All the uncertainty that has flustered the economy has brought renewed attention to the state of US-made products and the importance of “buying US.” Since the 1980s, the world has gotten smaller at a nearly exponential rate and communication became easier and shipping became less expensive. As a result, the economy became more global, with imports and exports spanning continents. Over the decades the USA has helped other countries build their infrastructures. We helped food companies build their production facilities and formulations. Today, products in other countries are tremendously better quality compared to 25 years ago. This makes brands from the USA more difficult to sell.
On the one hand, there’s the simple cost. While nearly 80% of Americans claim they would like to buy American made products, citing their desire to keep jobs in the US and boost manufacturing, few hold fast to that claim. According to an AP-GFK poll distributed in 2016, American consumers expressed that they would be willing to spend less on a foreign-made product than more on a US-made product. Furthermore, the Chicago Tribune, who reported on the story, noted, “Nearly three in four say they would like to buy goods manufactured inside the United States, but those items are often too costly or difficult to find.” The survey took answers from 1067 US adults over the age of 18 last spring.
While it makes sense that consumers would naturally want to spend less where possible, there’s more to the fate of US-produced goods than simply price to make things complex.
Most polls indicate that Americans recognize that the quality of US-produced goods is superior to those imported from China. According to an AOL report, “a majority of shoppers — 56 percent or more — agreed with the statement that “American-made products have higher quality than imports.’” To that end, most Americans will pay more for what they perceive to be better quality. As reported in the New York Times in 2013, Americans generally understand that when they buy American, the higher cost is indicative of higher quality.
One notable exception, though? Walmart. Most retailers chose not to compete on price with foreign goods and rather focus on convincing consumers that the item is worth more because it’s better than the cheaper one. Walmart, though, due to its size, has enough weight to force their American suppliers to compete on prices. As per a 2013 press release, “Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, gave its suppliers an added incentive, announcing that it would increase sourcing of American-made products by $50 billion over the next 10 years.” Between the cheaper energy, better infrastructure, and positive press, Wal Mart’s suppliers are working on finding and achieving the “tipping point” where it would make sense to bring production back to US soil.
The spending habits of young adults, the generation commonly referred to as millennials, is also dramatically shifting the perception of US-produced goods. Whereas older buyers value price over nearly everything else when shopping, young adults places a much higher value on the corporate ethics of the producers and the sustainability practices — and they’re willing to pay for it. According to a 2015 report on spending habits, millennials are willing to spend 70% more on a product that aligns with their personal morals (usually humanitarian efforts, social justice causes, fair trade, sustainability, etc.) — not an insignificant amount considering the student debt that plagues so many of them. Thus, US consumers are returning to purchasing US products both for their quality and for the ethical practices that drive the companies.
Similarly, the increased communication that made the economy global in the first place has actively worked against some major corporations, whose questionable labor practices were brought to the public’s attention. In one infamous example, Nike was outed in the 1990s for paying Vietnamese workers barely enough to survive while subjecting them to poor working conditions. Labor advocates have called for boycotts and legislation changes to protect workers. Similarly, in his breakout book Real Food, Fake Food, Larry Olmsted called out Chinese practices in particularly for exacerbating the epidemic of drug-soaked mislabelled fish for consumption. Conscious and informed consumers hunt for this information and leverage their purchasing power against unethical practices, knock-offs, and other items that go against their morals.
Lastly, in a long opinion piece on Forbes, David John Marotta argued that instructing citizens to “buy American” is unrealistically myopic and ignores some basic tenets of economics. Put most simply, Marotta argues, economies function at their optimal output when each “producer” produces what he or she produces best. For consumers to actively work against that rule would result in them having to settle for subpar products at a higher price. Marotta cites bananas as a good example. Climates in the US generally aren’t conducive to growing bananas, so US bananas are few, far between, and low-quality. For the best product at the best price, economically, the US very well should import bananas from elsewhere.
Overall, consumers understand the difference in quality and national interests when it comes to buying American products versus foreign products, and recent trends seem to indicate that more and more Americans are actively choosing to spend more for better quality items or more ethically produced goods. Additionally, a jobs report from early February bears good news: on the whole, unemployment has fallen, so more people have the funds to spend extra on pricier but better American goods. Time will tell how the remainder of the Trump presidency will influence these trends, but in the meantime, it looks like we’ll be buying American.