COMUNITYmade, a Los Angeles-based footwear brand wants to put the community back into footwear manufacturing by hiring only local artisans.
Taking what he learned from stints with Nike, Asics, Vans and as one of the founding members of TOMS footwear over the last two decades, COMUNITYmade founder and CEO Sean Scott knows too many brands are still missing the mark.
The right knowledge of retail, Scott told Sourcing Journal, “is super important for anybody to understand any business, to understand what it takes for a consumer to give up their money.”
For all the good that TOMS did with its buy one, give one model, Scott still felt there was more to be done—particularly where onshoring was concerned.
“All of that was overseas production,” Scott said referring to TOMS. “At first it was amazing, It was low cost. You are bringing affordable things to places where they weren’t affordable before. But, then you start peeling back some of the layers of the onion and the cost of that low price is actually pretty high.”
Continuing, he said, “Human rights issues have never been fixed and I don’t think they can be. The very fact that we are there is because the labor is cheap, that just means the people are cheap. There’s nobody evil here, there’s no bad. That’s just how it is.”
Taking that in, Scott set out to make his own brand that would spend more on local labor—and COMUNITYmade was born. Along with its commitment to the Los Angeles community, COMUNITYmade puts $10 of every purchase made into the coffers of one of its local partner charities. It also regularly offers up the use of its cutting-edge space in the Los Angeles Art District to community organizers, events and businesses.
Sourcing Journal spoke with Scott to learn more about the trials and travails that face an upstart “Made in the USA” footwear brand.
SJ: What’s the mission COMUNITYmade is built on?
SC: I’m a very purpose driven kind of businessman. It was one of those things. At TOMS, it was pretty clear there was a lot of need in the world. That kind of swirled around awhile and it kind of distilled into the idea of building community. Maybe it’s the business version of “think globally, act locally.”
If you can localize the production, you can energize a community. If you can get people involved, you can build a community through business. And you also have these big advantages over mass overseas production. Therefore, COMUNITY was born.
SJ: What has been your experience with domestic production?
SC: We went in a little naive. I’ve done overseas production and I will never complain about Asian production ever again. In hindsight, I got great service. I got great quality. There was pride in executing according to plan.
I haven’t experienced that level of execution in the U.S. There’s a lack of skilled labor that is very hard to overcome. We work with a partner factory and I think that’s their biggest struggle, finding and retaining good people. He does a good job, our partner, but the next biggest thing is the lack of resources, infrastructure. We haven’t had a manufacturing base here for footwear in 50 years.
The raw materials are not available: rubber outsoles, EVA midsoles. Lace suppliers are hard to find. Thread suppliers are hard to find. The leather that you find is not footwear appropriate. And then there’s not the infrastructure, transportation-wise, to get this stuff back and forth. If you have a lace supplier on the East Coast, they aren’t shipping to the West Coast. There’s no system in place.
That has been the hard part. I was really unprepared for the lack of infrastructure in making shoes in the U.S. It’s kind of like going back 25 years. We’re breaking ground again.
SJ: With major brands now at least somewhat interested in onshoring, are you anticipating a future wave of domestic production?
SC: I do see it as a wave. There are different things happening. There is a “Made in America” climate. There are people addressing that in my space—Nike and Adidas are coming to the US with a fully automated route and I think that’s amazing.
But, I also think that, as people become more aware of the drawbacks of overseas production, it is just inevitable that a localized production and delivery system is going to be the way to go. Until somebody comes up with a zero-emission, supersonic drone that can carry heavy loads and deliver them across the Pacific Ocean, there’s going to be a movement toward localized production.
SJ: What are some of the disadvantages you’ve seen in larger, overseas, mass-produced footwear companies that you have worked with in the past?
SC: Human rights issues, sustainability issues, shipping, the high carbon footprint, the waste inherent in mass production: It’s a big investment in money, a big investment in inventory. It means there are long lead times and its slow moving. Then, there’s waste at the end of that. You have to plan out inventory. If you are in the athletic business, you have to plan it out two years in advance.
That’s not the best way to make the customer exactly what they want. You’re going to end up with waste, you’re going to miss the market occasionally.
SJ: How did you design COMUNITYmade to combat those issues?
SC: It occurred to me that the customer wants more individuality—they want what they purchase to mean something. It’s pretty clear now that this kind of individuality and meaning in what people consume is more important than luxury.
Local production, to me, seemed like the pretty clear solution. There are higher prices, that’s obviously the big drawback. But once you get past that, you have smaller minimums, you can turn it around more quickly, there are more opportunities for more individualization, there’s less waste and a smaller carbon footprint. It all kind of just falls into place.
SJ: What do you see in the future for businesses that place community and charity so prominently in their business models?
SC: In the future, it’s just going to be what you do when you start a business, “How are we going to take care of our community?” We all have, in the palm of our hand, the ability to check out a business at any time.
We are catching on a little more slowly. But our kids, they’re there. It’s just not acceptable to them to wear or to eat or drive something that doesn’t stand for what they believe in.