yuppie place where everything is greenwashed. I still shop there, but I'm pretty disenchanted since this incident.
- This event has, in my mind, destroyed whatever brand recognition they had. The product is alright, but I'd rather support a company that does everything in NA.
The point being, the market're selling into would be more than willing to absorb the cost of local production. I suspect at a point during their growth they were unable to afford to scale up locally, and decided to contract volume manufacturing for the channel. Now that they're well established, I would hope that they would perform an exercise like the one in this article, and see if moving production back makes sense.
(This is actually mentioned in the article)
My point was, the cost of shipping by air versus hiring an American worker is probably a wash. I suspect they do their custom work in SF because it's a token gesture. Sort of local-washing, versus green-washing.
I don't think it matters where a product is built. It's the design and build quality that makes the product a good value. Initial cost was high but made up by not having to buy another bag, not having to deal with a torn bag, and not having to buy another bag makes it worth it.