By now, it’s a familiar refrain — Americans don’t make anything anymore and the glory days of Detroit’s auto industry, Pittsburgh’s steel mills and Cleveland’s paper and machine tools production are behind us. Framed by depressing images of once-proud Rust Belt cities, the rise of globalization and shift of production overseas, politicians and activists have convinced us that our era of craftsman leadership is over. But it’s not quite that simple, and it’s time we reconsidered some of those assumptions.
While it’s true that our economy has shifted toward a service and information-based model, manufacturing still exists — even right here in the Lowcountry. It’s our definition of the term that needs changing. We need to recognize the evolving face of manufacturing and do a better job of fostering its growth in our community.
In fact, manufacturing — the production of goods for use or sale using labor and machines — is quietly thriving in the Charleston area. When we think of manufacturing, most Lowcountry residents imagine a Boeing 787 Dreamliner or a General Dynamics battle tank. But this kind of large-scale, traditional manufacturing is the outlier and no longer the norm. Instead, communities like ours are seeing enormous benefits from smaller, more specialized operations that produce household goods, machine parts or building supplies.
Local companies like Rewined Candles, the Urban Electric Co., Charleston Garment Manufactory, Striped Pig Distillery and Charleston Mattress fit the definition of manufacturing but are often overlooked as a distinct business segment worthy of public-private resources and support.
That’s a shame. Small-scale manufacturing delivers all the typical benefits of a local business (tax base and reinvestment of profits into the community) while offering unique employment advantages. These companies become hubs for semi-skilled labor, oftentimes paying a true living wage to a workforce that would otherwise rely on minimum wage and low-wage service sector jobs. Moreover, manufacturing work can be a critical step in the generational climb from poverty, offering the stability and benefits a family needs in order to give its children new opportunities that may never have been available to the parents. According to the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, the average salary for a manufacturing job is $47,192 while the average salary for other jobs in the state is $35,620. With more than 5,000 manufacturing businesses in the state, the sector represents only about 4.5 percent of all employers but paid more than 20 percent of all wages to S.C. workers.
In a recent report entitled “High-Tech, High-Touch, and Manufacturing’s Triple Bottom Line,” the Pratt Center for Community Development argues for a definition of manufacturing that derives value from human as well as technological inputs. Cities that serve as hubs of both cultural and technical innovation, the report argues, are likely to grow economies that are sustainable, inclusive, competitive and most importantly, innovative.
The triple-bottom line described in the Pratt report (people, planet, profit) is exactly why Charleston should celebrate its burgeoning manufacturing sector and encourage more to join it. It’s time for Lowcountry political and economic leaders to broaden their definition of what it means to be a manufacturer and broaden their efforts to encourage manufacturing’s growth.
For a great example of how to do this, we should look at non-profit organizations like SFMade in San Francisco and initiatives like Made In NYC in New York City. These organizations offer industry-specific education and networking opportunities and connect member companies to powerful local resources. What’s more, they have created powerful brands that celebrate where (and how) local products are made.
As consumers, we make choices every day, and we all have the power to vote with our pocketbooks by supporting the local manufacturers that are already doing so much for growing local prosperity by choosing products made right here in the Lowcountry.
Lauren Gellatly is community and economic development director at Lowcountry Local First.