My friends and family wonder why I spend so much time on this website. According to consumer polls, most Americans don't know or care where products are made, and if asked will say only that they would buy American-made products if the cost were the same or nearly the same as the imported versions.
With our single-minded pursuit of low prices, we have attained unprecedented levels of material possessions, but what have we given up? The answers are all around us if we would but look. The more I read and listen, the more reasons I find to pay attention to where things are made.
The purpose of StillMadeinUSA.com is not to stridently criticize, but to gently persuade. The decision to be an informed consumer must come from within. Below I suggest some reasons why consumers should care about looking for products that are made in the U.S.
Jobs and Communities
The loss of American manufacturing jobs is more than a trend line on a graph. It has meant hardship for families and entire communities. Closed and abandoned buildings, lost retirement pensions, lost hope. Domestic companies that seek to keep production in the U.S. face daily battles against lower cost production in other parts of the world. Some U.S.-based manufacturers win out because they can deliver product more quickly to a changing market, their reputation for quality or company ethic creates loyal customers, and/or they have innovated to keep costs down. Many, however, are barely hanging on, and unless consumers make an effort to support them, the choice to buy American-made will be gone.
Some widgets are just widgets, and we don't really care where they are made. Other products, however, are part of our cultural identify, representing regional history, craftsmanship, and pride. The closing of Camillus Cutlery, the end of Fenton Art Glass (or maybe not!), the loss of a furniture-making tradition, the closure of textile factories. True, times and economies change, but the accumulating closures and outsourcing have left us poorer in ways that are deeply felt but hard to quantify.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor)
Textile Plant Closings
Jobs and Wages
Product Quality & Safety
The recent epidemic of product recalls--toys, pet food, vitamins--brought home to many consumers that imported products may not be as subject to regulation and inspection as we would like. I do not say that imported products are inherently unsafe, just that it is harder to do "quality assurance" on production that is subcontracted out half-way round the world.
Consumer Product Safety Commission
Environment and Working Conditions
The market for "green" products has continued to grow, and companies are more likely now to discuss their "carbon footprint" or green sourcing practices. Some of these claims to greenness are suspect, but even then the changes mean that business is listening to the consumer voice. The Buy Local movement stresses purchase of items grown or produced "locally," although the definition of "local" varies. Buying from U.S. companies often means reduced transportation impacts (from shipping of inputs and finished products), and cleaner, more energy-efficient production relative to imported products from less developed nations.
From a worker welfare perspective, a recent article in the New York Times made the point that as American consumers fretted about lead levels in toys imported from China, many Chinese workers are exposed every day to dangerous working conditions as they make the products we buy.
U.S.-based multinational firms may either be complicit in, or a force against, the use of child labor, sweatshop working conditions, and unsafe workplaces. However, it is nearly impossible for shoppers to know the conditions under which goods are produced. Buying American-made products offers some assurance that production is in accordance with U.S. labor laws and workplace safety regulations.
Co-op America: an excellent resource for finding businesses that meet environmental and sustainability criteria. The Green Business Directory includes U.S. businesses, as well as "fair trade" shopping opportunities.
Simply put, the U.S. buys more from other countries than it sells. In 2007, the trade deficit in goods and services was
$711.6 billion. If the surplus in services is removed, the trade deficit for goods is even higher, at $815.6 billion.
Although a significant portion of the trade deficit is for imported oil (about 30% of the trade deficit for goods), consumer goods account for fully 40 percent of the trade deficit for goods. Balance of trade is influenced by changes in currency valuations, trade policies, and other factors. However, there is no denying that each of us contributes to the demand for imported goods when we shop.
U.S. Trade Deficit. Look for yourself, but on the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, I did a pie chart ...
Competitiveness and National Security
Several years ago, I had an email exchange with a purchaser for Army mess halls in North Carolina. He was chagrined to discover that the available dining hall silverware was all made in China. While a war effort would not likely fall for lack of knives and forks, it made the point that we are vulnerable in areas where we have no domestic production of critical goods.
In a non-military sense, our economic competitiveness is threatened when we lose the edge on crucial skills and cutting-edge technologies. This gets back to the jobs issue, and what fields of employment will be viable for our children. A professor in manufacturing engineering told me he worries about whether his students will be able to find work...is manufacturing design and engineering a vanishing field in the U.S. labor market?
An Economist Rethinks Free Trade - by Paul Craig Roberts (excerpt)--the article that got me motivated.
"The U.S., the world's high tech leader, has the export profile of a 19th century third world colony ...
Today our trade deficit is driven by imports of energy, consumer goods, and manufactured goods...
What does the high tech U.S. economy export? Are you ready for this?
Hides and skins, metal ores and scrap, pulp and waste paper, tobacco and cigarettes, rice, cotton, coal, meat, wheat, gold, animal feeds, soybeans and corn."
American Jobs: An important film documentary and book on the loss of U.S. jobs and technology to foreign competition; a very thought-provoking work by first-time filmmaker Greg Spotts.
Can American Manufacturing Be Saved? (book excerpt): a thoughtful and well-researched book on the topic by Michele Nash-Hoff