The Pentagon on Friday took a step toward supplying new recruits with American-made sneakers, a move that could create a windfall for Massachusetts-based New Balance and the company’s workforce in Maine.
“It’s not a slam-dunk … but this is the biggest step forward in the five years that we have been working on this,” said New Balance spokesman Matt LeBretton.
LeBretton was responding to letters from a top Department of Defense official indicating that, for the first time, the Pentagon would begin requiring new recruits to buy American-made athletic footwear if the shoes meet the military’s specifications.
Athletic footwear is one of the only pieces of military attire that the Pentagon has insisted is exempt from a 1941 law, known as the Berry Amendment, requiring all clothing supplied to personnel be made in the U.S. from domestically sourced materials.
In letters sent to U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox wrote that the Pentagon “has an interest in having our recruits purchase domestically manufactured athletic shoes to the maximum extent practicable.” Recruits entering basic training are now issued cash vouchers to purchase sneakers of their choice from the military exchange stores.
Fox said that while no Berry-compliant shoes are on the market, several footwear companies have shown the capability to produce the shoes “in the near future.”
“As Berry Amendment-compliant shoes come on the market, we will assess them for cost and durability to ensure they are comparable to other models available to recruits,” Fox wrote. “If one or more comparable Berry Amendment-compliant shoe models correspond to a shoe type category, only these shoes will be made available for purchase using the one-time cash allowance.”
Two shoe manufacturers – New Balance and Wolverine Worldwide – are uniquely positioned to take advantage of a new market worth millions of dollars annually.
New Balance is the only major sneaker company that still manufactures shoes in the U.S. and already has a shoe design that company officials say meets Berry Amendment requirements. The company employs roughly 900 people at factories in Skowhegan, Norway and Norridgewock.
Wolverine supplies boots to the military under the Bates brand and manufactures sneakers under the Merrell and Saucony brands.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation cheered the Pentagon’s announcement.
“This is extremely good news,” Michaud, D-District 2, said in an interview. “I have no doubt that New Balance can ramp up its production to provide these shoes.”
“This decision will create more American manufacturing jobs at no cost to the taxpayer simply by requiring the military to buy American-made athletic footwear for new recruits, just as it does for other uniform items for our troops,” Collins, a Republican, said in a statement. “Maine has a long and proud shoemaking history, and officials from the Defense Department have seen first-hand the quality work being done by the talented men and women at New Balance in our state.”
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have repeatedly pressed Obama administration and military officials to comply with the Berry amendment. Michaud, who is running for governor this year, hand-delivered a pair of personalized New Balance sneakers to President Obama and also sent Berry-compliant shoes to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Senior defense officials also toured New Balance’s Norridgewock factory last year at Collins’ request. U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, have also pressed defense officials on the Berry Amendment issue.
LeBretton said it would take time to start manufacturing the company’s Berry-compliant shoe, which is not currently in production. Factories in both Maine and Massachusetts would likely perform the work, he said.
He said winning the defense contract would be “a very significant order” representing between 200,000 and 300,000 shoes a year.
“We think this is a great step forward that the Department of Defense has recognized that they haven’t followed the law and are making a policy change,” LeBretton said. “The devil is in the details … but we are hopeful about what this would mean for domestically made footwear for the military.”