- Some consumers want to bolster domestic economy by only shopping for gifts made in USA
- Many blogs, websites are dedicated to vetting products that claim to be made in the USA
- For many American-made products, raw materials can only be sourced overseas
- Contrary to popular belief, made in USA is affordable if you know where to look, bloggers say
Alexia Cameron is on a mission this holiday season to only buy gifts made in America.
It may sound difficult, but it's not as hard as it seems, she says. Search "made in America" or "made in USA" online and there are several pages of resources, including her blog, Haute Americana.
The 26-year-old Ohio woman started the site in March, after doing a search for clothing made in America and finding a lack of resources dedicated to "fashion-forward" items, especially for women. Taking inspiration from men's lifestyle blog A Continuous Lean and its "American List," she began digging around for designers who manufacture in the United States and posting her findings. With Christmas around the corner, she's got a scarf for mom, a suitcase for her boyfriend, jewelry for friends.
"What it's done for me is targeted where I shop," she said. "Because I was making this personal effort to buy made in America, I wanted the money I'm spending on Christmas to go back to the American economy while I share with my friends and family brands I've come to know and love."
Her effort makes her part of a small but passionate group of consumers pledging this year to "Occupy Christmas" and buy only American-made products. Motivated by a desire to help boost the domestic economy and reverse the tide of rising unemployment, for some, it means buying American. Others patronize mom-and-pop shops or crafts fairs or buy gift cards for local restaurants or services.
The buy American movement has been gaining momentum in recent years amid the economic downturn, steady unemployment and pledges from the Obama administration to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector. A 2010 Adweek Media/Harris Poll found that 3 in 5 Americans (61%) said they were more likely to purchase a product advertised as "Made in America." In an ABC News special devoted to the topic, Diane Sawyer challenged Americans to spend $64 on American-made goods during holiday shopping, claiming that it would create 200,000 new jobs.
"A lot of consumers believe it's a way to assist in all the issues we're dealing with," said University of Wisconsin consumer science professor Cynthia Jasper. "They believe that the money spent is reinvested in the local community in terms of taxes and jobs. Many consumers, because of the economic climate, want to to support their local communities."
In reality, however, the impact is small because most Americans still patronize big box stores that rely on overseas labor, she said. But that doesn't mean the potential impact couldn't be larger.
"Most of us want food and apparel made by people who have health insurance and basic needs covered, but that all adds to cost, which is why the U.S. is having a difficult time competing with labor costs in other countries," she said. "It's a trade-off, especially in this economy."
Is made in America a luxury?
Perhaps the clearest sign of its growing popularity is the recent proliferation of websites, blogs and Facebook groups dedicated to setting the record straight. Among these communities, it's common knowledge that quintessential American brands like Levi's and LL Bean are mostly made offshore, and the latest news about Wal Mart's labor policies tends to generate heated discussion.
"What's surprised me is how passionate people are about it that " said Mike Bederman, who runs the Facebook page, "Things Made in America." "I'll get a lot of 'likes' from people who are into it just a little bit, but then there's a handful of people posting all the time and correcting me and constantly coming up with ideas."
Bederman, a social media marketer in San Francisco, started the page eight months ago after seeing a television special on products made in China and connecting it to the container ships he saw coming into the San Francisco Bay each day.
"I wanted to find affordable ways not only to stimulate the economy but to create a platform for people to share ideas," said Bederman, whose page has 808 followers.
Sarah Mazzone's holiday pledge grew out of her blog, made in usa challenge, which began with a mission to find American-made products at Pennsylvania's King of Prussia Mall. This holiday, she's trying to abide by her "ten rules for 'Occupying the Holidays'" and making gifts and buying from artists at craft fairs and online craft marketplace, Etsy.
Sure, some things cost more, especially when it comes to apparel, but not if you take into account the cost-per-wear ratio, she said.
"It's important to take quality into consideration. Replacing your wardrobe each season with cheap fashions can quickly surpass the price of a well-made American garment. Additionally, there are many high-end brands with expensive merchandise that manufacture overseas, but do not pass these savings onto the customer," she said. "For example, that once iconic American brand of Coach now manufactures their bags in China, but still charges premium prices."
Not all things American-made are out of reach for the average consumer. And, thanks to a few diligent bloggers, they're easier than ever to find.
Winter accessories -- hats, scarves, gloves, thick socks -- can be found here at the same prices or even cheaper than stuff that comes from China, said Brad Bennett whose blog, Well Spent, focuses on "honestly crafted" goods at affordable prices.
Boots and shoes also come at various price points, along with bags and all kinds of leather, he said.
"U.S.-made goods run the gamut in terms of price. While a high percentage is luxury, if you look hard enough you can find economically priced goods," he said. "But I think defining whether something is worth their cost or not, you have to think in the long term."
