Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

The Cold, Hard Truth About ‘Made in the USA’ and ‘Made in America’ Labels

This article was originally published on April 19, 2011. It was revised and republished on August 21, 2012, to include the freshest information. Enjoy!

If your high school history teacher was as cool as mine (rock on, Ms. Singletary!), then you definitely saw old advertisements from “back in the day” with outrageous claims of improved health through cigarette smoking and increased bust size through certain bras (if anything could increase bust size without going under the knife, the A cup would no longer be manufactured).

Shopping Sickness

Advertisement from back when people shopped in stores.

As Americans, we believe this time has passed. After all, there are plenty of organizations such as the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) that make sure advertising claims are backed up with scientific fact.

If it’s in a commercial, it must be true!

Except…it’s not. At the very least, claims are being legally redefined to the point where the original terms themselves are misleading. And if we can’t even start out in a cut-and-dry place before the loopholes, exceptions, lobbying, and general government nonsense, things get dicey.

The biggest culprit?


Between our lives as Americans in a post-9/11 world (and I swore to myself never to use that term but there you go) and people who want to be outraged about international human rights issues without actually having to do something other than posting a Facebook status and daring their friends to be brave enough to do the same, customers have been looking for the terms “Made in America” and “Made in USA” more than ever.

When we see “Made in America,” we imagine a Norman-Rockwell dad putting in a hard day’s work down at the Kansas town factory putting together a little wooden horse on a string with the wood from a tree plantation in Ohio (with a tree planted for each one cut down!), glass eyes blown and pressed in a plant in New Jersey and painted by a grandma in Tennessee, and string sent directly from Illinois. Then he’ll hop in his seen-better-days-but-still-running Ford and head home to a turkey dinner with his wife, golden retriever, and 2.5 kids.

Guess what, hippies: “Made in America” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Assembly Line

American beer sucks, but damn it, it’s American!

According to the Federal Trade Commission:

For a product to be called Made in USA, or claimed to be of domestic origin without qualifications or limits on the claim, the product must be “all or virtually all” made in the U.S. The term “United States,” as referred to in the Enforcement Policy Statement, includes the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories and possessions… “All or virtually all” means that all significant parts and processing that go into the product must be of U.S. origin. That is, the product should contain no — or negligible — foreign content.

The problem? I’m no science major, but I’m pretty sure “negligible” is not a standard unit of measure. You can’t have two or three negligibles of something. You can’t be seven negligible away from someone.

So… what does “negligible” mean? Here are the examples from the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection Business Center website:

Example: A company produces propane barbecue grills at a plant in Nevada. The product’s major components include the gas valve, burner and aluminum housing, each of which is made in the U.S. The grill’s knobs and tubing are imported from Mexico. An unqualified “Made in USA” claim is not likely to be deceptive because the knobs and tubing make up a negligible portion of the product’s total manufacturing costs and are insignificant parts of the final product.

Example: A table lamp is assembled in the U.S. from American-made brass, an American-made Tiffany-style lampshade, and an imported base. The base accounts for a small percent of the total cost of making the lamp. An unqualified “Made in USA” claim is deceptive for two reasons: The base is not far enough removed in the manufacturing process from the finished product to be of little consequence and it is a significant part of the final product.

Caution: Keep Face Away From Grill

Warning: Your Face is Flammable


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  1. KB


    You crack me up! I love the “(Sort Of) Made (Partially) in (Or Near) America (and Some Other Places).” I think if it isn’t made completely in the USA it shouldn’t be able to claim Made in the USA. Partially Made in the USA would be accurate.

    Thanks for the entertaining read!

    • Jana Quinn

      Exactly! There’s no reason there can’t be a “Made in the USA and Latvia” label or even “Components Made in the USA.”

  2. Jill Tooley

    Honestly, I had no clue about the “Made in America” label standards prior to reading this, but I’m glad I do now. Many people probably do picture a nice, fluffy Norman Rockwell scene when they think of products made in the USA!

    You said: “I don’t know about you, but the knobs and tubing that stand between my beautiful face and looking like a Backdraft extra sound a little more than ‘negligible’ components to me.”

    Amen, sister! Something has to give in this situation. Every component that has the ability to MAKE OR BREAK a product’s functionality should be of the highest quality, regardless of whether or not it’s a “tiny” or “negligible” piece of the entire product. That FTC wording is unbelievable!

    Anyway, thanks for shedding some much-needed light on this subject and having a sense of humor about it in the process! 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      Yeah, we’re English dorks, so I think our b.s. detectors are extra sensitive to vague language. It’d be interesting if the standards were different for different products. For example, things that can blow your face off get an extra once over.

      Just sayin’.

  3. Joseph Giorgi

    Up to this point, I was unaware of the FTC’s standards regarding the “Made in America” label. Kind of makes you wonder about the many other loopholes out there that our agencies would prefer to keep us in the dark about. VERY informative and thought-provoking stuff here—not to mention hilarious, as usual.

    Hmmm. Suddenly I’m in the mood for an investigative documentary.

