Does “Made In U.S.A.” Matter?
Less than a decade ago, American manufacturing had been left for dead. The 80’s and 90’s saw jobs slowly trickle overseas until the new century served up a final death blow: 6 million jobs gone between 2000 and 2009. 35% of the manufacturing sector wiped away in the blink of an eye.
The purge in American manufacturing also reduced the once proud “Made in U.S.A.” label to a shadow of its former self. A punch line. A scarlet letter. A sign of bad quality, bad design, or both.
It didn’t help that lobbyists and politicians had played tricks to allow goods created in U.S. territories to carry the Made in U.S.A. label. Consumers could no longer tell if a shirt was sewn by union workers in North Carolina or in a sweatshop in Saipan.
Because of all this we became conditioned to stop caring. We gave up on quality and craftsmanship for trendy logos and sales racks. We lost our jobs, and then we lost our pride.
Made in U.S.A. Reborn
But along the way something unexpected began to happen. Discerning buyers - many of them foreign - began to actively seek out American-made goods. Starting first with the fashion industry, Made in U.S.A. took on new life as a premium label.
Harkening back to a time when ‘Made in U.S.A.’ was often synonymous with ‘world’s best’, consumers gladly payed out more for vintage goods that were verifiably American-made. Century-old names like Cone Mills and Red Wing were given new life thanks to their undying commitment to craftsmanship.
Inspired by these heritage brands, a new generation of American-made companies began to spring up. Handmade denim, leather goods, bicycles, chocolate, notebooks, cosmetics, luggage, boots, watches. The range of American-made goods sought by consumers today is endless.
It’s not just independent brands, either. Even mall staples like Levi’s are returning to their American-made roots. When Apple announced that its new Mac Pro would be assembled in Austin, Texas and not Shenzhen, China, it was clear a transition had been made.
Pushed by consumer demand, American manufacturing - and the Made in U.S.A. label - has made a comeback.
More American Than America
The comeback has been so successful that we’ve reached a point that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Being associated with the Made in U.S.A. label has becomes so valuable, that there’s almost no end to the shameless attempts to lay claim to it.
Last year, Martha Stewart Living launched the American Made Awards to spotlight “the next generation of great American makers.” Nevermind that Martha Stewart Living’s own product line is made anywhere but America.
In 2012 conservative radio host Glenn Beck launched 1791 Supply Co., an American-made apparel company that sells t-shirts emblazoned with libertarian and pro-NRA slogans. ‘Buy American because freedom,’ is the brand’s implied message.
Perhaps the worst came during this year’s Super Bowl. Chrysler’s two minute buzzword-filled TV spot was nothing short of jingoism. “Is there anything more American than America?” Bob Dylan asked paradoxically. Germans brew beer, the Swiss make watches, Americans make cars. Don’t ask questions -- buy American cars because it’s what you’re supposed to do.
It’s the same type of flag draping that started this cycle almost 50 years ago.
Does Made In U.S.A. Matter?
This begs the all-important question -- is everything made in America good? Is everything made outside of America bad?
To answer it’s worth remembering how the Made in U.S.A. movement got its start. It wasn’t from politicians looking to spur job growth. It wasn’t the conservatives trying to protect us from foreign influence. It was because a small community of consumers started to ask questions about how things are made.
Where something is made is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Quality, cost, labor practices, and sustainability should all be taken into account, no matter what you buy.
At least one company is betting that this concept can stretch beyond the confines of the Made in U.S.A. label. Everlane, the San Francisco-based fashion company founded in 2010, operates under a simple slogan: radical transparency. Not only do they happily tell you how much it costs them to make a t-shirt, sweater, or bag, their website features photos and video from every factory they source from. You can even check the current time and weather at each location (seriously, go check it out).
At a time when Made in U.S.A. is the safe bet in fashion, Everlane is taking a risk by sourcing from Chinese and European factories. But it’s also giving credit to its customers in the process. Everlane assumes that if you know why they buy from those places and not from America, you will look past labels and buy based on a higher principle.
Transparency Is Everything
While the continued rebirth of American manufacturing is crucial for this country, the legacy of the Made in U.S.A. movement runs much deeper than that. It's not a label we're in search of, after all, it's transparency about how something is made.
This new demand for transparency has opened up conversations about labor practices, sustainability, quality, and the merits of old ways versus new. When we have those conversations, we push our society forward. When we engage in patriotic spending, we keep it stuck in the past.
Don’t buy American for America’s sake. Buy Made in U.S.A. products because they’re the best, because they have the greatest supply chain transparency, the best ethical standards, the best environmental policies.
Otherwise, find out who does.