Why you actually care about “Made in the U.S.A.” (and yeah no, it’s not “jobs”)

We’ve all heard the reasons to buy “American-made,” from both companies that sell “made in USA” products to organizations that simply tout them. The biggie, of course, is “jobs” (also meaning: “the U.S. economy” overall.) But in addition to that, advocates like Made In U.S.A. Forever say reasons to buy American-made include benefits like: ethical working conditions and wages, environmental and safety standards, trade deficits, politics…

And look, all of these things — the jobs and the safety and, yes, the economy — are important. Clearly. They’re right up there with poverty, hunger, clean drinking water, human rights, healthcare, education, animal rights, environmentalism, gender equality… and any amount of other really important, Huge-Ass Problems.

And that’s precisely the problem.

Of course most of us know that all of these things matter, and of course most of us care. But we can’t make all of the Huge-Ass Problems our personal mission. Some of us may choose to take on one or two in our lives, but overall? We’re all just trying to get through the day here, and we can’t make every Pet Passion our own personal problem. We just can’t.

So you really can’t be blamed when “jobs” and “wages” and “trade deficits” sound a little too abstract when you’re being expected to pay 2 or 3 or more times as much for a pair of shorts or a crop top. You’re totally abstracted from those benefits. Beyond a vague sense of responsibility and pride, none of these reasons directly benefit you as an individual. They don’t improve the actual product itself— or your experience with it.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tangible, direct reasons that you actually do care about U.S.-produced and American-made. Ways in which you yourself actually benefit.

For instance, here are two:

1. Closer proximity = better understanding.

And better understanding = better products. 

Face to face communication

We all understand the benefit of in-person conversations. It’s the reason consultants work on-site with their corporate clients; the reason it’s rude to break up over text. Even U.S. retailers who use overseas factories still know this, and spend a lot of money flying back and forth between continents to periodically check in on production.

The more face-to-face time the retailer is able spend in person with both the consumer and the manufacturer, the better their end-to-end understanding — and the better the product.

Domestic production means that a retailer can, in theory, hear face to face feedback directly from customers in the morning and talk to manufacturers in person about it by afternoon. When there are changes to a product, it can bump up against each end faster, meaning the product is better sooner.

Context

Communication aside, there’s contextual awareness. Traditionally, manufacturing has required obscene amount of explicit and overly-thorough documentation in order to produce anything. A lot of this is CYA, but much of it is also because manufacturers are so abstracted from consumers — and vice versa.

All things being equal, who do think would better understand winter coats — someone from Alaska or Arizona? Who would require explicit, written explanation on waterproof seams, and who would intuitively understand the importance?

Maybe the coats turn out exactly identical in quality. But then: which is at higher risk of incurring additional communication and/or rework costs to get there?

2. Closer proximity = tighter turnaround time.

The standard lead time for overseas production is roughly 3 months. It can take up four weeks for shipping alone. That means that, all things running smoothly, every product runs the risk of being “3 months behind.”

This doesn’t matter as much for industries that either a.) don’t change (like American flags or little red Radio Flyers), b.) change slowly (like appliances) or c.) where all the players decide together, ahead of time, what the will consumers get (like fast fashion.)

The problem becomes a bigger deal, however, in two areas…

Early technology.

In situations where iteration speed is everything — namely, prototypes and early releases. Where getting a product to market, getting feedback, and getting the thing reproduced as quickly as possible is the entire name of the game. It matters to the players — the companies themselves — and it matters to you, the consumer, because the faster they can iterate on the thing, the sooner you get to have it made well.

Made-to-order.

Where the product isn’t manufactured until you order it, often produced directly to your own spec. Much of what we consume now is mass-produced and eagerly awaiting us on shelves (brick and mortar or e-commerce warehouses), so we don’t really care that it took 3 months to get there. This timeline, however, will matter a lot more as we move toward mass-customization, when we are no longer abstracted from production times and those 3 months are really felt.

The more direct input we get to have in a product and the more a product directly reflects it, the more important the difference between 3 days and 3 months will be to us, the more communication and context will influence quality, and the more we’ll care about how close or far away it’s made.

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