    Great job on another amazing post! 🙂

    • Jana Quinn

      I cut a whole section on the Buy American Act, which is the most b.s. piece of legislation I’ve ever read (To be fair, other than the Bill of Rights, it may be the only piece of legislation I’ve ever read). It was an act signed in under Roosevelt and states that all federal agencies must buy American-made goods. The definition? 50% or more of the product must be manufactured/harvested here. There’s also a loophole that allows government groups to buy foreign products if the domestic equivalent comes at an “unreasonable” cost.

      The problem isn’t getting legislation passed; it’s having strict guidelines and less wiggle room.

      You can thank Jill for the investigative documentary feel – she came up with the awesome title that makes it look like I did legitimate journalism instead of spending a couple hours on Google.

      One day, I’ll have Perry White’s job!

  4. JPorretto

    I think I’m going to go ahead and embrace the liberal use of “Negligible.” If only because I can now say my height difference to someone much taller is “Negligible.” And I could just say my definition of it is within FTC guidelines! I think I could get some good mileage out of this one…

    • Jana Quinn

      I plan on taking advantage as well, for the exact same reason. “Negligible” indeed…

      • JPorretto

        Short people unite!!

  5. Scooby DOO!

    Is anything REALLY made in America though if you add in the machines that make that the widgets? The Model T was the last thing that comes to mind; which begs the question, why are we so over priced? I mean, after all its the fundamental reason why we outsource. What changes in America would happen if one day Japan/ China were outsourcing to us. Scary thought.

    Great and thought-provoking article Jana!

    • Jana Quinn

      Very true. Where were the widgets made? And before the widgets were made, from where were the raw materials harvested?

      “American-made” is so overpriced, because Americans aren’t willing (although these days, who knows?) to work under the conditions that are allowed overseas. Pay less to the worker; get the item for less.

      Business is a matter of willpower. Products and services are bought at the highest price customers are willing to pay at the lowest cost the manufacturers are willing to risk.

      That’s why boycotts are used – a group is demonstrating its unwillingness to purchase goods/services under undesired conditions. An organization has to either be willing to deal with the loss of that consumer group or be willing to change practices.

      That’s why numbers and organization will trump dedication and enthusiasm every time. But hey, we’re not talking about Firefly getting cancelled here…

  6. cyberneticSAM

    I completely agree! You bring up awesome points. But, before people are completely deterred from buying said “American made” products, they should consider that not every product falls under this misleading category (and that it also falls under a bittersweet outcome of still purchasing said items like clothing and food). It is just as important if you buy things you know aren’t made in ‘Merica that they do fall under a Fair-Trade organization. So, typically to find these items you have to stay FAR away from corporate industries (which is the best and smartest thing we can ALL do as Americans). That being said, it is not so easy. But buying “sort-of made in America” products still stimulates our economy by helping manufacturers’ hired help i.e. keeping some jobs here. Though it isn’t ideal, it is better than nothing! Yes, manufacturers have a choice, but I’d rather get a little of something than none at all. So buying products that are mostly American-made are far better than choosing all Taiwan, or Chinese manufactured products! Don’t get me wrong, lower standards are not ideal, but take a little comfort in the fact that the major portion is American manufactured. Great post!! You and I have a lot in common, Jana. I hope you write more of these types of blogs! I live for cynicism!

    Here is an awesome site for great, legit American-made stuff!

    And here is a great site that follows state-to-state American manufacturing articles, politics, companies, jobs, and political activism. To sponsor keeping rights for legit manufacturing:

    • cyberneticSAM

      Oh, and not all American-made beer sucks…explore micro-brewery! There are tasty, hidden gems tucked away all over the country! Mainstream domestic is terrible, though. Down with corporate piss-water! America recognizes micro-breweries and brew-pubs!

    • Jana Quinn

      Definitely excellent points, my cybernetic friend. I wasn’t necessarily aiming to get all Don’t-Mess-With-Texas patriotic. There’s plenty of awesome stuff made overseas: I have a really nice ring from Greece and a cool pair of earrings from Italy.

      I definitely bookmarked the “Made in USA Forever” site; my stepdad is very much a Made-in-USA fanatic, and he’ll love this.

      Fair Trade is an excellent alternative to American made, especially for those whom the objection to buying foreign made goods is primarily about human rights. The more revenue those Fair Trade groups generate, the more affordable those goods will be and the less attractive (for corporations) low-paid and non-Fair Trade business practices will be.

  7. Kyle

    Haha great post. I love how you made the connection between a grill blowing up in your face and being an extra in Backdraft. I never really looked into “Made in the USA” labels so reading this definitely opened my eyes a bit. I got a good chuckle or two out of it also so bonus points for that!

  8. Amanda Sneed

    While I do wish and hope for more products to be 100% American made, I agree, somewhat American made is better than nothing.

    Thanks for the details and definitions, Jana! =)

  9. Bret Bonnet

    Great post Jana!

