"Made in the USA." What does it mean? What should it mean? To tell the truth, I’ve never thought all that much about it. My inclination has always been to buy the best product, with the features that I want, at a price that I can afford. Frankly, I’ve gotten used to those products being foreign-made, to the point that I just automatically gravitate toward Honda or Bosch or Zeiss.
But this month’s cover story by Nathalie Mitard (“Made in the USA,” beginning on page 26) made me think about it. I even posed the question to my wife. I asked her, “Everything else being equal, if you had the choice to buy a U.S.-made product or a foreign product of the same quality, which would you choose?”
Without hesitation, she said, “The U.S.-made product, because it supports our economy.”
“What if the foreign product was of slightly better quality?” I asked.
“Still U.S.,” she replied.
“Is there a point at which the better quality of a foreign product would persuade you to buy foreign rather than U.S?”
She had to think about that for a bit, but then acknowledged that, sure, at some point the quality of a product wins out over origin.
So, again, what should it mean to only buy products that are “Made in the USA”? Should I buy a U.S. product out of a sort of patriotism, or should I buy a U.S. product only if it’s better? I think it’s the latter. There’s just a little bit of hypocrisy tied up with how some U.S. manufacturers want me to blindly buy domestic. They want me to “Buy American,” but they definitely don’t want their Japanese customers to “Buy Japanese” or their Mexican customers to only buy products with a “Heche en Mexico” label.
I live in the rice-growing region of Northern California. This relatively small area exports more than 40 percent of its annual rice production to Asian countries; in fact, half of Japan’s total rice imports come from here. The total value of California’s 2002 rice exports was around $183 million. The industry creates more than 5,000 rural jobs.
Can you imagine what would happen to this area if Japan decided to embark on a “Buy Japanese Rice” campaign? “Buy [country here]” sounds good except when the shoe is on your customer’s foot.
Even with all that said, Mitard is right. There’s a trade deficit and it’s partially up to us as consumers to do something about it—but we shouldn’t do it blindly. We should buy from those U.S. producers, like Mitard’s, that put out a quality product—and, I would argue, only those. The others will learn the hard way, like our consumer electronics industry did as it crumbled beneath the onslaught of better and less-expensive Japanese-made products. Some industries, like the auto industry, learned, barely, and are now producing comparable products at comparable prices.
So I agree that maybe its time that we… I… take another look at U.S. products. The next time I get ready to make a purchase, I’ll evaluate whether the U.S. product (if it exists) is of comparable quality to the foreign. If it is, well, why not “Buy American”?
This isn’t just a blind allegiance to U.S. products, but rather an allegiance to quality U.S. products. So how about this? Let’s change the slogan from “Buy American” to “Buy Quality.” If we do that, eventually the “Made in the USA” label will mean more than just the place of manufacture.