Made in USA: What it means is still what it says
In 1995, I was a new baby (but not young) lawyer, a firebrand in search of kindling. And New Balance pulled something that made me burn.
For the previous five years, I had gone to considerable and increasingly difficult effort and expense to purchase things of domestic or European origin. Specifically, I did everything possible to avoid buying anything made in China.
Computers and phones laid me low. Hardware and clothing were next. Chinese manufacturing had subsumed the marketplace by 1991.
I bought New Balance running shoes because they came in narrow widths, but I’d have worn Nikes and heavier socks if they’d been made in USA. New Balance claimed the model I wore was Made in USA. It turned out that this was 71% true. I wrote New Balance requesting an explanation and apology.
The CEO called me back. He was defensive and testy, claiming that the sole of the shoe, comprising 29% of the total shoe, was made in China–big deal. I agreed: It was a very big deal. I returned my shoes to the store, citing my reason.
The CEO’s attitude infuriated me. We had just set up our first Internet service. We went to the FTC’s website. The Agency happened, providentially, to be accepting comments on what “Made in USA” meant. I wrote a letter.
The Agency retained my brief in its archives, so I was able to retrieve it, and have reprinted it below. The upshot is, that in 1997, the FTC clarified that “Made in USA” means “Made in USA,” reaffirming the “all or virtually all” standard. The Agency asserted that the tag, “Made in USA” is a warranty.
Federal Trade Commission
July 18, 1995
July 14, 1995
Federal Trade Commission
Office of the Secretary
“Made in the USA”
6th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20580
Made in the USA is not an equivocal term; nor does its meaning devolve because of a global economy.
Made in the USA means made by American labor: market-driven labor freely chosen and compensated. All product components are implied to be made in the US; otherwise, the proper term is “Assembled in the USA from *-*-* Parts.”
New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. acted in bad faith when the company emblazoned their product with “Made in USA” labels when the soles of their shoes, constituting 29% of the product, were made in China. The practice was a deceptive affront to conscientious consumers.
I deliberately buy products made in the USA. I spend much more time and considerably more money than I would buying Chinese products. However, I believe in free-market economics and paid labor. The facts of Chinese factories manned by political prisoners and conscripted slave labor are known to Americans. I choose not to contribute to that system.
The global economy does not make it impossible to buy American goods. It simply necessitates disclosure of the origin of the various components of a product. When a shoe is created 71% in the US and 29% in China, disclosure is not difficult.
New Balance acted in bad faith when the company failed to disclose that the soles of their shoes labeled “Made in USA” were actually made in China. “Made in USA” is not a vapid advertising gimmick. It is a warranty. New Balance deployed the term fraudulently to impel conscientious consumers to purchase their products because of certain values and sentiments.
New Balance wrongfully concealed a material element of an implied contract with the consumer. The company also violated an express warranty.
“Made in the USA” is an express warranty that the product is made by people who are not slaves, who are free to work where they choose, and who are paid for their work–within the borders of the United States of America. Several federal agencies, from the Department of Labor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, are engaged in ensuring compliance with those provisions.
“Made in USA” simply means made in the USA. I fervently hope the FTC will not consider confounding a simple term to enable it to fit a despicable and deceptive business practice.
I own New Balance models 495 and 680, which I purchased exclusively because they were held out to be were American made. Had the Chinese origin of the soles been disclosed, I would not have purchased the shoes. I relied on the Made in USA warranty. I hope the models I purchased do not have Chinese soles. I have demanded assurances from New Balance, Inc.
I am particularly disillusioned with the company’s cavalier attitude toward their labeling.
New Balance should be sanctioned for deceptive trade practices. The country of origin is a material term on a product label (or why would it be federally regulated?). Improper disclosure should not be exculpated by allowing a manufacturer to redefine the unequivocal term, “Made in the USA.”
Thank you for soliciting input on this crucial matter.
Attorney at Law
So, why post this amazing historical vignette now? That’s the good part. A journalism student at Boston University who is researching “Made in USA,” read my FTC brief, and somehow located me. Mostly, I was encouraged because I’m battle weary, and here’s a young firebrand who wants to carry on the quest for clarity in America. He had some questions that I thought were competent, and I agreed to respond.
Notwithstanding the FTC’s clarifications as to what “Made in USA” means, I don’t really think very much has changed since 1995. Americans tend to think they have a “right” to buy things at the best possible price. But does that really promote competition? Is America competitive? Our sinking dollar should belie that notion.
America is a net importer of food; our communications devices, nearly all of our clothing and most of the components holding our houses and appliances together are imported. We’re importing cultural anaesthesia in countless forms. A Seattle power company, Puget Sound Energy, has been taken over by Australian and Canadian investors. What’s American anymore?