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`Made in the USA' moves beyond simple protectionism

Buying domestic-made is becoming less jingoistic and more about making sure of a product's quality and safety

BY ALEX WILLIAMS  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A Cannondale mountain bike is seen in Manhattan. The ''Made in the USA'' label represents a heightened concern for workplace and environmental issues, consumer safety and premium quality.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Until recently, Bill Allayaud, who works as a director for the Sierra Club in Sacramento, thought people who checked labels on clothing or toys to make sure they were "Made in the USA." were everything he was not: flag-waving, protectionist, even a little xenophobic.

But lately, he said, he is becoming one of them.

"Everything I buy now, I look at the label," said Allayaud, 56, who explained that the "buy American" movement -- long popular among blue-collar union workers and lunch-pail conservatives -- no longer seemed so jingoistic and was actually starting to come into vogue for liberals like himself who never before had a philosophical problem with Japanese cars or French wine.

He said the reasons for his change of heart are many: a desire to buy as many "locally made" products as possible to reduce carbon emissions from transporting them; a worry about toxic goods made in the third world; and a concern that the rising tide of imports will damage the economy and hurt everybody.

"Every time you see `Made in China,"' he said, "you think, `wait a minute, something's not right here."'

"Made in the USA" used to be a label flaunted primarily by consumers in the Rust Belt and rural regions. Increasingly, it is a status symbol for cosmopolitan bobos and it is being exploited by the marketers who cater to them.

For many the label represents a heightened concern for workplace and environmental issues, consumer safety and premium quality.

"It involves people wanting to have guilt-free affluence," Alex Steffen, executive editor of www.worldchanging.com, a Web site devoted to sustainability issues, said in an e-mail message. "So you have not only the local food craze but things like American apparel, or Canadian diamonds instead of African `blood diamonds,' or local-crafted toys."

With so many mass-market goods made off-shore, US-made products, which are often more expensive, have come to connote luxury. New Balance produces less expensive running shoes abroad, but it still makes the top-of-the-line 992 model -- which the company says requires 80 manufacturing steps and costs US$135 -- in Maine. A favorite in college towns from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Berkeley, California, each model 992 features a large, reflective "USA" logo on the heel, and a US flag on the box.

American Apparel, which carries the label "Made in Downtown LA" in every T-shirt and minidress, famously brought sex appeal to clothing basics that are promoted as "sweatshop free." In the process, it won the allegiance of young taste-makers.

Many US designers now showing collections at New York Fashion Week, which runs through Wednesday, will have their goods stitched in foreign factories, a reflection of the battering of US garment manufacturing.

From 2001 until last year, clothing production in the US declined 56 percent, the American Apparel & Footwear Association said.

US high-fashion designers who do make clothes domestically tend to be too small, or in the case of Oscar de la Renta and Nicole Miller, willing to pay a premium in labor costs in order to maintain strict quality control.

But these brands have yet to exploit the cachet of "Made in the USA" in their marketing, in the way that some non-runway labels have seized upon. The designer Steven Alan, for one, while avoiding the Bryant Park tents, makes his distinctive rumpled dress shirts, which sell for US$168, in factories in the US, many in New York City.

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