U.S. military recruits arriving at boot camp are handed the clothes they will wear for the coming weeks: A few sets of fatigues, T-shirts, boots, underwear and socks, all made by U.S. manufacturers from materials sourced from the United States.
The sneakers the new recruits wear on their long runs, however, are most likely imported. When it comes to athletic footwear, the military has for years flouted the Berry Amendment, a World War II-era law requiring the Pentagon to favor some American-made products.
Fortunately, military brass has announced it will soon right that wrong, and direct recruits to purchase only American-made sneakers, opening a market worth an estimated $15 million per year that likely will benefit New Balance’s three manufacturing facilities in Maine. There may be some valid arguments for revisiting the Berry Amendment, but they do not apply to sneaker purchases, and the taxpayer funds being used to buy military clothing should stay in the U.S. whenever possible.
The Berry Amendment was passed in 1941, and at first governed only U.S. military purchases of food and textiles. Later, other products, including some specialty metals, were added. It features severe source restrictions that require the products to be 100 percent American in origin and production.
The amendment’s goal was to support U.S. industry, both for the economic boost and to prevent a foreign country from shutting off supply of goods to the military during a conflict.
American-made athletic footwear was part of that goal until fairly recently, when the decline of U.S. shoe manufacturers led the military to change to a voucher system. Recruits are now given around $70 to shop on their own for sneakers, with no restrictions.
By one estimate, the U.S. military has spent $180 million on sneaker vouchers since 2002. Given that 99 percent of the U.S. sneaker market is imported, it stands to reason that the money is mostly going overseas.
But it doesn’t have to be. Massachusetts-based New Balance, which employs more than 900 people at factories in Norridgewock, Norway and Skowhegan, and Michigan-based Wolverine Worldwide, which already makes Berry Amendment-approved boots for the military under the Bates brand, both have said they are capable of producing American-made sneakers for the military. New Balance already makes a shoe that contains at least 70 percent U.S.-sourced materials.
Reportedly, at least two other shoe companies — and perhaps as many as six others — have said they would consider ramping up stateside operations if the military market is opened.
The U.S. military represents a relatively small market for the shoe industry. But the predictable annual sales will help solidify the manufacturers who are able to take advantage.
There is concern that forcing recruits to use a particular type of shoe during the rigors of training will lead to an increase in injuries, although those same concerns don’t seem to apply to the boots handed out at boot camp, which are already subject to the Berry Amendment.
That leaves the overarching criticism of the law, which is that it cuts down on competition and doesn’t allow the military to take advantage of the often-lower prices offered by the international market.
Unless the voucher system changes, though, the cost to the military will stay the same.
The only difference, of course, is that now those dollars will go to U.S.-based companies, and their U.S.-based suppliers.