Made in the USA: Why It Takes a Village to Make Ethical Merch

You’ve seen the infomercials and their aggressive, repetitive messages: Buy direct! Cut out the middleman! Save 35%!  

Entire retail franchises have been built on the idea of cutting out the beleaguered middleman as if he’s public enemy #1. At face value, all this advertising makes it look like the middleman doesn’t do anything except raise prices and add complexity to your supply chain. 

But the truth is a good merch partner adds tremendous value. And even if you think you’ve found a vendor that has everything you need under one roof, that’s not always better. It might seem faster, cheaper, and more reliable to house every possible need in one Willy Wonka-style warehouse. But it’s just not realistic, and it’s not even beneficial to the end consumer. Here’s why.  

High-Quality, Ethical Merch is Always a Team Effort 

Any type of merchandise requires a network of different capabilities to produce.

Think about a t-shirt. First, you need the actual textiles, dyers, cutter sewers and finishers. Then you need a design. Next, someone has to create, print, embroider, or emblazon that design on the shirt. (When your merch is closely connected to your mission, you’d also better ensure those garments have a union bug.) And finally, the product must be packed, shipped, and delivered to the right place at the right time. 

One single warehouse can’t possibly handle all that, especially since USA-made and union-created merch all come from specific production shops. 

Want a union-made hat? There’s one shop in New Jersey that makes them. Looking for screen-printed union bumper stickers? Again, there’s only one shop, located in Kansas, to get them. Metal water bottles your jam? These can only be found in Washington (USA made) or Pennsylvania (union made). 

Therefore, anyone peddling union-made goods from their own shop is still getting the actual products from a specific existing network of union manufacturers. It’s always a team effort. And that means a good merch distributor is sourcing products from best-in-class manufacturers to ensure the products you get meet your quality and ethical standards. 

How The Middleman Brings All the Merch Pieces Together 

If merch is always a team effort, you need a solid quarterback driving the play. 

That’s your middleman. The middleman (aka merch partner) doesn’t just know how to find products and get them to the end destination on time. They know how to source the precise products you need

Let’s look back at our t-shirt example. A good merch partner won’t just take your order. They’ll offer a value-add. For example, knowing that 90s styles are popular right now, they might present options that include a vintage-look heathered t-shirt with a burnout logo that fits your needs and excites your supporters. 

The middleman also speaks the language of each supplier. Vendors don’t have the bandwidth to chat with each campaign manager looking for information about the specifics of every product. The middleman liaises with the vendors, understands the manufacturing processes and decoration techniques, and has the knowledge to answer your questions.

What’s Happening Behind the Merch-Making Scenes? 

A lot goes on to produce merchandise, whether a t-shirt, mug, bumper sticker, or hat. Behind the scenes, the supply chain has to go through: 

  • Discovery and Ideation: Deciding what you need and coming up with ideas.
  • Sourcing: Finding the products that match your ideas and making sure they’re the right fit for your campaign, from both a quality and an ethical standpoint.
  • Graphic development: Refining existing designs or creating new graphics that work with your chosen products. The same graphic dimensions (and usually design) that works for a polo shirt won’t work for a coffee mug. 
  • Pre-press: Mocking up the designs, formatting artwork correctly, checking the colors, and ensuring that the first print comes out right so that the rest of the batch is perfect.
  • Production: Manufacturing the products and ensuring a consistent result. 
  • Printing:  Is in and of itself a complex maze of different processes that can make or break a product:  Screen printing, Pad Printing, Embroidery, Laser Etching, Sublimation, Offset, Digital,  DTF,DTG and so many more.  We can help you match the right print to the right merch to make the perfect item.
  • Distribution and Fulfillment: Getting the goods from where they are produced to where they are needed and making sure they are addressed to the right contacts and delivered at the right time.  Some projects require one shipment to one address.  Others dozens, hundreds or thousands.
  • Follow-up and Ancillary Services: Providing support after the products are delivered or sold (e.g., customer service for your team or for the supporters who’ve donated and received your merch.)  

That would be a lot to house in one warehouse, which is why it simply can’t be housed in one warehouse. 

Don’t Cut Out the Middleman — Get the Most From Your Merch Partner

As a campaign manager, your job is to know your audience and your mission and understand how to get the word out about your campaign or case. Merch is just another avenue to fulfill your objectives. 

You can’t do it alone. Just as you rely on external partners of all kinds to reach your audience, a merch partner focuses on the behind-the-scenes efforts so you can market and communicate with your supporters. Distributors and middlemen are essential parts of the equation. 
By choosing the right merch partner, you can make your experience seamless and effective. Because we have knowledge, expertise, experience, and solid relationships with union manufacturers and suppliers, we can bring you the best quality products for the best value.

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