BOSTON—Athletic shoe maker New Balance thinks the U.S. military is dragging its feet.
Last April, the Department of Defence announced military recruits would start using athletic shoes 100 per cent 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 Defence, 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 Defence 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 Defence 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 Defence, 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 Defence, stresses the military is committed to honouring 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.”