Made In The U.S.A.

One more thing.

In Adventures on January 11, 2010 at 8:24 pm

My previous post was also going to be my last, but then I decided I’d better tell you about one more thing: what it’s like to go shopping after a year of buying only American-made goods.

It’s a trip.

I found myself standing in the grocery store, looking at all the things I’d avoided for a year. Olive oil. Avocados. Certain varieties of vegetables and fruits. Junk.

Realizing that I could now, according to my own arbitrary rules, buy any piece of crap I wanted to was actually not as liberating as you might think. I felt a little queasy in my stomach, sort of the inverse of the way I felt a year ago when I was considering the seemingly insurmountable obstacle ahead. I didn’t much care for this newfound freedom.

Then I realized something even more gratifying than not buying things because of some arbitrary set of rules you’ve imposed on yourself: not buying things because you understand a little bit more of what they represent–about you, about the economy, about the world.

There’s a connection between every thing we buy and some other person. Several people, really. Sometimes entire cultures. Empires were built on spice trading. They still are, it’s just that the spices are now electronic and disposable.

My point is that when you pick up a can of cashews from the supermarket shelf, they exist there, for you to consume, directly–DIRECTLY–because of some person very far away who worked very hard to bring them to you. You are connected to that person, with whole civilizations of people, because of what you consume. You’re connected through the very item you’re purchasing. That’s a powerful event. Especially since it happens at the grocery store in the snack aisle.

It also happens in the Gap. And at Best Buy. And at Starbucks. And everywhere you spend your money. There’s no difference between the connection you make with the woman downtown who cuts your hair and the woman in Ecuador who harvests your bananas. Well, there’s one difference: you look the hairstylist in the eye when you decide how much money you will pay her.

So the act of “Buying American,” or buying local, buying green, or any other arbitrary act of conscientious consumerism, can really be thought of as the act of looking through your purchase, seeing beyond the item on the shelf, considering where it came from and how it got to you, and all the ramifications therein. It makes how you spend your money more of a responsibility. And that’s as it should be.

The good news is that this responsibility is not an albatross around your neck. It really is empowering. Instead of a cog in the economic engine, you’re more like a pilot with your hands on the controls. And you feel it.

I’m not suggesting that you go out and start buying only American-made items. Or that you buy only “green” items. Or recycled items. Or handmade items. But if you’d like to start wielding some of your buying power in a more deliberate way, I do have some suggestions for you. Five of them. Simple ones. And I’ll let you have all year to give them a try.

1. Read labels. Look past the especially prevalent and deceptive “greenwash” marketing to consider the facts about your purchase. So many items are packaged to give the impression of environmental friendliness, without having to back it up with any of those pesky facts and figures. If your “eco bag” is assembled from spent rice hulls, that’s awesome. If it was delivered to you from Hong Kong by supertanker, that’s maybe not. The details are all there, nine times out of ten, printed on the fine print of the box or the jar or the tag. What it’s made of and where it’s from tell you a lot. They make it easier to start to see through the store shelf all the way back to the product’s origin. If nothing else, go to the grocery store one day and just tell yourself you’re going to pay attention to the origin of every item you buy this trip. Don’t limit, just learn. It’s not too difficult, and you just might get a glimpse at that empowerment I’m talking about.

2. Don’t buy something you want. Seriously, deprive yourself. Pick something up, put it in your cart/bag/basket, and then reconsider it. At the supermarket, at the mall, at the record store. Do I really need it? Maybe you do. Frequently you will. But sometimes you won’t. Even though you want it. So put it back. Just this once. This “doing without” is a great way to help prioritize your consumption. I do really need my morning coffee. But what I don’t need is every nick-knack I see. That’s my weakness, and after a year of being free of buying junk I want rather than stuff I need I can honestly say I’ve come to a new understanding of what is especially wasteful in my own consumption. And I think I’ll feel less inclined to make purchases just to feel good, more inclined to make every purchase really count. Sometimes “want” is good enough. But sometimes “want” is just because you can’t think of anything better at the moment to make you happy.

3. Go one day without buying anything. For those of you who say, “That’s easy!” I commend you. For the rest of us, though, it’s trickier than it looks. For me, going a day without purchasing really makes me less of a consumer, less of a pig, less of a typical American glutton. It means I brew my own coffee, pack my own lunch, make due with what’s in the fridge for dinner, and most importantly that I don’t seize any of those daily opportunities to satiate myself, to get a little rush of adrenaline, by purchasing something I don’t really need. Going a day without buying anything may make you less “American” in the sense that you’re not a “capitalist pig,” but much more of a typical new millennium American in that you’re joining the growing movement of people who are taking responsibility for their purchasing actions. You see it in the folks who pay more at Whole Foods for organic cereal or free-range chicken or recycled napkins. That’s the new definition of “Buying American” that I’m aiming for; the one that says you’re aware of how your purchases affect the planet and all of its inhabitants.

