BOSTON — New Balance thinks the U.S. military is dragging its feet.
Last April, the Department of Defense announced military recruits would start using athletic shoes 100 percent made and manufactured in America, in recognition of a law Congress passed in 1941 requiring the department give preference to American-made goods.
Over a year after the announcement, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have still not purchased a single sneaker that meets the exacting standards of the 1941 law, known as the Berry Amendment.
Matthew LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, is convinced the delays are deliberate “payback” for companies like New Balance that have been vocally lobbying for the change for years.
“We’ve pushed and pushed to the point where we’re at now, and we’re still encountering tremendous resistance,” he said. “They’re not used to being pushed that way and I think that’s engendered this animosity.”
Mark Wright, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, said the department is simply continuing to test Berry-compliant sneakers.
“We’ve moved right along since the new policy went into effect last year,” he said. “I don’t think this is being slow-rolled at all. We’re trying to respond to the needs of our forces.”
To date, one variant of Boston-based New Balance’s proposed 950v2 sneaker has passed the military’s testing, after a previous version failed last year. Two other styles of the same shoe — covering the different foot and gait types that the military requires shoe companies offer — are still being tested.
No other shoe brand appears to be going through the testing; Saucony, another Massachusetts-based footwear company, said it’s developing a sneaker that eventually could be considered for military use.
Matthew Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, doesn’t believe there’s anything nefarious going on, despite New Balance’s concerns.
“The military is a bureaucracy like any other agency in the federal government,” he said, stressing that his association is remaining “neutral” in the fight because some of its members benefit from the policy change while others don’t. “Things just take time.”
Others see the delays as concerning.
Juanita Duggan, president and CEO for the American Apparel and Footwear Association, said in a recent letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that the “sluggish and drawn-out process” is preventing domestic shoemakers from hiring and retaining U.S. workers for their factories.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes one of New Balance’s five American factories, says the Defense Department needs to step up.
“There have been signs of movement in the approval process, but it is time for (the department) to make more significant progress and reconcile what they perceive as challenges to moving forward,” she said.
New Balance and Saucony suggest part of the problem lies in an inefficient testing regimen.
Wright said the process involves an inquiry to assure that all shoe components are sourced, made and assembled in the U.S., followed by a “wear test” that lasts roughly 90 days in which soldiers put them through the paces and then fill out a report on how they felt.
“We know it won’t change overnight,” said David Costello, a spokesman for Wolverine Worldwide, Saucony’s parent company. “The wheels of government tend to move slowly.”
Frank Kendall, an Under Secretary of Defense, said in a March letter to Tsongas that the tests are being done one shoe type at a time because of a limited number of testers. He expects evaluations of New Balance’s three shoe variants to be done by September.
LeBretton said the testing is the most protracted the company, which is already the sole provider of sneakers for the Navy, has ever been involved in.
The U.S. Coast Guard, he notes, has already moved to comply with the Berry Amendment even though it doesn’t fall under the Pentagon’s revised policy.
The Coast Guard, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, recently tapped New Balance, which it had a previous contract with, to provide thousands of American-made sneakers for its recruits.
“It’s mind-boggling,” LeBretton said. “It certainly highlights that there is this institutional slowdown” at the Pentagon.
Wright, of the Department of Defense, stresses the military is committed to honoring the “spirit” of the Berry Amendment even as it maintains sneakers are technically not part of a soldier’s officially issued uniform and shouldn’t be subject to the rule.
Currently, most recruits are given a one-time voucher to purchase sneakers at military supply stores that have met certain standards. Among the brands offered recruits are Asics, Brooks and New Balance.
New Balance and its supporters maintain the Berry Amendment should still apply, whether or not the military “issues” the sneakers or gives recruits a stipend to purchase them. “The bottom line is that the law is the law and the military needs to follow the law,” LeBretton said.
At New Balance’s factory in Boston, plant manager Tim Luke said the company remains at the ready.
It’s already invested in new equipment and training and begun ramping up production of “tens of thousands” of pairs of its Berry-compliant model.
“There’s a huge pride factor in this. We recognize where these shoes are going to go,” Luke said during a recent factory tour. “By now, we have the process completely defined and refined so when the chance finally comes, we’re ready to go.”
This story has been corrected to show that American Apparel and Footwear Association president and CEO Juanita Duggan made comments concerning the military’s sneaker policy, not company spokeswoman Catherine Michael.
Editor’s Note: It is great that the U.S. military has vowed to go back to using U.S. manufactured shoes. The question for the slowness: is it because there is a giant bureaucracy that can’t get its act together or is it because the great bureaucracy has an ax to grind and making New Balance going through testing that previous shoes never had to go through? Presently the military is letting the recruits wear non-tested Nikes Made in China or Vietnam through a loophole in the 1914 law. As you read the next article, maybe there is something to the military having an ax to grind:
LAWRENCE — Why do U.S. military recruits still run around with Nike sneakers made in China on their feet?
That’s what some U.S. sneaker manufacturers and U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas are wondering more than a year after the Pentagon announced it would change its policy and provide recruits with American-made footwear.