    … You’d think with the recent lead scares (China) and toxic chemicals found in most major brands of toothpaste (courtesy of China again!); you’d think that the FTC would step up the enforcement of these “Made in the USA” claims.

    I honestly bet if we were to survey 1000 Americans they’d all think “Made in the USA” means 100% made in the USA, not “negligible” amounts! I know that I used to think this before I started working for Quality Logo Products.

    I think the FTC has been caught sleeping behind the wheel on this one. There are so many false and baseless claims being spread these days, both via traditional media outlets and online; one never knows who to TRUST.

    … This is just another political “loop hole” that allows BIG BUSINESS to send American jobs overseas while still qualifying for tax credits and other perks. Politicians should be ashamed of themselves.

    • Jana Quinn

      Right on, Bret. Thanks for the blog idea – you’re my inspiraaaaaaatiiiioooooon!

      Yeah, legislation is nearly irrelevant with all the loopholes built into the bills that allow exceptions. I wish more of us were “legal eagles” and looking at the exact wording of the bills we’re supporting.

  10. mary

    This is my favorite line in your blog. “I’m not saying the USA manufacturing is perfect, but I am guessing it has slightly higher standards than some of the laws China has in place.”

    Maybe you could touch on Child Labor being cheaper in the manufacturing process?

    I would be happy to do some research on American Beer with you. It seems you have not done all your homework.

    • Jana Quinn

      You’re right, Mary. I need to embrace my hard-hitting journalist and get some primary research going.

  11. Rita Lawry

    Jana, have you ever thought about investagating how many USA citizen work in the made in USA factorys? I wonder how many of the made in the USA employ illeagle immigrants for less than living wages. I think it would be astonishing to find out the stroy behind that. I know that many of the people that work behind the scenes at the US bank are Asians that make only minimum wage, with unreasonable standards to gain a raise, to count the customers money.
    If we believe that made in America or the USA means quality jobs, we need to investagate.

    • Jana Quinn

      Rita, thanks for stopping by and commenting. The target of the article wasn’t to examine working conditions within the U.S. or deal with illegal immigration, but those issues are certainly tied into the overall topic. My focus was on the common conception that *products* (not necessarily *jobs*) labeled as “made in the U.S.A.” are considered higher quality than those made outside the U.S. I agree completely that delving farther into the entire manufacturing process would uncover some astonishing facts.

  12. Amanda

    I’m glad this article was posted again. It’s important for people to know about the made in America claims. One thing that gets me about made in America, is the car industry. American cars can have their parts made in the USA, but then they’re assembled in places like Mexico… irritating! So under these rules, I’d guess they can still claim a car to be “made” in America….yet truthfully, the parts are only “made” here. The car itself, really, could be “made” in Mexico…because not until the parts are shipped and assembled there does it actually come together as a vehicle. My family continues to buy American cars though, because at least a majority of the profits come back to the USA.

    The Olympic uniform thing really burns me too. I’m glad you pointed out the joke of the bill they created to “prevent that from happening again”. It’s just nuts to me that these things slip through the cracks. I guess it’s because now that this law was proposed, people will assume it’s been taken care of….

    I’ve seen stores that sell American flags that are made in other countries too. If someone flies a flag like that….what’s the point!?

  13. Bret Bonnet

    I say… Buy American all the way.

    It’s insulting that Ralph Lauren thought it would be OK to source these garments overseas.

    … I welcome the day when America becomes a manufacturing power house once again.

    • Amanda

      I’d welcome that too, Bret.

      • Eric

        Definitely agree with ya on this one, Bret.

        The harder thing to do and the right thing to do are often the same thing. While I drive a Ford – and am obviously biased so far as automobiles are concerned – I am more than glad to see that federal purchases will be made within the borders of our country. Sure, it may cost more to buy American, but if it puts some money back into the economy, I’m all for it. Increased production will meana greater demand for labor, so – with any luck – maybe some jobs will come out of it, too. We could certainly use them.

        I think there’s a certain level of pride when folks make items here, and the quality improves as a result. I like quality products (heck, my job helps sell such things), and I like America. What’s not to like about this?

  14. Mandy Kilinskis

    I have to say, I was surprised that Team USA’s uniforms were made in China. Not from a monetary standpoint, but from the sheer nationalism that is seen throughout the Olympics. I would like to hope that this new law will give our economy a bit of a kick start.

    But great post, Jana. I hadn’t realized the vagueness that surrounded “Made in America” labels before it. I assumed (yes, I know what happens when you assume) that it meant 100% American made. If the apparel law takes off, maybe will see other industries adopting new standards, too.

  15. Amy Swanson

    Great post and awesome update, Jana! I had always assumed (insert “you know what happens when you assume” remark here) that if something was “Made in America” it had to be 100% made in America. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to learn it’s not that way, everything has so much fine print attached to it.

    Thanks for the head’s up and for keeping us up-to-date on all things “Made in America”

  16. Rosalind Haley

    Entertaining yes….do you buy USA Made? Awwww picturing you in a snuggie at the office….If more people could find manufacturing jobs they could a snuggie at the office too maybe during their lunch break.

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