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They Don’t Make Things Like They Used To

Have you had this fight with your partner when putting together a piece of flat-pack furniture? Because I have! Getty Images

Offshoring led to millions of lost jobs and weakened America’s national and economic security. But it also meant that stuff isn’t as well made.

The Washington Post published a couple of stories over the past week, seemingly not about manufacturing policy at all, that caught our eye.

The first piece, titled “Why furniture got so bad,” examines why, well, furniture got so bad. Author Rachel Kurzius notes that just a few generations ago, people bought furniture thinking it would be “something they’d have for life” but now nobody really expects new furniture to “last for generations, or maybe even to survive another move.”

The second piece, this one by Annie Midori Atherton, looks at “How to buy a well-made shoe.” Like the furniture piece, the shoe story notes that while shoes used to be crafted to last for at least a decade, they now need to “hold up only for two years” for consumers to consider them “durable.”

So, what happened? Part of it is changing consumer habits. People aren’t buying the heavy, well-made furniture that will last generations; instead they are selecting the cheap, trendy thing that matches whatever is trending on Instagram and is easily tossed after a few years. Same thing with shoes — and apparel, for that matter. Consumers shop for cheap trends, and are happy to throw things away after even just a few months.

But that doesn’t explain all of it. People *did* value quality as a top priority just a few decades ago. And there’s plenty of consumer feedback showing that people want higher-quality products, even when taking cost into account.

Consumer habits shifted because the things being offered to them shifted – and that happened because so much production went overseas, sending the quality of things with it. Artisan shoemaker Trenton Potter told Atherton that he’s “observed a decline in quality among popular shoe brands as companies continue to outsource manufacturing, cut costs and churn out new styles.” 

Same thing with furniture. As Kurzius wrote:

To understand the decline in quality, first consider what most furniture is actually made of. In the mid-20th century, the more affordable stuff was typically made domestically of American plywood — i.e., thin layers of wood glued together — while fancier pieces might be solid cherry or oak, and could be made in the United States or come from Italy or Denmark. Today, most of what’s on the market consists of Chinese-made press board and plywood, while pieces marketed as “solid wood” might be rubber wood with glued-on veneer…

These changes result from the same directive: “Everyone is just trying to reduce cost,” says CoCo Ree Lemery, a furniture designer who has worked for brands such as Pottery Barn and West Elm, and is currently a visiting professor of furniture design at Purdue University. Rubber wood, for example, is less expensive than most other lumber because it’s a byproduct of latex manufacturing, but it’s prone to decay. Chinese-made wood products are similarly cheap, but the quality is wildly inconsistent.

It’s not just that Americans have now grown used to buying cheaper stuff; they’ve also been forced to do some of the manufacturers’ work for them. If you’ve ever put together a piece of IKEA furniture, you’ll know that it can take hours of trying to figure out confusing directions to turn your purchase of pieces of wood into an actual piece of furniture.

Offshoring is the reason why:

Labor is cheapest in China and Southeast Asia, so those are the places mega furniture companies tend to make their products. To drive costs down even more, they aim to cram as many of those products into as few containers as they possibly can. The result: “flat-pack” furniture that you, the lucky consumer, get to assemble at home, amid a mess of Allen wrenches and screws.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There’s plenty of evidence that American consumers want to buy better quality goods. We’ve done plenty of public opinion polling that finds widespread support for Made in America products, for example – and quality is often cited as one of the top reasons. We aren’t the only ones who have seen these types of poll results, either.

And yet there’s this consistent idea, pushed by many supporters of offshoring, that American consumers may say they want quality items, but aren’t willing to pay for them. Consumer spending habits provide the proof, the naysayers argue.

I’ve always found that argument to be disingenuous; there’s been so much offshoring over the past decades that it can be difficult to find Made in America items. It’s not so much that consumers are setting the trends, they’re just responding to the systems that have been built for them, including via bad policy that encouraged offshoring at the expense of American workers and manufacturers.

And the systems are toxic.

The biggest name in fast fashion right now is Chinese company SHEIN. The company’s entire business model is to crank out as many products as cheaply as possible, and it’s able to do that because it (allegedly) utilizes forced labor and sweatshops to make its products, which are of such poor quality that some items have found to contain hazardous chemicals and even lead. And right now, American trade policy is helping to underwrite SHEIN’s success — the company is exploiting a trade loophole to send all of its products directly to consumers without paying a tariff or being inspected by U.S. Customs.

Then there’s all the environmental damage of all these throwaway goods. Fast fashion clothing, like fast shoes or fast furniture, isn’t designed to last. So, while it may have seemed cheaper at the start, consumers find themselves buying more low-quality items over time, even for bigger items like a couch or dresser.

That’s ultimately bad for consumers, and it’s bad for the planet, too. Consumers are simply buying too much stuff and throwing too much out – 92 million tons of textile waste ends up in landfills every year.

And it’s one of the big differences between American manufacturers and mass-marketed imports. Made in USA items are often done in small batches. It takes longer to make a high-quality product, especially when you are abiding by stricter labor and environmental guidelines.

All of this, of course, begs the question — Are Americans ready to shift to buying higher-quality items that last longer, or are they hopelessly addicted to cheap, trendy goods?

I’m encouraged that a shift is possible, because there has been a rise in successful American-made brands that focus on quality over the past decade. American Giant may have started with the Greatest Hoodie Ever, but it’s grown immensely in recent years – and proven a lot of doubters wrong along the way. Shinola continues to make its line of watches and other items in Detroit, and now has dozen of retail stores across the country. Then there are brands like flag maker Annin or towel maker 1888 Mills that sell their products in big box retail stores, and at competitive prices.

And that’s nothing to say about manufacturers of big-ticket items like home appliances and automobiles, of which there are still an array of high-quality Made in America options. The quality goods are out there, if you take the time to look for them.

But it’s also going to take work from policymakers to dismantle the toxic consumer landscape that’s been built for us – and support the growth of a stronger, more resilient American manufacturing ecosystem. That must include continued industrial policy efforts like the recent CHIPS and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act, which have spurred $511 billion worth of investments in key sectors. And it’s going to take a willingness to enforce our nation’s trade laws — and the implementation of new trade enforcement tools like those found in legislation like the Leveling the Playing Field Act 2.0, which Congress should pass.

And finally, lawmakers must pass legislation to end the de minimis exemption, which has allowed SHEIN and others to bypass U.S. trade mechanisms to send their already cheap stuff to the U.S. for free. It’s time to put an end to bad policy that has allowed importers to dominate retail with their cheap, disposable goods.

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