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Made in USA: What it means is still what it says

April 24, 2008

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

Received Documents

July 18, 1995

B18354900224

 

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

Dear Secretary:

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.

Lauren B____

Attorney at Law

Tacoma, WA

***

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?

 

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9 Comments
  1. Jim Schollaert permalink
    April 25, 2008 5:08 pm

    Lauren: I am the Executive Director of Made in USA Strategies, and I lobby ib Washington on behalf of the domestic sock industry. I live in Arlingotn VA. If you send me an e-mail I will give you my phone number. I’d love to talk to you.

  2. April 25, 2008 5:14 pm

    Jim–

    I’ll email you. I knit socks. I need a lobbyist!

  3. April 28, 2008 5:58 am

    Lauren,

    I think you will like what you find at BuyAmerican.com (www.buyamericanmart.com) — all American-made products!

    Laura H.

  4. April 28, 2008 6:05 am

    Laura,

    I don’t go to a place looking for something to buy. When I have a need for something, then I search for it–and if it’s American made, that’s certainly a plus that weighs toward my decision.

    American producers need to get back in the groove of producing things Americans need, not widgets that compete for dwindling discretionary income.

  5. April 28, 2008 6:52 am

    Wow !

    Thanks to the new “Possibly Related Posts” feature on WordPress, I found a link to your post about “Made In USA” on my blog (see
    http://routingbyrumor.wordpress.com/2007/12/11/made-in-the-usa-yeah-right
    ).

    It’s nice to see there’s actually someone who is an even more rabid proponent of that quaint notion of “Made In USA” than myself. Too bad that guy in the White House, or the people we hire to warm the seats in the US Capitol building don’t have that same commitment. It seems the only factor limiting how much we import from China is how much room is available on the containerships that are flooding our ports.

    Yes, I’ve also returned merchandise to stores after discovering it wasn’t made in USA, but unlike yourself, I didn’t give the real reason for the return …too afraid the person behind the counter would think I was some kind of crazy crusader for a loosing cause. Sadly, it seems the importance of buying American is lost on most of our fellow citizens, with attitudes like “what difference does it make”.

    I don’t feel so lonely anymore.

  6. April 28, 2008 7:14 am

    Oh yeah, almost forgot…

    Like you, I’ve been ranting about New Balance also…

    http://routingbyrumor.wordpress.com/2007/12/27/new-balance-shoes-made-in-usa-yeah-right/

    Thanks !

  7. April 28, 2008 7:40 am

    Hi routingbyrumor,

    Principled action is the real loss; pragmatism is the victor. It’s cheaper and easier to be pragmatic and just buy what is readily available and skip the label hunt. Some of us are just obsessive….

    And yeah, I just love watching the COSCO ships come into the Port of Tacoma. (That’s China Ocean Shipping Company, sixth largest container vessel company in the world, and wholly owned by the government of the People’s Republic of China.)

  8. July 23, 2008 5:25 pm

    Lauren,

    thanks so much for standing up and saying “words” have meaning”. I believe that New Balance does disclose more information about the origin of the materials in their shoes now. And I’d be glad to buy a shoe 71% made in the USA, but I agree with you that “Made in USA” should mean “Made in USA”

    Disclosure: I like my New Balances shoes a lot.

  9. July 23, 2008 6:35 pm

    So do I, Matthew. Thanks.

Comments are closed.