4. Buy something used. A refurbished camera. A used car. A pre-owned television. A vintage shirt. We’re conditioned to really prefer shiny and new and “mine, all mine” to things that are previously loved. But the thing is, as I’ve really learned this year, buying second-hand really ain’t so bad. Sure, I do have a hard time looking high-fashion these days, but there’s certainly no excuse not to consider buying vintage clothing for at least part of my wardrobe–especially the part that might be served by brand new items that are purposely distressed and made to look vintage! Seriously, you’ll find the act of giving new life to something someone could have thrown away to be very illuminating. You’ll start to pierce the veil of fear we have about used goods–you need a warranty and insurance and it just won’t last. Well here’s the truth: lots of stuff lasts, and as a benefit to the folks who made it in the first place, and bought it in the second, and sold it in the third, and re-used it in the fourth… You just might enjoy feeling like you beat the system when you don’t experience the buyer’s remorse that so often accompanies our brand new purchases.

5. Buy something expensive and worth it. I know, now that I’ve talked bad about buying brand new it’s seems ridiculous to suggest that you buy something new and particularly expensive, but I have my reasons. I’m suggesting you pay a premium for quality in hopes that it will affect how you think about purchases in the long term. In a choice between the cheap thing that’s poorer quality versus the expensive thing that’s better quality, choose the better quality item just one time. Maybe not with a car or a house, but perhaps a sweater. Or a CD player. Or a pair of shoes. It doesn’t even have to be American or locally made, but it might be. The thing that comes from doing this is a different sense of responsibility–the burden of buying a product that is meant to last. Instead of spending $200 on the lawnmower that you just know is not going to last more than three years, pay the premium for the $275 model that is likely to last a decade. Not only is this a great way to save money in the long run, but it’s a great way to reduce waste. And it’s a tangible way to really confront your role in the system. Hopefully it’s another vote with your dollars that says, “I don’t want only the cheapest item I can get. I am willing to pay a premium for quality in more than just the long-lasting product sense.” In this case you’re also paying for “quality” in the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance way–the philosophical quality that equates with truth, and all of the economic, environmental and humanistic benefits that accompany it.

That’s a lot of baggage to put onto the simple act of buying a t-shirt or a snack or a television. But I think it’s the crucial little detail that’s missing from the way our system works. As a culture we really do value cheap and instant gratification above all else, at any number of societal and personal expenses, and nobody calls us on it. So I know it sounds crazy when I say that reading the label on a box can make you a better shopper, a more conscientious consumer, a more fully empowered citizen, but I think it’s true. I think it can.

I really think it can.


  1. I like.

  2. Your mom told me about your blog at the beginning of 2009 and I was impressed with the beginning of your adventure. I just finished reading this end of the experiment entry and am so impressed. You are a terrific writer and I would think someone would pick up on your blog (maybe they have) and ask for a book! This is great journalism and would be a wonderful NPR program, or any network program for that matter. Congratulations! Jerie (mom’s watercolor teacher)

  3. Hi —

    I’m with ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. We’ve got a series coming up on products Made in America — would love to talk with you about setting up an interview on your yearlong project.

    If you’re willing, please email me. Look forward to hearing from you.

  4. Hi, my friend and I have been attempting the same adventure, I just watched the ABC News video about you and your blog, and I wanted to say thanks, you are an inspiration. If more people would be proud of what this country can still produce, and actively aim to buy only those products, maybe we would have less problems. Keep up the work!… my hardest problem is clothes… but im still working on it.

    • Hey, thanks Jamie. That’s great. I had a hard time with clothes too. I found vintage clothes to be a great compromise, and I actively solicited US clothiers like American Apparel and a couple of others. Still, though, it’s hard to find average American clothes for average American Joes.

  5. I appreciate your efforts and am doing the same as a change in lifestyle. I would add a #6 to your list: Create and innovate.

    Also, I noticed that you had Target receipts in your piles. FYI, Target and other big box stores have been called “Big Box Killers” for decades because those stores killed the mom and pop stores that sold american goods. Those Big Box Killers also took Missouri tax dollars for their development, as if they needed our monies. Shame on those Big Boxes, that now sell anything but American goods. Not good for America.

