When we say “made in America” or “made in the USA”, what do you think about?
Depending on your perspective and your level of engagement with the means of production for goods, it can mean any of four different things. Here, we’ll cover all four, with a focus on the movement.
Meaning 1: The Label
First, and related to the rest, is the label. The United States of America is a very patriotic country, so much so that many people of other nationalities often comment on it when they visit. Even our less patriotic citizens are still regularly more patriotic than average for the global population. This is, of course, entirely intentional, as the culmination of messaging over decades of post-war sociological development, none of which we’re qualified to dig into here today.
The important part is that America, for a long time, was a leading producer of many kinds of goods and services. Over time, many American companies started bringing in products from overseas or even outsourcing their production to other countries, from India to China to Vietnam to Bangladesh and many more. There’s probably not a single country in the world that doesn’t export something to America.
Naturally, as a consequence, two things happened. First, people started promoting the fact that their products were made in America (whether they were or not), and second, more and more hype was built up around products made in America as better, higher quality, or somehow more valuable. Was it always true? Not necessarily. But that’s the common belief.
Today, the Made in America label represents a lot more than just a product that was assembled on the shores of American soil. That’s where the other three meanings come in.
Meaning 2: The Marketing
People ascribe value to the Made in the USA label, and so, that label has become part of marketing.
Sometimes, businesses use it in the most superficial way possible. Their products are made in America because the fully-assembled product shipped in from China has a sticker added to it to give it a finishing touch, making some small part of the labor done in America, earning it the claim.
In rare cases, even that wasn’t happening; products made elsewhere were sold under the Made in America banner despite having never seen the hands of an American worker.
Sometimes, Made in America means the product was fully assembled, tested, and packaged up in America, but the raw materials were made elsewhere. Tier 2 or 3 suppliers from other countries contribute to the final production, but the bulk of the manufacturing from raw materials is done in America.
One representation of the “Made in the USA” label is our Homegrown tee. This particular t-shirt originates from cotton grown in North Carolina, processed in the same vicinity, and finally transformed into a wearable garment by local enterprises. From start to finish, the entire journey, from cotton cultivation to the final product, takes place within American borders.
However, it’s important to note that while the Homegrown tee follows this thorough American-based process, it is just one among various tees we offer for sale. Not all our tees follow this exact supply chain.
Marketing rules the day, though, and a problem that cropped up was this: how do you tell the difference between these categories?
Sometimes, it’s easy; a product might be stamped with “Made in Taiwan” or something under the Made in America sticker, and you can easily see the difference. Sometimes, it’s harder to tell or even impossible.
This is where the third meaning comes in.
Meaning 3: The Regulation
Marketers making false claims is a tale as old as time, and it’s one that we fight to this day.
“While transparency is an integral part of digital marketing for any brand, it becomes even more important when you’re making a high-value claim like “made in America.”
In fact, you cannot put that label on your product unless you meet the regulations set by the Federal Trade Commission. According to the FTC, a product meets the requirements for the label if “all or virtually all” of its parts are made in the United States.
If you don’t quite meet that requirement, you can make what’s called a “qualified claim.” That would be something along the lines of what you’ll find on the back of your iPhone: Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” – Inc
In response to abuse of the claims, the Federal Trade Commission has passed rules that require certain minimums for a product to qualify as being made in the USA, along with penalties for violators. You can read all about the regulations here.
Of course, this only extends as far as the regulations go and as far as enforcement can follow. That’s where the fourth, final, and (in our mind) most important meaning comes in.
Meaning 4: The Movement
The Made in America movement is an organization consisting of patriotic Americans and businesses that have signed up to be members, with an associated directory of businesses qualified to make the claim that their products are made in America. The organization was founded by Margarita Mendoza and has grown to include hundreds of businesses and many more supporters.
“The Made in America Movement is America’s oldest, non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting American businesses and the families that rely on them. We are independent and objective, which is why we’re trusted by 520,000 like-minded Americans.” – Made in America Movement.
There are a few details worth noting here.
First and foremost, the Made in America Movement is working to build a directory of companies qualified to use the Made in America label on their products. They are not a certifying body, a governmental organization, or any other authority. They don’t have the power to tell you that you can (or can’t) use the label; that authority is the FTC.
Secondly, there’s no requirement to sign up to the Made in America Movement. The movement is two things: a social movement meant to put pressure on American companies to return to American manufacturing and a marketing tool for businesses to promote their products as Made in America. You can be a company selling products Made in America without being part of their organization or directory, and you can technically be a supporter of them (though not in the directory) even if you have products not made in America.
