The Case for ‘Made in America’
I proudly add the “Made in USA” label to every product I manufacture in my San Francisco factory. Making bags in this country is fundamentally important to me and to my company–but maybe not for the reasons you think.
Here at Rickshaw Bagworks, making our own products celebrates our passion for making things, not a protest of outsourcing or offshoring. I’m not a protectionist, and I’m not a Made-in-America zealot. We live in the modern global economy–I get it. In fact, my original plan was to import partially made bags from China and do only the final assembly in our shop.
But, alas, I’m a stubborn maker at heart. We soon found ourselves designing products we could produce from scratch in our own factory and getting excellent customer feedback for our made-in-San-Francisco goods. So we encouraged letting our manufacturing story be our crucial point of differentiation: We don’t just design what we sell; we make what we sell.
That’s always been my true love. In high school, I took wood and metal shop classes and started my own stained glass business, crafting windows, lampshades, and terrariums for my parents’ friends. Then I headed off to college, got a degree in engineering, and started working in Silicon Valley. My crafting days were over–or so it seemed. Twenty years later, I entered the bag-making business and reconnected with my dormant passion for making things. As fate would have it, that happened at a time and in a place particularly challenging for makers–but also full of opportunity.
We live in an age when production is more often than not outsourced to anonymous contract manufacturers, predominantly in low-cost labor markets. There are good reasons for that and some horrific and well-publicized downsides. Though economies of scale and low-cost labor have yielded tremendous cost savings for consumers, it seems we may be approaching the limits of this business model, especially after factory disasters abroad have focused more attention on the poor working conditions and environmental impact of these practices. A small but growing group of “conscious consumers” care about the who, what, why, where, and how behind the products they buy. These customers want to connect with the companies they purchase goods from and share their enthusiasm with others like themselves.
So, does it really matter where it’s made? Yes, and no. I believe it’s less about precisely where we manufacture–though San Francisco has fabulous geographic cachet–than about making our own products in our own factory under our own brand name. It’s about connection and accountability–knowing and dealing directly with the maker and trusting the brand. Here at Rickshaw, we design and make what we sell. We own it. The buck starts and stops right here. Making what we sell is our primary differentiator. “Made in USA” is the where of our brand story.
As a conscious consumer, I’m concerned about the environmental and social justice issues of manufacturing in less-developed, poorly regulated countries. As a maker, I’m optimistic that there’s a promising future for small-scale, innovative specialty manufacturing in America. In my bags, those “Made in USA” labels are shorthand for “quality products, made with integrity by a company that’s accountable and that cares for its employees, customers, business partners, and community, and for our shared planet.”
This is not something that’s exclusively American. Nor is it universally American. But I like to think it’s fundamentally American.
FROM THE NOVEMBER 2014 ISSUE OF INC. MAGAZINE