Made In The USA – But What Does It Mean?
Before Christmas, it seems like there are a number of gift guides encouraging the purchase of American made products. While this is an admirable idea, what exactly does it mean to buy products made in the USA?! It seems like a straightforward statement, but “Made in America” is more complicated than it sounds.
Personally, my wife and I are great supporters of local products. For example, we shop at the farmer’s market where we purchase nearly all of our vegetables during spring, summer, and fall, which helps us eat with the seasons. All of our meat and eggs come from our farmer Bob, who raises his cattle, pigs, lambs, chicken etc. far above organic standards. The lack of middleman means a better return for our farmer and peace of mind for us. During the winter, we go to our locally owned co-op supermarket where we are actually a shareholder. There we are able to make conscientious food choices based on clearly-labeled places of origin. It’s worth noting that we are lucky to be able to make the choice to spend more money on food, and it is a choice that may not appeal to everyone. Our eggs are incredibly fresh and make an amazing homemade mayonnaise; our local hand-rolled butter is golden yellow and flavorful from milk that is only taken from seasonally grazed cows; local non-homogenized milk comes capped with a layer of fresh cream in returnable glass bottles. For our tastes, local food is a choice we make to reduce our carbon footprint, contribute to local business, and support small farmers. In return, we get the highest-quality food, person-to-person relationships with our suppliers, the ability to reduce contaminants in our diet, and a better sense of control and understanding over what goes into our food. Because of this choice, we enjoy many benefits, but it’s also based on our rigorous pursuit of transparent information. Otherwise, how do we know what we are really putting in our mouths? For many, the ability to trust companies to provide transparent and complete information is a thing of the past.
We’re sharing this with you today because slow food is a popular concept that bears some distinct similarities to the Made in America movement. Local food, of course, has its downsides – it can be expensive, restrictive, and time consuming – and like any trend, American-made products deserve deeper consideration of the advantages and disadvantages.
Clothing & Accessories Made In The US
Here at the Gentleman’s Gazette, we are a community of meticulous clothing consumers. We like quality, style, and craftsmanship, and we’re certain you do too. Now with clothing and accessories, production is a different animal altogether from food. There are a number of aspects that speak in favor of manufacturing things in the US, namely ethics, employee safety, protection of the environment, quality, and investment into the American economy. Let’s take a closer look at them.
I think it is absolutely desirable to produce things under humane conditions, and by far and away manufacturing in the US ensures that certain standards are maintained; people earn minimum wages and are not blatantly exploited and they are entitled to work in a safe environment. However, there are other countries, like Germany, France, and Sweden, where these minimum standards are even higher and people are further protected. That’s not to say that ethical production standards cannot be established and rigorously monitored in China or Vietnam. So, overall things can be produced ethically in other countries too, but it is of course easier to control in the US.
Environmental Protection – Carbon Footprint
Another aspect of manufacturing things locally is the protection of the environment, especially the carbon footprint. If US manufacturing would use raw materials from the US, there would be less importing and shipping of goods from other parts of the world, and the carbon footprint would be lower.
However, Made in the US means just that. It only makes production claims – it does not make any claim about the input origins of your products. For example, let’s look at ties. Many producers import all the fabric, interlinings and thread from producers in China, and then quickly sew together the finished product in the US – and it’s not unheard of for a company to buy a nearly-complete product, add the last few stitches, and slap on a “Made in the –” label. The tie itself is most likely not better than if it would have been assembled in China and then shipped to the US, rather than doing it the other way round. Unfortunately, the carbon footprint of the tie made in the US in this manner is about the same as a tie which was made in China.
Also, the waste management and environmental protection in countries like China are way below American or European standards.
One of the aspects mentioned in the previous section was quality. Personally, quality is almost always the single most important factor to me, given that the products were made under humane conditions. Before you ask for the price, look for quality, because without knowing the quality there is no price low enough that would justify buying the product.
Now, to stick with the example of ties, high quality ties can be made anywhere in the world. I have seen stunning ties from all over the world including the US (check out Panta Clothing), England (see Drakes), Italy etc. – but in my opinion, the neatest hand stitching on a tie I have ever seen was from Vietnam! So, just discounting the quality of that tie because of its origin, would be unjust in my opinion. Quality is something that can be found anywhere – some areas may have a higher density of quality manufacturers than others, but at the end of the day, I can buy cheap products made in the US and top notch products made in China – and vice versa of course.
As a non-perishable, travel-resilient product, fabric can be sourced from all over the world. Now, if I have a tie that is made in the US of average craftsmanship with cheap fabric from Chinese looms, I would much prefer the tie that was made in Thailand (under humane conditions)according to the best standards from the very best English or Italian loomed and dyed silks.
While the fabrics from Europe were dyed and loomed according to stiff ecological standards, fabric of a less regulated origin may have been produced to the detriment of the factory employees’ health or the environment.
With regards to fabric, it’s important to note that American manufacturers face a dilemma. Very few producers of high quality American loomed fabric remain, having been systematically forced out in favor of less expensive production locations. Even if a suitable supplier is located, the minimum orders are often so high that only the biggest of the big can afford to buy from them.
Overall, to me, a high quality fabric from a leading loom and the quality of the workmanship is more important than the place where is it sewn together, especially if the ecologic footprint is the same.
Many times, American manufacturers justify their higher prices because their product was made in the US and it in fact costs more to produce domestically – period. However, if the American manufacturer uses cheap fabrics, it is simply not a premium product anymore.
When looking at American made products, I am often surprised about the quality to price ratio when compared to the best products available on the market – I am not talking about the cheap mass produced items from Asia that you find often times in the US. The workmanship and the quality often seem to fall slightly short of the European top manufacturers at a similar price point. Of course, brand loyalty, marketing, longstanding history and recognition have a huge impact on price. Many of the new American-made focused manufacturers are relatively new to the market, or are revivals of heritage brands, and it takes more resources for them to operate. Either way, if you want a good product, it pays to look behind the fac
ade in order to figure out where the guts of your product really come from and consider the individual elements of the product and the business behind it.
Investing in the Domestic Economy
Like our aforementioned food scenario, part of the benefit we derive from shopping locally is the knowledge that our money is going back into the economy we participate in. This is absolutely a benefit of buying American produced clothing and accessories. Despite the origin of the inputs, producers must set up workshops, buy from other local retailers, pay taxes, and hire employees, which are all desirable economic investments – assuming that they aren’t taking of the aforementioned shortcuts. In an ideal setting, the money involved in operating such a business would circulate between American consumers, suppliers, and the business itself, producing a maximum domestic benefit. Unfortunately, few American businesses can operate in that way, but the symbolic gesture of buying American-produced products still results in some local benefit.
In summary, like any form of marketing, “Made in America” isn’t as clear cut as it seems. How you make buying decisions is a matter of how you rank the importance of the characteristics of a desired product. For me, quality (after the assurance of humane conditions of production) is my foremost concern. That may or may not be your first concern. In either case, we encourage you to dig a little deeper into any claim a company might make upon which you might base a buying decision – you might be surprised at what you find.
One final note for our readers: It is important that you understand we seek to neither condemn nor endorse any one lifestyle or product choice over another. Our statements are not meant to be taken as absolutes but rather as an editorial on the importance of making choices that match your aspirations. As such, we very much look forward to reading your comments on that matter!