Sourcing made in America
Evaluating "American-ness" can be tricky, because most products manufactured in America are not made exclusively of components or raw material from America. It's not because some designers don't want to source domestically; as U.S. manufacturing has declined, so did the support industries that provided component parts. Buttons, hat bands, waistbands, shoe eyelets and shoelaces are just some items designers often source abroad because they can't find them in the States.
Outside of denim, very few fabrics are made in the United States, and what's available is very expensive, Bennett said.
"For most small brands, it's not about turning a profit, it's about keeping the door open," he said. "If they're dedicated steadfastly to producing in the U.S. sometimes they have to go abroad for materials."
Small brands also have a hard time finding domestic fabric mills willing to accommodate their orders.
"As a smaller company I can get smaller quantities from Japan and Italy that no American mill would entertain," said Eunice Lee, whose menswear line, UNIS, is produced and manufactured in California and New York. "That allows me to at least continue manufacturing here, which I like, not having to fly to China and spend months of my life over there, so I'm gonna do everything can to stay here."
That doesn't mean it's impossible, depending on what you're making. Pointer Brand's jeans, jackets and overalls are made in Bristol, Tennessee, from American-sourced denim, zippers and buttons, a customer service representative said.
Made in America also represents an opportunity for apparel makers to capitalize on the "heritage" movement, either through a style that's classic Americana or a marketing emphasis on domestic manufacturing -- or both.
"Made in America reinforces this idea of American entrepreneurship, originality and engineering, but perhaps also, the idea of returning to simpler times," said Tim Yap with fashion retail consultancy, Tobe Report. "It's that idea of taking ownership once again and being proud of what you produce. It's difficult to feel that when your product is manufactured overseas."
American boot maker Red Wing, which makes some of its products overseas, formed its "heritage division" seven years ago to market its sole line still made in Red Wing, Minnesota. In 2009, the company backed off a decision to close its factory in Danville, Kentucky, based on forecasts for demand of its product.
Since then, the division has seen consistent 40% growth each year, Dan Dahl, president of Red Wing's heritage division said.
Manufacturing in the United States allows designers to keep a closer watch on inventory and respond quicker to the demands of the marketplace, said Don Rongione, president of Bollman Hat Co., the country's oldest hat maker, based in Adamstown, Pennsylvania.
His company's experience downsizing a few years ago led to the formation of American Made Matters, which promotes businesses that manufacture in the U.S. through public education campaigns and the use of its logo.
Clothing as symbols of America
For some brands, "heritage" is built into their DNA: A hat stirs memories of your grandfather wearing it, a boot company has a rich back story rooted in the community where it's located.
The maker of the classic red and black trapper hat, Stormy Kromer, falls into this category. People get married in them and buried in them. Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones have worn them in films, said Bob Jacquart, CEO of Stormy Kromer Mercantile.
All the hats are made in the company's Ironwood, Michigan, factory, where people can tour the facility and learn the story of Stormy Kromer, a semi-pro baseball player and railroad engineer who asked his wife, Ida, to modify a baseball cap to help keep it on in the winter weather. The rest is history.
"We are the hat symbol of winter in the U.S.," Jacquart said. "People like the hat but they also like that we have a story with a very classic American theme."
More than a century later, new designers are incorporating American manufacturing into their brand identity. Katherine McMillan started designing ties and bowties while she was pregnant as a way to bring in extra income. Now, Pierrepont Hicks accessories are sold in stores across the country and online with a firm promise: "Our ties are produced in New York and will always be American-made."
Even the packaging is American-made, some of it from Etsy, McMillan said.
"I don't think the average consumer thinks about where the boxes come from, but I do. It's all part of my brand and feel like I have to stay with that," she said. "We could do it cheaper, but at the end of day, would I be able to lie in bed and worry that some small Chinese girl is working nine hours a day to help create my brand? I don't think so."
Stores are full of products claiming to be "made in the USA" but the Federal Trade Commission tends to only investigate suspicions of fraudulent claims when the stakes are high. Otherwise, it's an honor system for the most part, though there are a few third-party seals of approval that business owners can affix to their product
Florida-based Made in USA Certified adheres closely to most of the FTC standards, performing an independent supply chain audit to ensure that 75% of a product's core components are manufactured or grown in the U.S. and that all of it is assembled or "substantially transformed" here.
"Conscious consumerism has reached the point where people question what it means when a product claims to be made in the USA," said Julie Reiser, president and co-founder of Made in USA Certified. "That's where we come in, to provide consumers with assurance that what they're buying really is made here and supports U.S. jobs and manufacturing."
A mother of six, Reiser acknowledges that not everything in her home is American-made. It's not always financially feasible or possible to find everything she needs, she said.
"It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing mentality because we live in global economy," she said. "It really only takes a little more effort and thoughtfulness in that direction to make an impact. I can't control immigration or foreign policy, but I can control what buy for my family."