    Our group is says: It’s “uncool” to continue to shop those stores or any stores that continue to buy from countries that do not respect our environmental and labor laws. Plain and simple. Our country abides by laws to protect the environment and not enslave people, then turns around and buys from countries that do not have to abide by those laws. It is hypocritical, don’t you think?

    • Thanks for your comment, Tracy. In answer to your question, I’m just not sure it’s that simple. My first thought about your idea of not shopping at stores that “continue to buy from countries that do not respect our environmental and labors laws” was, honestly, then where do you shop?
      Certainly I understand choosing a locally owned option over an international corporation, and the thing is if you start buying American you largely do that by default.
      In my experience there are no stores that only sell American-made things. Or if there are, I certainly never found them. For me, the best way I could become a more conscientious consumer was to shop based on where a product was produced rather than where it was sold. Am I aware that big box stores killed mom and pop stores and Main Street USA? Sure I am. But that genie is long out of the bottle. I don’t see a way for the Wal Marts and Targets and Home Depots of the world to go away. What I do see is for those stores to wield their huge buying power based on what their customers want. And so far, we customers are voting with our dollars for the cheapest everything we can get. So the manufacturers go to China to make their stuff ever cheaper, and the stores sell what we buy.
      Ultimately I drew my line in the sand with the country of origin of a product. I wasn’t focused on the retailer. Is it any more or less important? I don’t think so. It’s just different. We’ve all got to start somewhere, and if your approach is to shop based on the particulars of the retailer, more power to you. As long as you’re deliberately involved in deciding what you buy, I say you’re on the right path.

      • “Where do you shop,” you ask?

        Great question. We should make a list. Of course, it will be short and specialized. And, as I am sure you are aware, it will include on-line shops.

        I get your point, though. EVERY store, even the surviving mom & pops, could unwittingly or consciously buy products made in non-compliant countries. I am NOT faulting those stores that have some items from non-compliant countries. BUT, to be true to the “uncool” movement, I will not buy any “non-compliant country products” from those specialty stores, and I will dialogue with the owner/manager about the “uncool” movement. And, so far, they have agreed and noticed that the movement is growing.

        But, I do want to be clear on my point about the big-box killers: their business model will not work unless they buy and sell products from non-compliant countries. So, their M.O. is to sell from non-compliant countries. So, that’s what is “uncool”. They are circumventing the laws that makes our country the leader of the world. Of course, it makes me equally mad that such stores received tax increment financing, as if they needed the break, and then turned around and used that money to force people and mom & pops out of the neighborhood through eminent domain (my area of practice is to defend these owners).

        This Christmas, I was asked (by Santa) to buy gifts for all of my brothers and sisters and their children and their children’s children. So 55 gifts later, I learned alot. I learned that small book stores still exist, and have books made and printed in America. I learned, like you, that you have to look at the fine print..the very fine print sometimes. But, I also learned that shopping like that was more enjoyable. I enjoyed giving my money to people rather than companies I did not know. I enjoyed the smallness of the stores and the personal attention. AND Santa loved that his gifts were all from America…because they were clearly of better quality!!! CLEARLY.

        Like last evening, I wanted to buy my beau some work-out clothes….made in america. When I need clothes, I shop “vintage” and on-line. Or, I will make an outfit or create an outfit from existing clothes. I also employ seamstresses to make and alter clothes.

        For food, I shop at the St. Louis owned grocery stores, where prices are quite similar to the big-boxes. And, yes, those stores buy from China et. al too, so I just don’t buy those products at those stores.

        As for your comment that you don’t see a way for Walmart et al to go away, wahhh. :(.

        My hope is that we will find and promote alternatives, create and innovate, help others to do the same, and just say NO. Don’t go there; don’t shop there. It is simply uncool and unAmerican. What did we have before Walmart Lots of wonderful quality stores with wonderful people we knew who were happy to work there and knew their product. Pieces are left and need our support. We need to make that list!!!

        We need to demand better quality that has staying power. WE should not be a throw away society. Our grandparents worked hard for wonderful furniture and then passed it down to their children. Today, kids go to Walmart to buy furniture to throw out with the next move. It is truly sad.

        We need to educate American shoppers that these “cheap” products are killing our country and the environment. We need to get back to Quality, NOT Quantity. Then, our shopping country will get back to work too making things that last and have the American Quality Seal!

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