The Problem with the “Made in USA” Label

Posted: Apr 02 2014

Anyone who lived through the ‘80s probably remembers some of that decade’s classic “buy American” ads. The ones that showed a mother trying to explain to her son why daddy lost his job at the factory, or a group of union workers singing “Buy American” songs. Those ads tried to save a struggling American manufacturing sector by appealing to consumers’ sense of patriotism, but the message was largely ineffective and mostly forgotten by the time the ‘90s tech boom hit. Only, a decade later, the message reappeared as the US entered its Great Recession.

Except, this time, they were different. Instead of appealing to our sense of nationalism, the “Made in USA” label is now about “traditional manufacturing” and even luxury. It’s no longer “buy American” so Joe Six Pack can have a job. It’s “buy American” so you can have a premium product.

The problem is that, while there are still pockets of good manufacturing in the US, there’s also a lot of stuff that’s bad. There’s a reason, after all, why many American factories closed, and it wasn’t always because of cheap imports. With the new “Made in USA” label came a slew of newfound “heritage brands” that have been all too eager to cash in on the trend. Some sell well-made things; some don’t.

Some don’t even really sell American-made goods at all. Country-of-origin labels do a poor job of reflecting the complex production chains that go into manufacturing nowadays (in apparel or otherwise). Take a suit, for example. Wool these days can be sourced from Australia, then sent to Scotland to be spun into yarn, England to be woven into fabric, and then Italy to be “finished.” And that’s just for the cloth. Canvassing and trimmings can have their own complex production chains, and then, all of these components can be sent to the US for assembly just so a “Made in USA” label can be slapped on at the end.

To be sure, the government has regulations for what a “Made in USA” label must mean, but much of the call is subjective. It’s common to see products assembled from wholly foreign-made components, and be cheaply stitched together somewhere in Los Angeles. Those products are sold as American-made, even if the term is applied very, very loosely.

Of course, with some things, nothing else can be done. The little nose pads you see on sunglasses, for example, can only be sourced abroad because there are no American manufacturers for it anymore. But in other things, such as buttons, there are still US button factories that get passed over for foreign ones. The US factories make good buttons, too.

As with everything, it’s useful to not assume that the entire story of a garment can be read off a label. There are some brands that are selling American-made things that are both well made and meaningfully produced in the US. There are also brands that aren’t. Every “Made in USA” label doesn’t mean the same thing.

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