It’s hard to believe, but San Francisco used to be a thriving manufacturing hub that employed tens of thousands of workers as late as 1969. As businesses migrated production to more attractive (read: more affordable) pastures overseas, the number of sites that churn out apparel and other textiles has steadily declined to just 136 this past year. But SFMade thinks it’s time fabrication returned home to the Bay Area. The five-year-old nonprofit makes it its mission to regrow “made in San Francisco,” albeit with a difference. Local manufacturers can’t compete with their offshore counterparts on price points, according to Janet Lees, the advocacy group’s senior director. What gives them an edge, however, is quality over quantity, or “artisanal manufacturing.”
SAN FRANCISCO TREAT
Lees spends much of her time matching entrepreneurs with local factories that can turn their ideas into something bigger. Many of the sewing facilities that survived the Asian exodus, for instance, are used to the old-school way of conducting business. Because they can be somewhat under the radar, with little to no Internet presence to speak of, SFMade makes it its job to connect them with potential clients.
Eventually, SFMade wants to launch other labor-related initiatives, including a vocational program that would help trades like sewing and fabricating retain their viability in the long term. Ecouterre caught up with Lees to learn about SFMade’s growing roster (500 manufacturers!), the pros and cons of manufacturing in The City by the Bay, and what other cities can learn from its modus operandi.
SFMade seems to have a heavy fashion component; was this on purpose?
We’re not focused on the fashion industry per se; it just so happens that sewn products make up the largest percentage of our membership. Our organization supports manufacturers across all industries including food and beverage, apparel, furniture, stationery, hardware, and so on.
You can see all the categories listed on our website under “Find Manufacturers,” but we have infrastructure that can support the apparel industry due to a healthy number of sewing factories that can produce designers’ products.
Who benefits from a local manufacturing footprint?
The advantage to the local economy is that manufacturing businesses create jobs for local residents, particularly entry-level jobs that tend to pay more than service or retail jobs and have a pathway for advancement through on-the-job training.
The advantage for the consumer is that they have a choice to buy locally made, and SFMade creates awareness of our member companies, who they are, what they do, and where you can buy their products.
For example, we just created a new retail map that features 95 retail outlets—all owned and operated by SFMade member companies.
What do brands gain by “onshoring” in San Francisco?
They’re able to utilize the SFMade brand to tell their story and capitalize on local conscientious consumers who want to buy fewer, higher quality, unique products and have the financial ability to do so.
Companies utilize the locally made element in their brand story: the people and process behind the products. They’re also able to benefit from a talented pool of workers, especially in product design and craftsmanship.
Are there challenges to remaining in San Francisco, particular for smaller brands and designers?
One of the main challenges is the cost of doing business in a very expensive city. They’re also constrained by the lack of affordable commercial real estate.
Eighty-five percent of SFMade companies have consumer products that are higher quality, small batch, and specialized, and therefore demand a higher price in the market place.
SFMade helps companies to start, grow and stay in San Francisco through our comprehensive array of programs and services including helping companies to locate industrial real estate, hire skilled workers from the local economy, and participate in educational workshops and strategic business advising to help them become more profitable.
SFMade has also created a vibrant community of manufacturers, with over 550 certified SFMade companies that regularly learn from each other and do business together.
What can other cities learn from SFMade’s business model?
SFMade is the co-founder of an organization called the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, created to help cities across the United States with urban manufacturing initiatives.
The alliance shares best practices and has created two toolkits to date: how to build a locally made brand platform and one on industrial real estate.
Consumers and aspiring business owners alike can search SFMade’s website to establish connections with artistic and manufacturing partners, find educational workshops, attend factory tours, and offer advice on how other communities can create their own network of craftspeople and production facilities.
With a membership of large corporations, small-scale artisan boutiques, and long-established local businesses, SFMade hopes to use this diverse set of stakeholders to make San Francisco attractive to consumers and producers alike.