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DOD enforcing made in America policy for footwear

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WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Defense is enforcing a “Buy American” policy in regard to athletic footwear purchased by the military, and this promises to be a substantial opportunity for domestic manufacturers of footwear and footwear parts.

A federal law known popularly as the Berry Amendment mandates that funds appropriated by DOD may not be used for certain goods not manufactured or grown in the U.S.

Although the Berry Amendment has not been enforced rigidly in recent years, DOD announced earlier this year that it would enforce the law regarding athletic footwear, as soon as a sufficient supply of athletic shoes made entirely in the U.S. existed.

Since the announcement, New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., Wolverine Worldwide and the partnership of Quabaug Corp. and Vibram S.p.A. have announced plans designed to help the shoe firms take advantage of the enforcement.

DOD will maintain its current allowance system for recruits to purchase athletic shoes but in a modified form favoring purchases in compliance with the Berry Amendment, said Christine Fox, acting deputy secretary of defense, in an April 25, 2014, letter to Rep. Michael H. Michaud, D-Maine. New Balance and its supplier, Rogers Foam Corp., have factories in Maine.

“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 Michaud. “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,” she said.

A New Balance spokesman said that the company already makes running shoes for the U.S. Army, and that it has invested in a machine to manufacture mid-soles domestically. Mid-soles were the only part of the shoe New Balance outsourced overseas, the spokesman said.

Wolverine Worldwide, the Big Rapids, Mich.-based shoe company, issued a statement April 28 praising DOD for deciding to enforce the Berry Amendment in regards to athletic footwear. Wolverine said it has urged the Pentagon for several years to procure U.S.-made footwear.

“This policy change will ensure that the Armed Services are not dependent on foreign sources for essential basic training needs and will significantly help support the U.S. supply chain for American-made shoes,” Wolverine said.

Wolverine already is setting up a new production line for its Saucony-brand athletic shoes at its Big Rapids site, a company spokesman said.

The company sees the potential for the new line as “vast,” according to the spokesman. The new capacity should be on-stream before the end of this year, he said.

The Berry Amendment ruling also is good news for North Brookfield, Mass.-based shoe manufacturer Quabaug and Vibram, the Italian sole manufacturer with U.S. offices in Concord, Mass. Since 1964, Quabaug and Vibram have been partners in supplying the North American footwear market.

At a May 16 event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partnership, Quabaug and Vibram discussed the benefits of the Berry Amendment and announced a $1.2 million joint investment in innovation and technology to meet the demand the amendment will create.

The $1.2 million will go toward research and development, according to Mike Gionfriddo, Quabaug president and CEO. “This will be materials research and new product development, including nanotechnology to create a better performance level,” he said.

But this is only part of the Berry Amendment-related work Quabaug and Vibram have in the works, according to Gionfriddo. Separate from the $1.2 investment, the companies are jointly researching new technologies to co-mold rubber with ethylene vinyl acetate, the material that comprises mid-soles in most athletic footwear.

The new EVA research will benefit not only Quabaug and Vibram, but also customers of both companies who want to make an entirely U.S.-produced shoe, Gionfriddo said.

Quabaug and Vibram are evaluating several EVA production processes, according to Gionfriddo. The companies will make their choice of processes by June, and the new production will go on-stream at Quabaug in the first quarter of 2015, he said.

Plastics News contributed to this report.