The Pentagon spends tens of millions of dollars a year on footwear for military recruits and soldiers, with most of the money going to manufacturers who make the goods in Vietnam, China and elsewhere
Officials at New Balance, which has a sales and production plant in Lawrence, were euphoric when the “Made in America” policy change was announced in April 2014, hoping to benefit from being one of a few U.
S. manufacturers who produce 100 percent American-made sneakers. There was talk of new revenue, new jobs and new marketing.
But the high optimism has given way to a letdown, as U.S. military bureaucrats seemingly devise ways to either stall, delay or kill the prospects of any U.S. footwear maker from breaking a foreign stranglehold on the Pentagon’s sneaker procurement system.
Tsongas, who championed the legislative effort over several years as a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, is also concerned about the lack of progress. She sought the policy change to boost local and national footwear manufacturing, saying it would supply the military with the “best equipment possible” from U.S. trained workers.
“It’s time for the Department of Defense to move forward with this,” Tsongas said last week in an interview. “I’m continuing to stay on top of this and monitor this situation very closely.
“This is to support American manufacturing, and I would love to see New Balance in our own backyard benefit from it,” added Tsongas, who represents the 3rd District, which includes Lawrence and Lowell.
According to New Balance officials, the process to get American shoes to the military has been dragging because of a “bureaucratic quagmire within the Department of Defense.” The Pentagon has been testing and evaluating the shoes at an East Coast training site.
“The Department of Defense has made it very difficult for domestic retailers to sell shoes to them. They’ve put up every roadblock, including with the testing of the shoes,” said Matt LeBretton, director of public affairs for New Balance. “It’s really crazy to take this long. We’re ready. We’ve been ready for years.”
“But we’re moving closer and closer with each day,” LeBretton added. “We’re not in a position to sell yet, but we’re getting there.
Pentagon honors loophole
Congress passed the Berry Amendment in 1941 to ensure that American soldiers trained and operated, to the greatest extent possible, with American-made uniforms and equipment. However, since fiscal 2002, Tsongas said the Defense Department has circumvented this policy by issuing cash allowances to new recruits for training shoes that are not required to be Berry Amendment-compliant.
She emphasized it was costing American manufacturing jobs and inhibiting U.S. military members from training in high-quality American footwear.
Military officials had previously told Congress the law couldn’t apply to running shoes for new recruits because a suitable product manufactured totally in America didn’t exist in the marketplace.
But that is no longer the case. New Balance and at least one other footwear manufacturing company — Michigan-based Wolverine Worldwide — can provide a 100 percent Berry Amendment-compliant athletic shoe.
As a result, in 2014, Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox announced that the Defense Department would change its policy and provide military recruits with American-made footwear.
New Balance’s frustration
Since the announcement, the military has been taking its sweet time to implement the change, according to LeBretton of New Balance.
“They were upset being told they now have to follow this. They are used to doing what they want to do, when they want to do it,” LeBretton said.
“So when the policy changed, they decided to make us go through this long testing process that didn’t exist in the past.”
The New Balance “stability” military shoe has been approved, but the other two styles of New Balance military shoes are still in the testing review process, he said.
According to Mark Wright, a Defense Department spokesman, the testing is necessary for the shoes to meet the military durability standard. Shoes are at various stages of testing, and if they pass the qualifications, then they will be eligible for the recruits, he said.
“For these shoes to pass the wearability and durability tests is really the big challenge for shoe manufacturers,” Wright said.
New Balance officials also believe military exchanges — retail stores that provide military recruits with equipment and merchandise — have been obstructing the process.
The way the exchange works: The shoe manufacturer sells wholesale to the exchange, which then marks up the cost of the shoe for the recruits; the recruits then receive an allowance from the Defense Department for a pair of shoes.
The exchange’s profit margin will drop with American-made shoes because they cost more than foreign-made shoes, LeBretton said.
“Our shoes will be within the same allowance and the exchange will still make a profit, but there will be a margin drop for the institutional buyers in the Defense Department,” he said. “We are receiving an incredible amount of push-back because of that difference in margin. They’ve grown to expect a large profit margin.
“At the end of the day, this is not about making money for us,” he added. “The Berry law seems pretty clear to us, and it’s a matter of principle to see this play out.”
However, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service stressed the exchanges have not impeded the process. Chris Ward, a public relations specialist, said the Defense Department continues to test the shoes to ensure the recruits are safe.
“There’s been no holdup on our end,” Ward said. “Everyone’s waiting for the testing to be complete, and then this can move forward.”
When asked about the profit margins going down with American-made shoes, Ward said the exchanges have not explored that because the testing is still going on.
A ray of hope?
The whole process has been a “waiting game” for Caitlin Campbell, public affairs manager at New Balance, but she’s optimistic that New Balance will be able to send its military shoes to recruits soon.
“A lot of teamwork has gone into the development of this,” Campbell said. “We can’t wait to get it out there.”
The New Balance 950v2 military shoe was inspired by the shoe the company produces for a 100-mile race in Colorado. Campbell said the military shoe is designed for the rigor of military training, so it’s a stiffer shoe and more durable than a typical running shoe.
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