Scott: Look for out-of-country labels on most iconic American products
Can you locate the Kingdom of Lesotho on a globe? If you’re like most normal people, it could take you awhile to find it. But even if you are geopolitically savvy you might know where it is but you wouldn’t care. For what possible significance or relevance can this seemingly insignificant country have to any of us? And why would I start this column with such an inane question?
Well, it all started when my old Levi’s finally bit the dust. The final “wearing” of my two surviving pairs came a few weeks apart. The threadbare denim, frayed leg bottoms and holey knees convinced me that the jeans that looked like they were salvaged from a dumpster were just not the appropriate fashion statement for an old guy like me. In fact, the jeans were so old that they were made in the U.S. Now that’s old! The last Levi’s with the Made In The USA label were sewn at a San Antonio factory in 2003. The closing of the plant in January 2004 ended 150 years of the famous jeans being made in the U.S. Some high-end (a synonym for expensive) Levi’s are made in this country, but that’s another fashion statement I can’t relate to, so they don’t count. In jeans years, my faithful old dungarees were about a hundred years old. So I was long overdue to go shopping for a couple pairs of new Levi’s.
But first a little more about the Kingdom of Lesotho. I know that sounds like a mystical realm straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it really is a place on the planet. Lesotho is a tiny landlocked country completely surrounded by South Africa, with just over two million people. The land area of the country is roughly one-eighth the size of Kansas. The government is a constitutional monarchy, with the king serving a largely ceremonial function. The prime minister acts as head of the government. Lesotho is a very poor country, with two-thirds of the country’s income coming from the agricultural sector.
But here’s where the connection between the Kingdom of Lesotho and my new Levi’s comes in: The jeans are made in Lesotho. Levi’s brand jeans are also made in several other countries. But there’s more to the story. Since the early part of this century a garment industry paying low wages has encouraged a number of U.S. clothing companies to open plants in Lesotho.
That got me to thinking about how many other iconic American products that are an integral part of the American way of life are, in fact, made somewhere else.
The Great American Pastime, baseball, is played with Rawlings baseballs stitched together in Costa Rica. Radio Flyer wagons that just about every kid has hauled stuff in are made in China. Mattel’s Barbie Doll that in the 1960s redefined how girls (and boys) play with dolls is made in China. In fact, the Mattel toy company does not have a plant in the U.S. The Etch A Sketch that made millions of kids creative artists is made in China. Today you can’t buy a television set that is made in America. The ubiquitous cell phone that has almost become a bodily appendage is produced in several faraway lands. Want to buy an Arrow, Van Heusen or Hathaway dress shirt made in America?
You’ll have to rummage through used clothing at a second-hand store or garage sale, because you won’t find a major label shirt with a Made In The USA label on department or discount stores clothes racks. (To be fair, some haute couture shirts are made here.)
If you are a discriminating buyer looking for products made in the U.S., Consumer Reports magazine offers some helpful information. The Federal Trade Commission has set down rules for manufacturers’ provenance claims. Products are “unqualified” or “qualified.” According to the FTC, unqualified means that “all or virtually all” significant parts are of U.S. origin. Qualified means that the products do not meet the unqualified standard and manufacturers must post prominent, unambiguous statements on their products showing where they are made.
How dependent are we on goods made or assembled outside our borders? Well, if you use just about any electronics device, watch TV, play or watch baseball, give your kids toys and want to put clothes on your back without taking out a loan, you’d better get used to the idea of seeing labels like “Made In Lesotho” on the products you purchase. Why, with the exodus of so many legacy American brands to other countries’ factories, the next thing you know General Motors will have some of its Chevy pickups built in Mexico. Wait a minute, they already are. Bye, bye Miss American Pie.