True confession: I’ve not purchased new clothes (except for biking gear) in the last few years. Why? Because once I made the commitment to buy made in America, shopping for clothes became a chore.
No longer could I simply step into a department store and buy off the rack. When I asked salespeople which items were made in the USA, I’d get a blank stare. Inevitably, I’d leave frustrated, depressed, and empty handed.
But, I couldn’t put the task off any longer. I really needed some new clothes!
What I found is that buying USA-made clothing is a lot of work—but it also comes with some great rewards. If you decide to take the plunge, this is what you can expect.
1. You’ll spend a lot of time researching
Buying USA-made clothing means doing a great deal of research. I’ve spent hours searching and clicking on any ad or organic search result with “made in the USA” in the copy.
As with other products (which I outlined in my Search Engine Land column), I discovered general claims of “made in the USA” can be misleading. You have to go deeper and confirm a product is actually made in the US.
For example, Munro shoes has “made in the USA” messaging in their web copy. And indeed, they do have two manufacturing and product development facilities in Arkansas.
However, not all of their shoes are USA made. You have to look at the product details for each shoe to find out which ones are—and which ones aren’t.
For example, here’s a screenshot of the product details for one style of shoe:
As you can see, this particular shoe is imported—even though it’s listed in the website search results for “Made in the USA”! Frustrating!
Unfortunately, the problem of misleading “made-in-the-USA” claims goes far beyond shoe retailers. In fact, some of these claims are being challenged in court, especially in California.
Note: California has some of the strictest laws when it comes to labeling. MAG Light manufacturer MAG Instrument, Inc. makes all its products in Ontario, CA. However, because the company can’t source a few components from the U.S., it can’t label its products “Made in the USA,” according to California law.
As a consumer, knowing the ins and outs of federal and state labeling regulations can be onerous. Federal law is more lenient in determining what is a “made-in-USA” product when compared to some states. So you have to take these claims with a grain of salt—and perform your own due diligence.
(To learn more about MAG Instrument, Inc. and the story of founder Anthony Maglica, read Michelle Malkin’s book, “Who Built That.” Great book!)
To be fair, some retailers are trying to make it easier to find made in America products. Nordstrom does a good job of distinguishing between “Made in USA” and other items in search results:
But even with these improvements, it pays to look at the fine print. Otherwise, you risk discovering that the “American made” shirt you ordered has a “made in China” tag.
Or as I discovered recently, my new Whirlpool refrigerator was made in Mexico. I practically had to climb into the refrigerator with a magnifying glass to read the label. You can’t rely on sales people either, as I was told “all Whirlpool and Maytag appliances are made in the US.” Nope. Not true. Whirlpool makes an impressive 80% of its products in the US—it outsources the other 20%.
2. You’ll have to plan ahead
Because you can’t always shop off the shelf, you’ll have to shop online. And that means planning ahead. If you have a special event coming up and you need a dress or slacks, for example, you going to have to start your search weeks, if not months, ahead.
Not only do you need to allow time for research, you also need to allow time for shipping, returning items that don’t fit, and ordering replacement items. As you can imagine, this process can go through multiple iterations.
The good news? You’ll develop a friendly relationship with your UPS and FedEx Ground drivers.
3. You’ll need a strategy
Because of the time involved in researching, ordering and returning orders, you’ll need to use your time strategically. You’ll have to limit your shopping to only what you truly need.
This means taking a close look at your existing wardrobe and determining what needs to be replaced and where are gaps.
Then you need to prioritize your needs and stick to them.
Fortunately, adhering to your strategic plan is relatively easy when you’re not shopping in stores and tempted to make impulse purchases.
4. You’ll have to make some compromises
Unfortunately, in some cases you won’t find what you need from American manufacturers. So you’ll need to make some compromises.
This is especially true of clothing. Finding USA-made clothing—clothing that’s constructed from USA-made textiles and components—is especially hard. When manufacturers started moving offshore years ago, textile manufacturing was one of the first industries to leave.
This offshore flight of textile manufacturing really strikes home when it comes to denim. No other clothing item says “America” like denim blue jeans. Yet, sadly, the last remaining U.S. factory to manufacture denim closed its doors last month. This is the same plant that once supplied denim for Levi’s iconic 501 jeans.
With no American denim supplier, it’s impossible to find USA-made jeans constructed from USA-made denim.
I did manage to find Parker Smith. This brand still makes its jeans in the US. But they use composite fabrics, not true denim. (I cannot stand Lycra stretch denim. UGH!) As a result, I’ve resorted to investigating whether I can get a pair of “real denim” jeans custom made.
Sometimes, you can’t find specific USA-manufactured clothing items at all. If this is the case, I’ve taken to buying ethically made clothing.
One of my go-to companies is Fair Indigo. They sell fair trade clothing that’s designed in Wisconsin and made in Peru. I feel good purchasing clothes from this company as they provide living wages and health care to their workers. Plus, the quality is fairly good for the price.
5. You’ll buy fewer (but higher quality) items
When I tell people about my pledge to buy only made-in-USA items the first thing they ask about is price. “Isn’t that expensive?” they ask. Yes, prices are higher than offshore manufactured clothing in many cases.
Why? Because American manufacturers have higher costs: health care (to name one onerous regulation), OSHA and other regulations, and energy costs, to name a few things. Often, these costs are born by the governments of countries that now produce our many of our goods—so US manufacturers have a very hard time competing on price.
But you have to also consider quality and consumption, as well as the effects on the environment. When you consider that the US is one of the cleanest and safest manufacturers in the world, you realize you can no longer support manufacturers who turn a blind eye to downright dangerous practices employed in other countries.
So far, almost every USA-made clothing item I’ve purchased has been beautifully designed and well-crafted. These aren’t cheap garments that will wear out in a single season.
Additionally, because you’re shopping thoughtfully and strategically, you’ll find you buy much less stuff. Often, you’ll spend the same amount overall but end up with fewer items that will last.
6. You’ll find some treasures
One of the great joys of shopping for USA-made clothing is discovering new brands and companies.
Recently, I was searching for a USA-made dress. Image consultant Ginger Burr pointed me to Karina Dresses. These dresses are classic, simple and beautifully made in New York. I love that they use “real” models. And I especially love that these dresses have sleeves!
7. You’ll feel good about what you’re wearing
When I switched to buying food directly from local farmers, it was a tough in the beginning. One, I had to get my budget acclimated to the higher prices, and two, I spent considerable time researching and visiting the farmers. I wanted to know how my food was raised!
But the effort was so worth it. Today, I know where 98% of my food comes from. I’ve almost eliminated processed food, I cook from scratch, and I eat out far less than I ever did.
It’s the same with clothing. I like knowing, when I get dressed in the morning, that my jeans were made in Los Angeles, my socks (Darn Tough) in Vermont, my shoes (Eastland) from Maine, and my sweater ethically made in Peru.
Before embarking on this adventure, I’d never connected the loss of US manufacturing jobs to buying cheap clothing made overseas. But now that I’ve made that connection, it feels good supporting American workers and American factories / manufacturing.
Ask for USA-Made Clothing!
My hope is that someday, buying made-in-USA clothing will get easier. But the only way that will happen is if we start asking for (or demanding!) USA-made products.
Once retailers start to realize that there’s a market for these products, they’ll be more inclined to stock them. And this, in turn, will provide incentives for new manufacturers to supply them.
So ask for USA-made clothing! And if a store doesn’t carry them, support the companies that do sell them. At some point, retailers will make the connection: Made in America makes good business sense.