There was once a time in this country when nearly every consumer item was manufactured here. "Made in The U.S.A." labels seemed to be everywhere, and on almost everything a person could buy. That is certainly not the case anymore, and the country has transitioned from depending on domestic manufacturing to having a service economy. According to a recent Washington Post article, as recently as 1990, manufacturing was the primary industry in 36 states, and nowadays that number has fallen to only seven.
Certain types of consumer goods are almost entirely manufactured in other countries now, and a person would be hard-pressed to find computers or other electronics made here. That is old news, but recently I was going through some old concert shirts from the early '90s, and noticed that all of them had been made here. It got me wondering just how difficult it could be for the average person to find basic off-the-rack clothing items that were manufactured in the U.S.
I decided to conduct a very informal experiment:
I would go and randomly check tags in several of the larger clothing retailers that are common and accessible to many people. The stores I chose to visit were a Walmart, a Target, a Nordstrom Rack, an Old Navy and a Kroger Flagship that has a large clothing section. I realized that there are plenty of other places that the average American can shop for clothes, but the chosen stores are all major chains and would serve to show whether or not much apparel is made in the United States anymore. Other than just browsing the selection of clothing randomly, there wasn't any other plan in place, and it's possible that some glaring exceptions were missed. Be that as it may, here is what I discovered.
Looking at several items in Target's women's and men's clothing sections, I was unable to find anything manufactured in the United States. A man's shirt sporting a nifty nautical theme seemed to be typical for the store — It was manufactured in Indonesia.
4. Old Navy.
Browsing through Old Navy's selection of casual clothing for men, I was unable to find anything made here. A pair of loose-cut jeans was manufactured in Bangladesh, and a hoodie emblazoned with "Old Navy" across its chest was made in Indonesia. There seemed to be a pattern developing...
3. Nordstrom Rack.
Since this retailer is the less expensive outlet for Nordstrom, I wasn't really sure what I might find inside. The first item I looked at was a pair of women's denim jeans branded as "Paige." They were marked at $79.97, and were "Made in the U.S.A."! Well, "Made in the U.S.A." from imported fabric and components, but it was still an interesting surprise. Some analysts claim that it's basically impossible to find clothing or many other consumer goods that are entirely manufactured in the United States anymore. Even items assembled or built in this country still use materials with origins outside of its borders. It's not limited to clothing either. Even flag-waving, image-conscious companies like Harley-Davidson use foreign components these days. Moving on...
Feeling emboldened by the first pair of jeans, I headed across the store to the men's section. Seeing a pair of Dockers khaki pants, I looked at the tag. Perhaps they would be made domestically, too? Nope. The Dockers were manufactured in Cambodia. To be fair, at $29.97, they were significantly less expensive than the women's jeans I'd just looked at. Then I spotted a table stacked with Levi's and knew I needed to investigate. The first pair I picked up was reasonably priced at the same $29.97 that the Dockers had been, so I wasn't holding my breath when I looked at the tag. China. The Levis were all manufactured in China. They also seemed to be made from a lighter denim than I recall the older ones being made of, but that impression might have just been some weird form of denim nostalgia creeping in.
It's become fashionable to hate on Walmart and its customers over the past few years, but that's often seemed like a form of classist snobbery to me. It's fair to say that the company has been in the news fairly often with reports that it's abusing employees or criticisms that the key to its low-price policy is selling almost nothing but foreign manufactured goods. I hadn't been in a Walmart in years, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but I wasn't holding out much hope that the biggest retailer in history would carry an extensive line of American-made clothing. The first few items I ran across weren't surprising — A woman's shirt that was made in Nicaragua, and a pair of stretch denim jeans manufactured in Egypt. Then I came across a goofy shirt adorned with Homer Simpson across its front, and was a little shocked to see that it was "Assembled in Haiti of USA fabric." An example of the strange international nature of manufacturing these days — fabric made here, shipped to Haiti to be made into a Simpsons shirt and then sent back to be sold at Walmart.
Noticing a section of University of Texas-branded apparel, I took a look at a shirt's tag. Paying homage to a Texas college on the front, the shirt was made in Bangladesh. A row of UT hats was nearby, and they were all manufactured in Vietnam. Finally, I saw a rack of vintage-style Wrangler western shirts, and checked the tag. The snazzy-looking pearl buttoned shirt was also made in Bangladesh. As I was walking toward the store's exits, I saw an end cap displaying American flags, and decided I had to investigate. I'll admit that I was really worried about what I might find, as an old-school western shirt made in India was a little depressing, but an American flag made somewhere else would be truly awful. Fortunately for my sense of patriotism, all of the actual flags I saw were made in the U.S.A. I can't say the same thing for a silly American flag party hat hanging in the same section. That star-spangled atrocity was made in China.
Kroger Flagship Store.
Recently I'd noticed while grocery shopping that the Kroger I frequent had added a large clothing section. I decided to check it out, since a lot of people seemed to browse the clothes there. My findings were "interesting." Immediately I was drawn to a display with more patriotic imagery crammed into it than a 4th of July party. Looking at an apron that would make Betsy Ross blush, I quickly discovered the thing was made in Pakistan. There was a row of shirts beneath it with "Freedom" and an eagle across their fronts. These also had a Bible verse where the tag would usually be, but after searching for a moment, I found it — Manufactured in Honduras. Central America, not the United States. Everything else I saw was made in countries outside our borders, until I spied a bunch of Carhartt jackets along a wall. These were made in the U.S., and I didn't see anything indicating that they were made here from fabric and components originating somewhere else. I was shocked. The jackets were about $80 but heavy duty, and would probably last for years, so that doesn't seem like a ridiculous price. With this victory secured, I decided to leave the store. Then I saw a stack of Carhartt shirts, and decided to look at their tags. Made in Guatemala. I left, feeling that I'd seen enough.
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I knew going into this experiment that certain iconic American brands like Levi had shifted almost all of their manufacturing to other countries, but still had a few items made in factories here. For instance, the company still offers a line of domestically made 501 jeans, but they're available only online or in a very limited number of brick-and-mortar locations. The current online price is $138, so a pair of new American-made Levis will set a person back a few bucks these days.
Prices like that are out of reach for a lot of people in this country, and high prices are one of the reasons that so many companies have gone to other countries to manufacture their products — Even with shipping and other associated fees to get things to the United States, it's still a lot less expensive than making those products here. Of course, this raises a whole bunch of questions. Is the quality of clothing made elsewhere as good as when apparel was mostly made here? And what about human rights concerns? Are the people working in foreign factories exploited or treated inhumanely? There have been notable disasters, such as a 2013 building collapse in Bangladesh that resulted in 1,129 deaths and 2,515 additional injuries in a complex that housed several garment factories. This led to international criticisms that those retailers needed to pay better attention to the conditions in their foreign factories.
Finally, there are concerns about whether or not it's harmful to this country when almost everything we buy is manufactured somewhere else. That is a complex issue, and there are people on both sides of it. However, on a purely emotional level, it's really strange seeing patriotic shirts with flags all over them and finding that they're made in another country. Is that what American "freedom" is really about these days?