I was chatting with Melissa this weekend and made an off-hand comment that I was a bit disappointed that a product I was considering buying at some point was was actually made overseas by a foreign company and imported/re-branded as an American product. Melissa, probably annoyed at me bothering her while she is suffering from the flu, asked me if I would decide what product to buy simply on country of origin. This led to a discussion of what constitutes an ‘American’ product and how to weigh country of origin vs. other factors in making a purchase decision.

I am patriotic, and all-else-being-equal I prefer to support my own country’s economy and people by buying American. Having said that, I am a big proponent of unfettered free trade between nations and won’t hesitate to buy a foreign product if it is a better product for a fair price. I am also cognizant of the fact that the lines have become very blurry about what constitutes ‘American’ any more. Apple Computer is based in California, but is a MacBook Pro manufactured in Shanghai, China really ‘American’? Chrysler is based in Michigan, but is an automobile assembled in Mexico ‘American’? How about Japan-based Honda making a car in Ohio out of, primarily, American-sourced parts? Is that an American car?

This madness occurs in almost every industry these days. Walther, a German firearms company, licenses many of their designs to Massachusetts-based Smith & Wesson. Smith & Wesson provides many of the parts and performs assembly of these weapons independently of Walther, but sells them in the U.S. market branded as Walthers. On the other hand, Springfield Armory of Illinois imports pistols designed and manufactured by HS Produkt in Croatia, slaps their own logo on them, and calls them the Springfield Armory XD line. In some respects, the foreign-branded Walthers are more ‘American’ than the U.S.-branded XDs.

And then it gets all mixed up from there. Those Chryslers made in Mexico are built from parts that, at least mostly, come from the U.S. The U.S.-built Walther firearms are a hybrid of U.S. and German components. The Hondas made in Ohio have U.S. engines, but Japanese transmissions. The Chinese-built MacBook Pro has a processor in it made by Intel, but Intel has fabrication plans in the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere so it’s hard to tell where it actually came from. My RIM BlackBerry Bold cell phone is manufactured by RIM, a Canadian company, in Hungary (believe it or not) out of components sourced from various places around the world. It’s a lot to keep track of.

So here are my rules-of-thumb that I try to use, at least when manufacturing information is readily accessible for a particular product.

  • First and foremost, do a standard ‘cost/benefits’ analysis. If a product comes out clearly ahead when weighing features and reliability against price, buy it without worrying about country of origin. Your desire to buy a quality product should trump your desire to buy an American product.
    • The exception is for countries you actively don’t want to support. If Saudi Arabia made the best doughnut makers, you might buy an inferior doughnut maker from another country to avoid giving any money to Saudi Arabia.
    • If multiple products are roughly equal in a ‘cost/benefits’ analysis, that’s when country of origin should play a role.
      • A fully-American product (company ownership, parts source, and assembly all in the U.S.) trumps all, assuming rough parity in ‘cost/benefits’.
      • If no fully-American product competes, then it’s better that parts source and assembly be in the U.S. than company ownership. An Ohio-built, mostly-U.S. parted Honda provides for the gainful employment of hundreds or thousands of American workers, and it is of little concern that buying that Honda also enriches some Japanese executives.
        • Once again, an exception can (and should) be made if the owners of a company enrich a country or cause which you actively don’t want to support.
      • If no U.S. parted AND assembled product competes, then select one or the other: made in America by a foreign company from foreign parts, or assembled by a foreign company in a foreign factory out of American parts. Again, this puts the emphasis on employing American workers in at least part of the process of making a product.
      • If no U.S. parted or assembled product competes, then select a foreign assembled and parted product made by an American-owned company (the Chinese-made Apple Computers, for example, again assuming ‘cost/benefits’ parity).
      • Finally, if no product with U.S. ownership, manufacture, or parts is competing, buy a wholly foreign product without feeling guilty about it (like my RIM BlackBerry Bold, which easily trumps any other currently available smartphone even if it’s supporting virtually no American workers).

    So, it is of course up to each individual how to weigh these things, but this is how I do it. I support American businesses and workers whenever possible, but don’t lose any sleep over selecting a superior product from foreign companies when American businesses have failed to compete (AHEM, big-three auto makers). I think this is a good process and it works very well for me.

    It does, however, require some due diligence because the country of origin is often not made obvious, especially as things become extremely fuzzy. New cars have detailed parts/assembly information on their window stickers, but that’s about the only place this information is made particularly easy to find. For products important enough to have their own WikiPedia pages (cars, firearms, many computer models) this information can be found there.