Don’t Call It A Comeback. It’s Something New

Tired of seeing “Made in China” on the back or bottom of every product you buy? Now you have three options: Made in USA, Made in NYC, or even made in your own neighborhood.

Walking into Owl & Thistle on 720 Franklin Ave. in Brooklyn, you will find dresses and hats made in Crown Heights, necklaces and bracelets designed by Crown Heights artists, and even candles with a so-called “Crown Heights” scent. “Crown heights [the candle] has a lot of mint in it,” says Keri Cavanaugh, the owner of the shop. “[Mint is] popular in Caribbean culture. It’s also used in Jewish traditions.”

Jewelry designed by Crown Heights artist and sold in Owl & Thistle

Selling locally-made products from frocks and edibles, to organic soaps and play dough, the store benefits greatly from having their supply chain near by. “It cuts down shipping and all the environmental problems of shipping things and tracking things around the world,” explains Cavanaugh.

Aside for the environmental and cost benefits, the business model is also appealing to customers like Erodney Davis, who is buying an anniversary greeting card. “It’s convenient. It’s right around the corner from where I live,” he says. “I like to support local business. I own a small business myself. So it’s always nice to support the others who do the same thing.” The greeting card he ends up choosing is designed by a graphic designer living on Bergen Street, four blocks away from the shop.

Most of Owl & Thistle’s suppliers are home-based makers or one-person manufacturers who do not have physical stores. Rachel Horowitz is one of the shop’s jewelry and kids stuff suppliers. Besides stores like this, Horowitz also sells online. “I have people buy through my blog, you just have to put a PayPal link there,” she explains. When it gets busy, Horowitz hires someone to help her. “For instance, last winter, I was making a lot of hats and couldn’t keep up with it. So I hired someone for sewing. She sewed with her machine at her own home. It just made it much easier,” she says.

Stores like Owl & Thistle dedicated to the sale of local goods are growing in popularity. In April 2011, By Brooklyn, a store that sells all Brooklyn-made products opened on 261 Smith St. Now it has about 160 vendors and manufacturers. “More and more people are realizing how important shopping local is and what that actually does and how much further your dollar can go when you spend it in your local community than when you spend it in a big box store,” says owner Gaia Diloreto. “Sixty cents out of every dollar you spend in a local store stays in the community.”

Though local manufacturing will likely never go back to dominating the economy as it had decades ago, new trends are emerging uniquely, creatively, and organically. In both shops, one of the top sellers is locally made pickles. The Organic Trade Association reports that the organic sector, fueled by consumer choice and demand, is one of the few components of the American economy that continues to add jobs. Four in 10 families are buying more organic products than they were a year ago, according to the 2011 U.S Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study.

Kids’ T-shirt by Brooklyn Junior, an urban-inspired children's clothing company, with its workshop in Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Growth is also seen in clothing manufacturing. Living in a fashion industry hub, it is easy for New Yorkers to find clothes designed and produced in their own backyard. On October 17, Design Trust for Public Space, a leading urban planning nonprofit, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) released their three-year study of the Garment District’s impact on New York City. “Making Midtown,” the report, shows that the Garment District alone generates 7,100 jobs and is critical to New York’s City’s 9-billion-dollar-a-year fashion industry, that employs over 170,000 people. Susan Chin, executive director of the Design Trust, called a resurgence of manufacturing one of the “most unlikely urban trends in the 21st century” and noted that apparel production accounts for nearly one-third of all of New York City’s manufacturing jobs.

Asked whether the food and fashion sector have better growth prospects, Adam Friedman, director or Pratt Center of Community Development and founding executive director of New York Industrial Retention Network (NYIRN) said, “It’s not only about food or fashion. Anything that is design-oriented. It’s not really decided by the sector, it is decided by their particular approach.” Earlier this month, the Pratt Center partnered with SFMade, a non-profit organization focused on developing the local manufacturing sector in San Francisco, to bring similar organizations together. They held the first annual conference of Urban Manufacturing Alliance, with manufacturing representatives from Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, Memphis, Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland, and San Francisco.

“An emerging trend is micro manufacturing,” says Friedman. “Very, very small manufacturers, it could be one person shop, could be two, could be three. They are using very sophisticated technology. It allows people to go into business very, very easily. With very little cash, they can make products and they sell it online, and they are in business.”

New York City still has a vibrant industrial sector. There are over 6,000 manufacturing companies in employing approximately 81,000 New Yorkers, according to Made in NYC, a business-to-business organization under the supervision of Pratt Center. On Made in NYC’s website you can search for a wide range of products to buy, including ceramics, jewelry, pillows, blankets, books, or headphones, that are made in the five boroughs.

“What’s going on is people are tired of homogeneity; they are tired of Wal-Mart,” said Friedman. “They are tired of everything being the same. They are looking for opportunities to see something new, to see new design, to see new aesthetic, an aesthetic that respects their regional perspective.”