What does "Made in USA" really mean?
(Note: all of the information below is based on United States law, regulation varies in different countries)
We’ve all been there: trying to wake up in the morning with some light reading of the cereal box. The “Nutrition Facts” side is always a doozy: bottomless information, percentages, values, numbers... math. Often, this information goes well over the heads of caffeine-craving early birds. However, between marketing teams, industry lobbyists, and government agencies, product labeling is a constant tug of war. For food and fashion, labeling what it is, where it’s from, and what’s in it is a highly regulated and fiercely challenged bit of legislature.
The label in your shirt (or pillowcase, blanket, underwear, jeans...) is a tightly enforced slice of information, with rules set by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). With numbers, names, languages, and pictographs, it can seem like a bunch of jargon. But hidden among the text is one line telling you simply, where the shirt was made. And despite seeming straightforward, it is deceptively cryptic.
"Made in ______"
This “Country of Origin” line must be part of every textile label produced in the United States, but one simple caveat makes things a bit murky. This is called the “One Step Removed” rule and is frequently used to reduce transparency. A “Made in USA” claim is not all inclusive. It mandates that all parts of the product must be sourced and finished in the USA unless they are one or more steps removed from the finished product. In other words, where the raw material comes from is not necessary to disclose if it undergoes at least one change in the US like raw material to yarn, or yarn to fabric.
Let’s compare Goodwear and Company X.
At Goodwear, we source 100% of our cotton domestically, and as such we are certified by Cotton USA. The cotton is spun into yarn, woven into fabric, and cut and sewn in the US. Therefore, we proudly claim Made in USA on our label. The "Seal of Cotton" certifying this can be seen below, and on labels or pages of certified brands:
Company X imports yarn spun in India from cotton grown in China. The yarn is woven into fabric stateside. That fabric goes on to be knit into a shirt, and the “Made in USA” label is attached. The imported yarn is more than one step removed from the final garment, but without any company transparency, the consumer will never know. This came to a head at the end of 2020 when the genocide of Uyghur Muslims in China became publicized. Forced labor camps were discovered, where else but in Xinjiang, a province producing more than half of China's cotton and nearly 20% of the global supply. Dozens of giant brands were called out for supporting this human rights violation. Certainly not to defend them, but truth be told, most of their labels likely said "Made in China". But it gets insidious and tricky in the ones claiming "Made in USA" but importing raw material. This leads you, the customer, to believe what you are buying (and likely paying a premium for) came 100% from the States.
All this is to say... it’s good to be a bit skeptical. Does the price point seem too low for 100% Made in USA? Does the quality seem at all questionable? Beyond simply reducing American jobs, outsourcing raw materials opens the door for labor and environmental exploitation overseas. In order to know where the shirt you are wearing truly came from, deeper digging is often needed. Simply checking the company’s “About Us” webpage is often telling. What to wear and where to shop is a personal choice and there is no right or wrong option. This article is simply to say knowledge is power and if you are committed to Made in USA, some extra research of the brand you love may be needed. At least with Goodwear, you can be sure from seed to shirt, we’ve done everything here at home.
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