For decades, Americans have celebrated the 4th of July with parades, backyard barbecues and fireworks. This year, it might be time to add a new ritual: buying a product that was actually manufactured and assembled in the United States.
As millions of Americans lose their jobs, buying local has a particularly resonant appeal. Spend your money on products made here, goes the thinking, and you'll keep factories open and fellow Americans on the payroll.
The issue even found its way into President Obama's recent stimulus bill, which stipulated that the steel and iron used for construction projects must be produced in the U.S. (The provision was followed by loopholes that practically guarantee non-American materials will be used to some extent.)
I don't have the time, space, or - frankly -- the inclination to debate the merits of free-trade treaties. But buying American doesn't necessarily mean embracing protectionism or disparaging anything with a "Made in China" label. (Let's be honest: If you reject every product made in China, shopping options would be limited.)
The new made-in-the-USA movement is more about making conscious choices. Just as American consumers have started embracing environmentally friendly practices without jumping into the living-off-the-grid lifestyle, they're putting more thought into how what they buy affects American jobs. Companies that manufacture in the U.S. are finding that right now is a particularly good time to highlight their local roots. For some, it's the very thing that sets them apart and builds brand loyalty.
One of the most prominent boosters of its U.S.-based manufacturing is the aptly named American Apparel. To the teenagers and 20-somethings who are its customer base, it's known for button-pushing ads that show young models posing provocatively in form-fitting T-shirts and not much else.
But its business model has become as much of the company's story as its edgy marketing. At a time when the American textile business has been decimated, American Apparel produces all its clothes at a factory in downtown Los Angeles. They're also one of the few companies selling made in the USA clothing in China.
"With a little innovation, anyone can win, especially in fashion," founder Dov Charney says in a statement on the company's Web site. "Simple, less expensively made garments can often be more valuable than more baroque and expensively made products."
The privately owned athletic-supply company New Balance is also using its local manufacturing as a promotional tool. New Balance produces about a quarter of its footwear in the U.S. at factories in Maine and Massachusetts. (It's the only major U.S. company that produces athletic shoes domestically). This summer, the company started a marketing campaign revolving around its commitment to American workers, including stickers on boxes of shoes produced or assembled in the United States.
David Riley, who lists companies who manufacture domestically on his Web site, says he's seen a dramatic increase in interest ever since the economy took a dive.
"Our traffic is exploding," he says. "Since the same time last year, we're up about 400%. When I started the site four years ago, I had to search to find companies to list. Now, I get flooded with requests to be included."
While urging consumers to buy Americans can easily take a turn into jingoism, Riley avoids politics. "I've gotten comments and compliments from communists, extreme right-wingers and everyone in between," he says. "The issue has wide appeal. A lot of people wish manufacturers would do a better job explaining where their products are made."
Although many American products are sold exclusively online, Riley says his users would like to see brick-and-mortar stores promote local goods. "People wish the big chains would put aside a section for American-made products," he says.
With all the hand-wringing over idle American factories, we shouldn't forget that the United States remains a leading manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, transportation equipment and food products. Top American consumer brands -- from Procter & Gamble's (PG) Tide detergent to Clorox (CLX) bleach -- continue to be made in the U.S.
And small businesses throughout the country still produce goods locally. Show consumers that you proudly support American jobs, and they'll be receptive to your pitch well past the 4th of July.