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The Pandemic Is Teaching Us To Value Frontline Workers, But Carhartt’s Been Doing That For 131 Years

Plenty of people, in reflecting over the past nine months, have come to realize that we haven’t valued the people who make us things and bring us things–manufacturing workers, warehouse employees, farmers and truckers, to name just a few–nearly well enough for a long, long time. And in addition, a lot of folks are learning how risky it is to send all that making of things overseas. Before the pandemic ever hit, Carhartt, Inc. could have taught them all of that.

There’s one overriding feeling that comes through loud and clear when you talk to the folks at Carhartt, and that’s love: love for the frontline workers they serve, love for the Associates who make their products, and love for the brand and company they work for. That genuine regard for laborers everywhere has put them ahead of the game in our pandemic world.

You can’t spend over thirty years in manufacturing as I have and not be extremely familiar with the things Carhartt makes. The company’s SVP of Supply Chain, William Hardy, described those things best: “tough-as-nails products” made by “hard-working people serving hard-working people.” The company’s commitment to extreme product durability when so many clothing companies have cut quality to shave costs is a big part of why Carhartt’s still around after 131 years.

Still a private, family-owned company, Carhartt employs over 5,000 people worldwide and more than 2,800 in the U.S., 950 of whom are union members. In addition to its Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters and four production facilities in Tennessee and Kentucky, the company has manufacturing and finishing operations in Mexico and a European headquarters in Amsterdam. In the past 15 years, Carhartt has produced over 80 million garments and accessories domestically, and relies heavily on U.S. suppliers such as Mt. Vernon Mills in Georgia and YKK Zipper & Snap USA in Kentucky and Georgia.

The company was founded in 1889 as Hamilton Carhartt & Company in a Detroit loft. The namesake founder started out sewing heavy coveralls for the area’s railroad workers, with a focus on designing products to fulfill specific needs he learned about in direct discussions with his customers. “Railroad workers back then were like today’s astronauts,” explained Ben Ewy, VP Design, Research & Development. “They needed high-functioning durable goods. They needed to be able to move, so the products were cut larger. They needed places to put their tools and their pocket watch.”

That same focus on functionality is a core principle today. “My biggest job is delivering on our great 131-year heritage, making functional products that are durable, have enduring value, and are versatile,” Ewy said. “They need to do what they’re meant to do. We look at them as another one of the worker’s tools.”

To ensure they’re getting those tools right, they do the exact same thing Hamilton Carhartt did 131 years ago–they talk to the workers. “Being close to the consumer is important,” said Ewy. “We might visit three dozen job sites each year. We go out in the field to construction sites, distilleries, archeological digs, and on ride-alongs with truckers. Wherever there is hard work, we are there. We also have our Carhartt Crew, a 6,000-strong group of field testers who we send gear to have them try it out and give us feedback.”

That same regard for the worker is reflected in the company’s marketing. “We’re makers for makers,” said Brian Bennett, VP of Creative. “When we meet someone who makes things, it’s an honor. There’s a richness, a down-to-earthness there. We tell stories about real people taking on real-world challenges. That’s why we don’t use actors [in our ads]–because have you ever seen an actor swing a hammer? Yikes.”

It’s heartening to hear a marketing guy have that same fondness for his own manufacturing workers. “At Carhartt there can be nothing faked, posed or contrived,” Bennett explained. “If you ever walked the floors of our factories and looked the people in the eye who make our products, you’d realize your mission as Carhartt’s storyteller is the exact same. Do it with honesty and integrity. Then let the product and story speak for itself.”

Another real-world challenge Carhartt took on pre-pandemic was their industry’s rush to offshore production. Over 95% of U.S. garment manufacturing disappeared overseas in the past 20 years, and while Carhartt has expanded production into Mexico, they’ve kept a substantial domestic manufacturing footprint. “It’s important, what we’ve done in manufacturing and supply chain,” explained Hardy, who’s one of eight members of his family that have worked for Carhartt. “We created a balance in what we make and where, a global balance. That gave us the ability to pivot quickly. It’s like in basketball, having the triple-threat position. We try not to be overly dependent upon one geography. Over the last nine months, that gave us the opportunity for a couple of things. Having production available close to our consumers cut down on the challenges from the pandemic–we didn’t get unstable over one part of our supply chain breaking down like so many others did. And we were able to switch some of our capacity to making masks and gowns for health care workers. We’ve always protected hard-working people, and that allowed us to protect a whole different group of hard workers.”

Bennett agreed. “I remember our owner Mark [Valade, Chairman and CEO, and Hamilton Carhartt’s great-grandson] telling me if we don’t know how to make our own product, we’re just a design company,” he said. “It became clear to me that we always want to be a U.S. manufacturer because we don’t just want to rely on others to make our product. We believe nobody knows how to make the product better than us.”

They don’t plan to rest on their laurels. Looking forward to the post-pandemic world, they’re aiming to further grow the brand. “We want to continue to lead with functionality, with product that people need,” said Ewy. “That could be gloves for farmers tilling with drones, or footwear for workers in fulfillment centers. And people will expect their workwear to have the same performance as athletic wear–to be wicking, abrasion-resistant, lightweight, and durable. We want our heritage to be a sail, not an anchor.”

“Because we grew as a jacket and overalls brand, the South is still a big opportunity,” added Bennett. “Our pocket t-shirt is now our number-one seller. And while we haven’t really focused on the outdoor market, we know people use us for it anyway. With the pandemic making that a growth area, that’s a big opportunity as well.”

Meanwhile, they’ll keep doing what they do best. “What I really appreciate about this year is that everyone is paying tribute to our essential workers,” Bennett said. “That’s something we’ve always done. We’re here to serve and protect hard-working people. We did that in 1889, and we’re still doing it today.”

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