Is "Made in America" Better for the Environment?

by - Friday, July 08, 2016

Leading up to 4th of July, I have been pushing for us all to buy more Made in America goods. In our house, we tried to buy them exclusively, so I know it can be a huge challenge to try for a month! On average, every 2 out of 10 items Americans buy are actually made here anymore. How depressing is that! At the same time, you might be surprised that with a little research (or just poking through my Epic List of Shopping Lists), you can find most (not all, but definitely most) of the things you want to buy Made in America. 

Companies want to make it seem impossible so that you don't think you can hold them to a higher standard, but this is a lie. You can be a successful brand made here, and that is why I spent June calling out brands from Converse to Martha Stewart to Melissa and Doug for sending all of their labor elsewhere. Lucky for us,  we have other options, so we can stop giving these supposed "American" companies our money. 

Why do it? Lots of amazing websites from Made in the USA Forever to Made in the to USA Love List spell it out for you.

- It funds more jobs for more Americans
- It keeps money in the American economy
- It help keeps local economies afloat and local factories open
- It (usually) guarantees a certain level of quality and longevity in what you buy
- It denies money to companies who mistreat workers in international factories

While all of these things are well-worth getting excited about, I want to be clear on why buying American, or even more so buying local, directly effects your impact on the environment. Every "green" shopping list that doesn't factor where things are made is making a huge mistake. Buying American can have a HUGE and important impact on everything from the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream Waters. Let me bullet point it for you- 

- It takes WAY less fuel to transport something made in Nebraska than something made in China. The fuel costs of importing so many goods (60+% of what we buy) halfway across the world is staggering, and even if the financial cost has been subsidized, the environmental cost is massive. Just think, your lame plastic junk has traveled way further than you. Buying locally or American guarantees you a much smaller carbon footprint. 

- It creates less waste. If you buy something built to last, you will need fewer, and therefore you create less waste and save money in the long run! You can buy a perfectly ok Made in China blender that will last you two years or a Vitamix that will last you ten or more. In the end, you will spend more money replacing things, and you make a hell of a lot more garbage in the process.

- It guarantees much higher environmental standards. In 2005, the Chinese Ministry of Health estimated 200 million workers were exposed to toxic chemicals daily at work. That year, almost 400,000 workers died from "occupational illnesses." And it hasn't gotten much better. 

- It creates safer products. The pollution and toxicity of these products are well proven, and not the kind of thing you want in your house. Do you really want your child playing with toys with lead in them? And then once those plastic goods are "used up," they go into our landfills, our soils, and our water. They shouldn't even exist, so why are you buying them? 

- It minimizes packaging. So much waste is created in the shipping of these products, and this includes the large number of things needed to get them here. Boo.

These make up a small number of the reasons that the shorter your goods travel, the better for the Earth. If you are an American, you have more positive environmental impact by buying regular American towels (like these ones from 1888 Mills) than "organic" ones from China. 

Buying goods made in America and being an environmentally-conscientious shopper look shockingly similar, even if you could care less about the climate, pollution in the water, or our finite supply of fossil fuels. Let me prove it: 

Ok, I am an environmentalist, this is how I prioritize my shopping:

In general, I buy less to minimize the stuff weighing down my house or bound for the landfill. 
When I need it, I buy used to keep perfectly useful items out of the garbage and in good use. 
When I can't find it used, I buy local and made in America to minimize shipping distances and to guarantee a certain environmental standard in the companies I shop from. Bonus- since American stuff is generally made so well, I get to use less in the long run. 

Now, if I shop All-American (like Paul Bunyan and Ron Swanson), this is how I prioritize my shopping:

I buy local and Made in America to support small companies, to put my money back into the United States economy, to make more jobs, and to generally keep making America awesome. 
When I can't afford everything made in America (because good quality means higher prices), I can buy less or buy things used. Can't afford a Made in America grill? Keep your money out of China and shop for a used one at garage sales or on Ebay. 

To make this lifestyle work, you can split your purchases into two categories- Objects you care enough about to buy American and objects you don't care enough about to pay those prices, so you cut the price SIGNIFICANTLY by shopping consignment. Meaning, more money in your budget to buy American goods! 

So, these are basically the same, just a different order. Surprise! We are on the same team.

The truth of the matter is once you start shopping like a steward, whether that be of the environment, the American laborer, or the economy, your priorities change and the process looks different. And that's awesome, because instead of constantly building up your own pile of little negative effects on the world (inequality, pollution, WASTE, etc), you are doing good you don't even anticipate or care about! What a better ripple effect to be a part of! 

In the end, I don't care why you buy American, but I am so glad if you do. Even if you can't take these steps for every purchase you make, you are doing something really great, and I hope you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. 

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