This Labor Day season, I am considering how the hard work of many has shaped the American nation and how we as consumers and business owners in the American economy might better consider how we distribute our hard earned money. Spending a little bit more for products made in America is not a new idea, but recently it’s started to gain some traction with many of us as we try to return to a more conscientiously driven economy. As a consumer, I don’t mind paying ‘a little bit more’ if I know that my money goes to insure that my neighbors are paid a living wage, have food and home security, access to healthcare and nutrition, and can give back to municipal services like schools and food banks.
While I applaud the idea of “made in America” as a marketing tool that supports businesses in our communities and reclaims something vital to our nation, it is easy to assume that something American made is sustainably and ethically produced. Currently, claiming that something is “made in America” does nothing to insure that products are responsibly made. There are many American factories that do not care for the value of their workforce or their impact on the environment. There are industries in America that continue to violate safety standards, pay low wages without benefits, and perpetuate a corporate culture of exploitation, while they pollute the environment. Even with our complex history of labor laws and fair trade and environmental protection, there are popular American businesses that are still cutting corners on environmental safety regulations and exploiting the workforce in order to reduce prices to consumers.
Like many other small businesses right now, I am thinking a lot about economics, climate change, and financial security as we inch closer to the end of the year. I am also thinking about how asking shoppers to pay ‘a little bit more’ for something that is made in America isn’t enough. I believe that the value of fair wages, supporting a local and sustainable economy, and compensation for labor should be part of a transparent “made in America” marketing plan if we are to shift to a more ethical system. Using my business as an example, our human resources workforce includes myself, two cut-and-sew businesses, three individual independent contractors who support different aspects of the business, and an independently contracted marketing firm. Every individual that works for me lives here in America and is paid a living wage. I run the business out of my home and try to produce ethically, recycle goods, design for zero waste, and invest in my community. I think about where my materials are produced and how aspects of the business might impact my local environment. But, as the business owner, I am the only one regularly compensated at or below minimum wage, which is a sacrifice I make to grow the business and my equity in it. I take less compensation because I want to help produce items that reflect the value of labor, the importance of environmentally friendly materials, and a thoughtful and transparent approach to running a business.
And what bearing does any of this have on the cost of goods sold? It takes more effort for American businesses like mine to make ethical choices, but the payoff is better in the long run when you consider fair wages, environmentally friendly practices, and lowering the carbon footprint. Let’s take a look at how this adds up to the prices of my products. I’ll use my linen market bag as an example because it most closely mirrors my averages.
With this tiny profit margin, I can’t justify wholesaling my products and still remain committed to slow growth and to the health and wealth of my community, but I want to do a little bit more by structuring my textile business as a way to truly celebrate items that are ethically made in America and good for the environment. I want to support a better, more sustainable economic system by giving consumers access to products made from heirloom quality textiles that cost a little bit more, but will last a lot longer and maybe mean a lot more when we say they are “made in America”.