I have a challenge for you. Look in your closet and check out the tags inside your clothing. Now, tell me how many pieces you have that are labeled “Made in the USA,” or even better, “100% Made in the USA.” If you’re like most Americans, the number is probably low. Surprised? Well, unfortunately, you shouldn’t be. Even in a time where small business support is growing and pride for American products is shouted from Capitol Hill, American companies face enormous obstacles to being truly home grown. There’s the more obvious issue of costs; we’ve all heard how companies move offshore to save. Then there’s the fact that even if you want to, finding raw material suppliers in the US is incredibly difficult.
Perhaps the greatest obstacles are two you haven’t thought of before. First, our mindset regarding manufacturing jobs has changed drastically over the past 50 years. It can be up to 80% more expensive to produce a product in the U.S. The cost increase comes out of some very good American ideals. We have high standards for worker wages and workplace quality as well as labor restrictions on overworking. It might be easy to say that companies should swallow the cost, but this mostly applies to larger corporations. For startups, it might not be feasible and could be crippling to the bottom line.
Let’s say you’re a business owner, and you’ve found an American supplier as well as a way to absorb the cost. You’re ready to open your manufacturing plant… except, wait!, you have no higher level workers. See, 50 years ago, manufacturing jobs were respected, and a large portion of Americans fed their families by working a manufacturing job. In the last few decades, however, we’ve had a massive shift in how we view blue collar work. Enrollment in Liberal Arts colleges continues to rise, but vocational schools suffer from lower and lower interest every year. Kids who, years ago, would have automatically (for better or worse) graduated high school and joined their parents at manufacturing jobs, are now off to Ivy Leagues. Having respect and ambition for Liberal Arts studies is great, but with it brings a cultural disrespect for those who don’t “live up” to our standards. We don’t ask IF people are going to college, just WHERE. Our mindset has changed to view trade learning as “lesser than,” and it’s creating a huge skill gap. The older generation of “company men” are starting to retire in droves, so the current manufacturing workforce has 30-year experts leaving and very few young people to fill their spots.
At the same time, we as consumers are more discerning than ever. We read ingredient lists with a keen eye. We price compare, but we also seek organic, BPA-free, child-safe, 100% cotton. And,when a product fails to meet our standards, or worse, is exposed as unsafe, we the public are ready with pitchforks in hand. We see this in online reviews, on Twitter and Facebook, and in conversations with our friends. More importantly, we see it through lawsuits that help ensure that every consumer has a voice. While the idea of going to court is scary, it’s nice to know that American consumers stand up and demand higher quality. You can learn more about some of the biggest lawsuits happening now here.
You may be thinking that the road seems pretty bleak for American products, but my telling you all this isn’t to discourage you. First off, be heartened by the fact that there are companies who are doing all the right things. They are putting American workers at the forefront, doing the legwork to find those few suppliers, researching safety and creating the best possible products. For the rest of America, here are my thoughts and suggestions on how to help steer us in the right direction.
For cost issues, I believe bigger companies should try to absorb the hit, and be transparent about it. Heck, promote it! Consumers will thank you, and likely, loyalty will follow. Why? Because people want to buy from people, not companies. Doing this – you’ll have a more “personal” touch. For startups, there are options for “lean” manufacturing, but also consider angel investors who want to take a shot at an American-born company. This was something I considered for Madalynne Intimates.
As consumers, I also think we need to be a bit more forgiving on price for American companies. We have to consciously choose to support home grown products, even if it means spending more at the store. Yes, I know a $58 dollars for a pair of panties or bralette is more than the 5 for $25 at Target, but there is story behind it. The story is me. Just as suppliers followed manufacturers overseas, the more American companies choose to move back, the greater incentive there will be for old suppliers to follow suit and new ones to set up shop here at home.
I also believe the mindset issue is something we all need to actively combat. Choosing a vocational school, or heading to work straight out of high school, shouldn’t be thought of as a failure, a means of settling, or less than. I’m a college dropout – I left school when I got a job with Urban Outfitters in technical design (you can read my story here). I don’t regret the decision one bit. If you doubt that a bachelors or masters degree is a must, I dare you to try to fix your engine the next time your car makes a weird noise. Better yet, try sewing on a button that falls off (I’m surprised how many people DON’T know how to do this). Parents, if your kid wants to write the next NY Times bestseller, read every draft. If they want to be a carpenter, fill your home with their beautiful furniture. If they want to make American steel, tell them you’re proud, and celebrate every promotion with a huge party. Success comes in so many different packages, and we need to learn to appreciate it in every form.
In the end, consumers are judge and jury. Support and loyalty for products is a choice we all get to make every day. So support local businesses. Support young people. Support regulations. And demand that American products are not only great, but the greatest.