The presidential election is over, but the campaign's number one issue, jobs, lingers on. In today's economy, as we heard time and again in the debates and countless ads, a huge part of that issue has been the question of how we can return manufacturing jobs to the United States. From a policy point of view, the U.S. trade deficit remains a vexing, complex problem. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some simple, commonsense actions that consumers, retailers and citizens can take on their own, irrespective of who sits in the Oval Office.
As an online retailer of baby and toddler products made exclusively in the U.S., I am in a position to see an area where American manufacturing is trying to make a comeback.
Manufacturing American-Made Values
The word "manufacturing" tends to conjure images of industrial assembly lines and heavy machinery. But it's worth remembering that the word means, at root, "to work by hand." The vendors I work with range from a retired schoolteacher who crochets blankets to savvy, garment-industry veterans who have struck out on their own with smaller design ventures. Whatever the size of their respective enterprises, these are true businesspeople; I would not be able to work with them if they weren't capable of delivering products on time, season in and season out.
They are also people who are operating from a system of core values -- paramount among them, that "Made in the USA" still matters. It matters for a country where that label remains a source of pride. It matters for the environment, when it makes a real difference whether a product needs to be transported 200 miles versus 6,000 miles. And for parents, it matters perhaps most of all in terms of quality and safety.
What's at Stake
My own background is in the fashion industry. I've lived in China, overseeing production at factories there, and seen firsthand how impersonal and indifferent that process can be. As a parent of two young children, I know that what I buy for them ends up in their hands and, inevitably, their mouths. So for every piece of clothing, each doll and toy I purchase, I want to know exactly how it was made, what it is made of and where it's been. My experience tells me that when something comes from half a world away, you simply cannot know where it's been sitting, and for how long, on what warehouse floor, in what cargo ship -- and, to me, that's unacceptable. When scarcely a week goes buy without a recall of a foreign-made product, that's unacceptable, too.
What "Made in the USA" Means in a World of Choices
Being a new parent can be, let's face it, intimidating. We are presented with an overwhelming list of products that we are told we need to buy in order to be a "good parent," and then faced with thousands of choices from scores of brands. My company, Oliver & Adelaide, grew out of my own process of trying to separate the things a parent really needs from the marketing hype, and trying to find the very best manufacturers making these products here in the USA.
Very few parents have the time to undertake this kind of research, and fewer still have the opportunity to visit studios and factories. I have made it my business. In seeing for myself where the products are designed and made and inspecting the raw materials used to make them, I have discovered an impressive group of businesses that put a very personal degree of care and concern into every step of their manufacturing processes. And in meeting these suppliers, I have also discovered that they also bring real passion and pride to what they do.
Small businesses like Loop, which was founded in 2010 by two knit designers to create heirloom quality children's clothes and blankets, or Zuzii, which uses the highest-quality materials and employs traditional cobbler techniques to handcraft shoes for babies and toddlers, are making outstanding products here in the United States, and doing so with love. But without the huge sales forces and marketing budgets of larger companies that outsource manufacture overseas, they face an uphill climb when it comes to connecting with parents. And because they insist on making American products with American labor and materials, they are unable to take advantage of the mass manufacturing that drives down costs for major brands.
Good for Baby, Good for the Economy
These are the kinds of manufacturers who depend on small retailers to spread word of their products. I'm proud to play a part in that. More than that, though, they depend on parents who will make it a point to buy American -- even if it means buying fewer items, but of significantly higher quality. Births, aside from being a joyous experience for each family, are also tremendous drivers of the economy; much like house sales, they set in motion a cascade of purchases. If parents commit to supporting manufacturers who believe in the USA, I believe we can take a real step towards bringing jobs back to this country. In doing so, we may find that the answer to fixing the trade imbalance lies not with any particular policy -- or any particular candidat -- but, rather, in our own hands.
It's an approach that could benefit all sectors of our economy. Why not start with the purchases that end up in the hands of our children?