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Guilt-wracked consumers know what they should do

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Rick Droppo believes in Canada's clothing industry. The big question is: Will consumers like you believe in the made-in-Canada shirts his new Cambridge factory turns out?

Without doubt, Droppo has done something extraordinary -- he's built a new business on the ruins of an old one. On March 8, the John Forsyth Shirt Co. closed its Cambridge plant and threw him and 109 other people out of work. Less than a month later, Droppo rehired 40 employees, reopened the facility and restarted production of dress and sports shirts and uniforms. Canadian-Made Apparel was born.

That's a huge achievement that required working out a deal to buy the closed factory's equipment as well as persuading private investors to provide backing after the banks said no. In different times, all this would be enough to earn this budding entrepreneur the praise of his community without qualifying as a matter of vital public concern. But Droppo's foray into running a business comes at a critical time for our economy.

This nation's manufacturing took a drubbing in the Great Recession of 2008-09. While a significant number of Canadians -- 1.5 million -- worked in manufacturing jobs in 2011, that was 314,000 fewer than in 2004, a 17 per cent decline.

But not only are Canadians worried about foreign factories taking on the work once done here, they are increasingly and justifiably concerned about the horrific working conditions that are the norm in some of those overseas factories. The collapse of a Bangladeshi factory building that killed more than 400 clothing workers last month appalled Canadians.

The realization that some of the products made in this death trap were being sold in this country led to even more soul-searching. Wouldn't it be better if employees in Canadian factories made these clothes for decent wages and in safe conditions?

Droppo has come up with his answer. What reply will he receive from consumers?

The federal government's recent cancellation of incentives that had helped keep clothing production in Canada clearly annoys Droppo. But introducing new protectionist measures isn't the answer -- for him or the rest of this country.

Canadian consumers benefit from being able to buy imports. Competition leads to better quality and prices for manufactured goods. Spending less on one item -- domestic or foreign-made -- frees up money people can spend elsewhere, and that includes on other Canadian products.

Trade is also good for Canada and a pillar of our economy. Roughly a third of this country's annual gross domestic product comes from what it exports. As for Droppo's venture, while he obviously hopes for strong domestic sales, he is already selling to buyers in the United States and Japan. Raising new trade barriers won't guarantee his success, either.

For many reasons, people in Waterloo Region, which once had but has lost a thriving clothing industry, will be cheering Droppo and hoping for his and his employees' success. Perhaps the Workforce Planning Board of Waterloo Wellington Dufferin, which has launched an initiative to boost local manufacturing, can help him out.

But a large part of the fate of this new enterprise lies in the hands of ordinary Canadian consumers. If it is truly important for them to buy what is made here, even if it should cost a little more, they know what they must do.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2013 A13

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