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My Intimate Story: American Products and The Challenges They Face

My Intimate Story: American Products and The Challenges They Face

made in the usaI 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.

Second, our products are subject to the most critical consumer base ever. While product regulations may seem like they’re killing jobs, not having them in place puts our products at a disadvantage in the international arena. If you’ve been watching the President lately, you’ll know one of his primary goals is to end regulations that he believes are stifling American companies. Current rhetoric often paints regulations as the enemy, making companies jump through outrageous hoops to file what “should be” an easy process to get a product to market. Because of this, our regulations often trail behind those of other world powers. For example, the U.S. was nearly 40 years late to banning lead paint in homes and children’s toys, when compared to Europe!

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.

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  • August 7, 2017

    I just wanted to “thumbs up” this article. You’re doing great!

  • August 7, 2017

    I started buying my sons’ tshirts for college at American Giant. I also bought a really nice (albeit expensive) backpack for one of my sons at Mission Workshop. The products from both companies are very nice and made here. I also bought two of your bras. Very nice!

  • Karen Mulkey
    August 7, 2017

    Excellent post!

  • August 8, 2017

    “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.”

    Are you serious with this comment?

  • LeAnn Hileman
    August 25, 2017

    You make some good points but I don’t know why larger companies are supposed to absorb losses. Don’t you realize that large companies often have shareholders and the leadership of those corporations have a fiduciary duty to serve those shareholders? Medium size companies are often family owned and operated and families are composed of the same types of people as you and I, people who have kids and financial responsibilities.

    As a person who had spotty advanced education, a course here and there, who had to support myself from age 17 on, I totally agree with changing our attitudes about everyone NEEDING to have a college degree. In fact, I am seeing many, many people who are degreed who don’t seem to me to be very smart. My biggest satisfaction for about 18 years was making money to provide for my son and I and I think earlier generations saw being able to do that as a sacred and fulfilling objective. Now we have, unfortunately, raised a much more self-seeking generation. Like everything else, I think and hope the pendulum will continue to swing until it evolves into a more balanced version of the two.

  • Melissa
    August 27, 2017

    Thank you for this article, Maddie! I agree that college is pushed to everyone and shouldn’t be. We have a great lack of skilled trade workers and it’s getting worse. College isn’t for everyone!
    I don’t know about companies having to eat costs; I suppose it depends on their size and their profit margin. As a small business I couldn’t do that at all though I’d love to. I really hope the President works to bring back American manufacturing and suppliers. I make sure that I get as much of the fabrics and notions I use from American manufacturers as I can.

  • November 11, 2017

    Good post, but it’s important to note that being able to afford to spend $60 on a bra is a very privileged position. When you’re part of the working class (as most people in manufacturing jobs are), that $60 is better spent on rent, utility bills, groceries, or medication. I understand the reasoning for higher costs on handmade items and would willingly pay more for a local product if I had the money, but $58 for a pair of panties is a luxury reserved for middle- and upper-class folks. I suppose that if you have class privilege its great to funnel your money into American products, but most of us buy the 5 for $25 at Target not because we don’t care, but because its all we can afford.

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