Part of the implicit promise in “Make America Great Again” is making American industry great again. An integral part of Trump’s presidential campaign platform was returning blue-collar jobs, such as manufacturing, back to the United States. Trump tapped into popular patriotism by championing the cause of “Made in America.” The idea is about more than manufacturing; it’s about what it means to be American. The phrase may have become more politicized since the election, but most of us attach a certain quality–and a higher standard–to products made in America. The “Made in China” or “Made in India” labels stitched into our clothes perhaps do not stop us from buying them, but there is still some guilt purchasing cheaply-produced, un-patriotic clothes. Made in America is often presented as the better consumer choice–but is it?
To understand “Made in America,” we need to understand when most manufacturing moved overseas. Writing for the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Monica Gabor chronicled how several Asian countries–specifically Japan, Taiwan and India–gained a foothold in the global marketplace after World War II. But when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, “Made in China” was born, as cheap labor and cheap industry resources allowed China to dominate production of everything from toys to t-shirts.
However, a backlash also emerged as the origins of a piece of clothing became wrapped up in both political and moral spheres. According to the Huffington Post and the New York Times respectively, the lead in Chinese products is poisoning us and the sweatshops are hurting workers. “Made in America” became a call not only to patriotism, but also for doing the right thing. The domestic production of clothes, such as with the now bankrupt American Apparel, became a definitive part of branding.
Groups like Made in the USA and Americans Working track products that are made in America and promise “Be American. Buy American” and “When you buy American you save or create American jobs!” Maybe even Trump himself can be considered the culmination of the “Made in America” brand, a product whose popularity relies on people perceiving it to be the real deal. But “Made in America” is deceptive. The phrase is posited as opposite of what “Made in China” or “Made in India” represents when it might not be so different after all. There is a high likelihood that clothing made in America is still made in dangerous conditions, by an exploited labor force that, for the most part, is not American.
Made in America is championed as one way to keep jobs here, but as Amanda Freeman points out in her article for the Garment Worker Center, most workers in American clothing factories are immigrants from China and Mexico. The majority of these garment factories are in the Los Angeles area, and many employ illegal tactics that we are more comfortable imagining in third-world countries, such as locking workers in factories and intimidating employees against forming unions.
Currently, there are estimated to be about 200,000 garment workers in the U.S., but that number could increase. The landscape of manufacturing, both with apparel and beyond, is shifting once again. The labor and land that made China a powerhouse is becoming more expensive, and some industry predictors such as Boston Consulting Group believe that America will regain some of the manufacturing jobs it has lost. But jobs for whom and under what conditions? Even if we do begin to spot more “Made in America” tags, that is no guarantee for clothing we can wear without qualms. The promise of “Made in America,” then, remains elusive.