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Monday, April 21, 2014

The "Made In" Problem

Due to China's reputation of being a creator of shoddy (or even toxic) products, American consumers are often wary of products bearing the "Made in China" label.

At the same time, Yanks love items emblazoned with a "Made in America" label.  We feel like buying those is like rooting for the home team, and might have some positive effects on the overall economy.

Ok...but how savvy are these country-conscious consumers really being?

The assumption is if a toy says "Made in Taiwan" on the package, that toy was created from scratch in Taiwan, put on a ship, than a train, a truck, an hand cart, and finally set on the shelf at your local Wal-Mart. 

So people suspect that if they know something about Taiwanese manufacturing, they'll be able to garner some insight into the quality the toy before they even open the box.  Or so the shopper reasons.

Problem is, this isn't how production works in the 21st century.  NOTHING is "made" - completely, from start to finish - solely within the borders of any nation.

Sure, maybe the paint you bought at Lowe's was synthesized in the good ol' USofA.  But chemicals imported from China, chemistry expertise from India, English patents, German machinery, Canadian accounting services, and Vietnamese-created aluminum cans (made from Australian mined and Indonesian smelted ore), were all part of the mix. 

So which country would you say"made" the can of paint?  Well, the question doesn't really make sense.  No one place makes anything in its entirety.  Almost goods and services the modern economy produces are part of a global effort.

Honestly, in today's pan-global, hyper-integrated economy, "where was this item made?" becomes a truly philosophical question!  This is what I refer to as the "Made In" Problem.  The phrase "Made In Country X" doesn't mean what you think it means, because it can't mean what you think it means anymore.

Planet Money's "Made In" Documentary

NPR Radio's Planet Money team recently released a 8 part series documenting the Odyssey of a single t-shirt - from a cotton farm in the US, then through Indonesian, Colombian, Bangladeshi manufacturing, and finally back to the US (Planet Money Episodes 496 - 503). 

Honestly, I have never come across a more detailed, well-put-together account of how a real-world product gets moved through the global supply chain.  My degree is in econ, and it wasn't until I listened to this series that I felt I really understood how complicated a complicated world-wide supply chain is.  Not kidding!

Although they don't use the term, the series also operationalizes what I've been calling the "Made In" Problem quite nicely.  While you listen to this series (cuz I know you're gonna listen to it!) ask yourself: "where is this shirt being made?"  Or maybe more tellingly, ask yourself:  "Does asking the 'Made In' question actually even make sense?"

I think you'll find that the more you roll it over in your head, the less clear the answer becomes.  By the time you get to the end of the series, you may too agree that the "Made in America" or "Made in China" labels ultimately are just maters of interpretation/opinion!

(And be sure to compliment your listening journey with a few visuals!  See the images of this t-shirt's travels at

And as always, feel free to share your thoughts/observations/questions/concerns in the comments section at the end of this post.

Episode List

Planet Money Episode 496:
Where The Planet Money T-Shirt Began
November 15, 2013

Planet Money Episode 497:
Love, Betrayal And The Planet Money T-Shirt
November 20, 2013

Planet Money Episode 498:
The Last T-Shirt In Colombia
November 22, 2013

Planet Money Episode 499:
Richard Nixon, Kimchi And The First Clothing Factory In Bangladesh
November 27, 2013

Planet Money Episode 500:
The Humble Innovation At The Heart Of The Global Economy
December 04, 2013

Planet Money Episode 501:
A Shirt, A Meat Grinder And The Book Of Everything
December 06, 2013

Planet Money Episode 502:
The Afterlife Of A T-Shirt
December 11, 2013

Planet Money Episode 503:
Adding Up The Cost Of The Planet Money T-Shirt
December 13, 2013

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