Membership, if it’s something you want to pursue, comes with some benefits beyond just being listed in their directories. They have three plans, and while they don’t disclose what each plan entails publicly (they want you to book a call with them about it), they say the cheapest of the three is $500 per year.
Should You Join the Made in America Movement?
This one is up to you. The movement is, as we mentioned, a marketing tool. It doesn’t necessarily give you inside access to powerful tools or a network of supporters any more than the label itself does. If $500 per year doesn’t seem like a bad deal to you, it can certainly be worth a shot. In fact, if you’ve tried it, feel free to leave us a comment about what you did (or didn’t) get out of it.
That said, what you should do is promote and join the ethos. Made in America is more than a movement; it’s a creed, and it’s a means of promoting the future of American businesses and the American people.
More than that, though, making your products in America is also a powerful way to help fight climate change, promote sustainability, and reduce your carbon footprint.
Why Making Products in America is Beneficial
One of the biggest benefits of American production over production in other countries is our very strong labor laws. With a few recent exceptions, American businesses are beholden to very strict rules over the treatment of their employees. The gig economy has thrown a wrench into the works, but even that is being more and more regulated every year, and the labor rights and protections for all American workers are growing every year. 2023 has also been a fantastic year for forming and growing unions in a variety of industries, which will have beneficial effects for decades to come.
American-made, then, means a promotion of human rights and the ethical, humane treatment of the people involved in production. To once again take our t-shirts as an example; growing, harvesting, ginning, weaving, and sewing cotton is labor-intensive. After all, it was historically done with slave labor. In some parts of the world, it essentially still is. A cotton shirt made somewhere else in the world may or may not have ethical and human labor behind it; a cotton shirt made in America is guaranteed to be produced ethically.
Making products in America is also a great way to reduce global carbon emissions. It’s no secret that global shipping – whether it’s done with actual cargo ships or planes – is an incredibly massive source of emissions. When you don’t ship any of your products, including the raw materials, from overseas, you’re contributing to a reduction in those emissions.
And, sure, maybe your small business isn’t going to be making a huge impact compared to that of a global megacorporation, but it has to start somewhere, right? The more businesses that focus on promoting Made in America alternatives to foreign products, the more pressure can be put on those companies to also use domestic manufacturing.
The same impact is also demonstrated in manufacturing. Factories and farms elsewhere don’t necessarily put as much effort into chemical-free or sustainable production as factories in America typically do. It varies from place to place and from company to company, of course, but when the baseline minimum is higher, you have a higher expectation.
Quality control is also regulated more heavily in America than in many other places. Every year, there are toys and other products from overseas that have to be recalled, banned, or have consumer notices issued about them because of lead in their paint, for example. That’s not something you get with products made on American soil.
Navigating a connected world of global commerce is tricky. When you have suppliers that have suppliers that have suppliers, it can be challenging – if not downright impossible – to know every detail of every product’s materials.
“Thanks to free trade, “products are no longer made in one country and sold in another, but are rather made in the world,” said Robert Z. Lawrence, professor of international trade and investment at Harvard Kennedy School.
He pointed to cars as an example. “What happens is, components are made in a variety of countries and then assembled in other places,” Lawrence explained. “American” automobile parts are made all over the world (including in the US) and compiled into sub-assemblies, like transmissions, elsewhere (often in Mexico). Finally, these sub-assemblies are often, but not always, gathered in the US or Canada for final assembly into vehicles.
The American Automobile Labeling Act requires all automakers that sell in the US to list their vehicles’ percentage of US/Canada- and foreign-produced parts. It’s fascinating to read the complete AALA report (PDF). Ford’s most American-made vehicle, the F-150, to pick an iconic “domestic” model, is just 56 percent US/Canadian. The Honda Accord, to pick an iconic “import,” is 65 percent US/Canadian.” – Wirecutter.
This is why we use a variety of labels throughout our store. Some of our products are made with union labor. Some are made with certified green and sustainable processes. Some are certifiably American-made. We do our best to be transparent about every product we sell, and we’ll happily answer any questions you may have about any of them to the best of our ability.
Whether or not you choose to participate in the Made in America Movement and whether or not you choose to follow every rule and guideline the FTC provides as the most rigorous possible options, it’s always a good idea to focus on local supply lines, local infrastructure, local production, and sustainable business practices.
With human rights and ethics at your back, you can achieve anything.
Do you have any questions? If so, please feel free to let us know at any time! We’d love to help you out however we can.
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.