There’s a lot of talk about being “Made in America” these days. It’s ever present in car commercials, but when you go beyond that there aren’t many industries that are known for American manufacturing. Sure, you’ll occasionally spot a “Made in America” label while shopping but you’re probably taking notice of it because of its rarity. It’s more likely that if you think of “Made in” labels, your mind first goes to every trinket you have in your house from the past 20 years having “Made in China” imprinted on the bottom or your wardrobe that ranges from Bangladesh - to Vietnamese-made. In fact, unless you are a pilot or Secretary of State, your housewares are likely more well-traveled than you are. So while there’s a lot of talk about products being made in America, what happened to that being a reality?
We arrive at this topic because American-made is an important focus at Eco Promotional Products, Inc. (EPP). While not possible for all the products we offer, we always look to incorporate American made products into our inventory. Throughout the course of our research and working with manufacturers, we’ve learned that Made in America isn’t as black and white a term as you may expect. For example, we recently learned that one of our products that is listed as Made in America comes with some fine print that we find pretty significant. This particular product is made from recycled materials from the US. However they are shipped to China, manufactured into the new product and sent back to the US to be coated and imprinted. After some research we learned that labeling this product as “Made in America” is perfectly legal. As the Federal Trade Commission defines it, a product can be called American made if “all or substantially all” of the manufacturing costs come from the US. In this particular product’s case, around 70% of the economic investment of the finished good comes from the US.
This example teaches us that it’s legally allowable for a product to be primarily foreign-made as long as there is a significant American investment but we can hardly imagine that’s what comes to mind to the average consumer when he or she reads “Made in America.” So what does this term mean to Americans? To many, buying American means their money is being put right back into our economy and our hard-working citizen’s paychecks. As more and more items are made abroad, many have observed a poorer quality coming from foreign markets than had previously been produced at home; purchasing American-made holds the expectation of a higher standard than is generally accepted these days. And mostly, the label of “Made in America” holds a sense of pride to the consumer. Think of the outrage that erupted at the 2012 London Olympics when it was revealed that the USA team uniforms were made in China. Simply put, Americans have a special spot in their heart to know something is made in America.
A 2004 Zogby International poll found that 71% of Americans feel that outsourcing jobs hurt our economy. Unfortunately, in spite of this sentiment held by most Americans, over the past 50 years as company executives saw the economy benefits of outsourcing, we have gotten farther away from being a country that thrives on its manufacturing industry and more to a country that conceptualizes and sends its designs abroad to be built. Taking jobs abroad accounts for over 11.6 million jobs lost since 1979. Instead of going directly back into the US economy, money from our purchases go to poor working standards for factory workers and less regulated materials going in to those products that we then bring into our homes and expose to our loved ones. Consider Apple. Thought of as this great American success story, by a quick view of their website you’ll see how they boast of how many jobs it has created in the US. Digging a little deeper, you’ll find that manufacturing of all parts and nearly all assembly* is done abroad. Sears is another example of a company that couldn’t resist the temptation of outsourcing. Long held as a company that prided itself on its American-made Craftsman tools, Sears recently began transitioning the production of its tools abroad and misleadingly continued using the “Made in America” label, narrowly escaping a class-action lawsuit last year on a technicality. The actions of large corporations are not the wishes of Americans but in spite of this fact, the manufacturing industry has continuously decreased since the 1970s.
Still, as we see more companies make this transition, the public’s outcry has become louder as awareness and fear for the economy and environment increases. According to the Perception Research Services International, 76% of shoppers would be more likely to buy a product because of the “Made in America” label. As Made Movement’s David Schiff put it, “Buying American-made goods has become personal.” We identify with this label; it elicits patriotism and pride to know that in our global marketplace, America is still a manufacturing country that supports its citizens and can produce quality goods. There’s a clear impetus from our citizens to reverse what has been done over the past 50 years; only time will tell if this is enough to bring this industry back.
So we know the manufacturing industry is a fraction of what it used to be, we know that the sentiment of Americans is one of wishing it would return and we’ve seen a small degree of that increasing in the US of late. That brings us back to where we started – the issue of questionable labeling of Made in America products. This article isn’t here with any great answer or solution to this issue. It’s poised to leave you as the reader deciding what you think “Made in America” means. We know that we are no longer a country that can produce everything we need. Entire industries have already shut down the last of their American factories; you can no longer find American-made flatware, cell phones, steel rebar, laptops or incandescent bulbs. But the statistics show that Americans want American-made? Are we headed in the right direction? Even if deception has crept into the “Made in America” label, is it still a good sign to see more of these labels popping up or does the deception indicate to us that the only way we’ll be involved in manufacturing anymore is through investments? It seems like solid, American advice to still seek the “Made in America” label but knowing what we know now will we ever recapture the true American manufacturing that we’ve idealized in our minds?
*After some bad press about work conditions abroad, Apple has begun to assemble some of their products in the US again but its worth noting that this is the third time they have initiated a US manufacturing program; the first two attempts only lasting a few years each.