Made in USA textile tag
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Made in USA

Made in the USA — Investigating Sustainability at Home

Montana Denton
November 15, 2023

From political persuasions to environmental friendliness, buying domestic versus foreign products is a long-standing debate. However, as consumers have trended towards greater climate consciousness, many U.S. brands have increased transparency about their supply chain and are bringing manufacturing operations closer to home in the name of greater sustainability. However, what do products that are “Made in the USA” really guarantee?

What is “Made in the USA”?

Although increased industrial globalization has created a truly global economy, many American shoppers seek out the aforementioned label. From a marketing perspective, labeling has power, and “Made in the USA” is no exception. Products labeled as such feel distinctly American, and purchasing American products supports the U.S. economy, over time incentivizing companies to keep manufacturing at home and creating more jobs for U.S. workers.

American products also evoke a certain expectation of high product quality and ethical workplace conditions — while outsourcing manufacturing to developing countries is often cheaper, this cost-cutting also comes with the knowledge that products are being created in factories that lack the same strict environmental and working regulations and protections set in place by the U.S.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the official definition of a “Made in the USA” label requires that a product advertised as such must be entirely or virtually entirely made in the United States of America. This means that the significant parts, processing, and labor of each item designated as “Made in the USA” must be of U.S. origin.

Labeling Loopholes

While sourcing a garment’s supply chain is a deliberately complicated task, there are a few tips and tricks to searching for an American-made product. If you’re buying clothes in a physical store, take a look inside the garment for its care and content label, which must legally include the item’s country of origin. If buying online, navigate to a site’s style description page to see if the company’s products are “Made in the USA” (and not some similarly-phrased variation).

Given the somewhat complex and vague FTC labeling requirements, rooting out a fake isn’t always easy. While some companies are fully transparent about how they create each product, others will be noticeably more difficult to investigate. In the absence of a “Made in the USA” or a “100% Made in the USA” tag, it’s safe to assume that your potential haul isn’t made in the U.S.

While some labels of origin immediately set off alarm bells for American consumers searching for a genuine domestic product, other dupes aren’t quite as obvious. Products that contain any negligible foreign components or don’t quite meet the stringent standards laid out in the Federal Trade Commission’s 40-page compliance documentation lay in a gray area, featuring similar labels like “Assembled in the USA,” “Made in the USA from domestic and imported parts,” or “Sewn in the USA.” Although not technically lying about the origins of their products, many American apparel brands seek out labels that look, at first glance, like their domestically-regulated counterparts.

Some common things to look out for when discerning a genuine label from a false one include obvious American flag stickers or labels that aren’t officially correlated to a product’s origin. Spelling or grammar mistakes may indicate foreign production, as does a country of origin label that is not the USA. “Made in America” is another misleading tactic — technically, this could also mean the product was created in Canada or Mexico.

Quality versus Quantity — supply chain sustainability

However, even a genuine “Made in the USA” label is just the tip of the iceberg. While American products at least ascertain a certain sense of quality control that would be harder to assess from garments sourced overseas, the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act makes things a bit murkier for those hoping to shop sustainably. Clothing and other textiles are permitted to have a “Made in USA” label as long as the item was cut and sewn in the U.S. and the fabric was created in the U.S., even if the materials used to create the fabric are of foreign origin.

Many environmentally-conscious shoppers associate products that are “Made in the USA” with less carbon emissions and labor exploitation. Technically speaking, this is generally true. With products that are certifiably manufactured domestically, the U.S. government ensures that certain standards of production are being met. There are national, state, and local laws in place to guarantee workplace rights like minimum wage, overtime pay, and safety measures, as well as regulated chemical use and waste processing.

In addition to creating a relatively consistent environmental baseline, products that are made in the U.S. have a lower environmental footprint than items manufactured overseas. An item shipped cross-country domestically will use less fuel than an item sent halfway across the world to its recipient. Even better, buying locally from a farmers market or craft market reduces the need for shipping at all — and you often score a one-of-a-kind garment in the process!

According to experts, domestic manufacturing is more sustainable than outsourcing operations overseas because it is more profitable and minimizes overproduction, the worst form of waste. By keeping production closer to home, companies can not only be more innovative — analyzing marketing trends and demand more quickly and pivoting their products accordingly — but also more energy and resource-efficient.

However, no system is without its flaws. Despite the FTC’s standards of compliance, the U.S. manufacturing system isn’t always ethically sound. A 2022 investigation into the Southern California garment industry by the U.S. Labor Department found that 80% of a group of randomly-surveyed garment sewing contractors and manufacturers violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Especially amongst populations of undocumented workers employed in the textile industry, many flagrant violations go unreported for fear of deportation.

A Sustainable Scam?

Although “Made in the USA” labels come with rigorous standards, consumers should be careful to note that a domestically produced product doesn’t imply sustainability. Ultimately, there’s just no such thing as a zero-impact piece of clothing.

However, that’s no reason to fuel your shopping addiction with the latest in fast fashion. As a consumer, looking for “Made in the USA” and other labels backed by rigorous certifications (like Fair Trade) is better than shopping with zero consideration at all. In some cases, “sustainably sourced” does mean the best way of obtaining products is from outside the U.S. — and it makes sense when it comes to materials that aren’t easily grown or processed in America due to factors like climate and weather.

But taking the time to look beyond the label — be it investigating websites or speaking with customer service — and thinking critically about the materials and manufacturing of your potential purchase is well worth your time as a conscientious consumer.

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