Why to shop small and American made

Buying ethically made goods is like slaying a hydra; the moment you find something made with fair wages, it is made of nasty polyester. You find the quality you’re looking for in an item, but manufacturing practices are obscured and customer service won’t even disclose where the iron-on patch you’re interested in buying was made (an actual experience I’ve had). In short, every time you think you’ve slayed the beast, it comes back.

Going local creates more local wealth and jobs.
— 42 Percent of Small Businesses Give Up to $1,000 to Charity and Prefer to Donate Cash, Smallbiztrends.com

Shopping local whenever possible has been my choice since before zero waste crossed my path; one of my parents is a small business owner, and the company was opened when I was a child. To me, supporting small business was like supporting my parents. Shopping small and shopping American made aren’t the same, but they are oftentimes preferable alternatives to shopping big retailers with goods almost exclusively made abroad.

Ethically made goods come from every corner of the world, but transparency with large companies is an issue. We must require quality in our goods so that they need to be replaced less often and decency in the lives afforded to the people who make and sell them. Keeping that in mind, before I resort to checking into the ethical standards and practices of a brand that manufactures overseas, I always check to see if there is an option to buy something made in the US that has traveled less distance to come to me and that has a reasonable standard for work conditions.

Small business have a more powerful positive effect on the local economy than large retailers as well. This is due to the multiplier, which is made of direct, indirect, and induced impacts.

According to amiba.net:

  • “Direct impact is spending done by a business in the local economy to operate the business, including inventory, utilities, equipment and pay to employees.

  • Indirect impact happens as dollars the local business spent at other area businesses re-circulate.

  • Induced impact refers to the additional consumer spending that happens as employees, business owners and others spend their income in the local economy.”

These effects culminate in more of the revenue from locally owned businesses staying in the local economy.

One study in Chicago found that an extra 68 cents of local economic return occurs for each dollar spent at independent local businesses compared to 48 cents when shopping at chain stores. In other words, because of the multiplier effect, there is 30% more local economic return per dollar spent at locally owned businesses than chain stores.

Not only that, but a survey by Funding Circle found that 52% of small business owners planned to donate to charity that year, and that 46% of them planned to donate up to $1,000. With the right organization, charitable donations can help our communities and the world at large.

 Made in America has an ethical leg up in that it requires all brands, whether they position themselves as “ethical” or not, to have a high baseline standard for labor and environmental rights.

The validity of this statement is difficult to evaluate, although at face value it seems to be true. We have a minimum wage (although it’s not a living wage) and I’ve never worried about my local river turning fuchsia from a textile production company dumping chemicals or dye into the water

Making ethical purchases often concerns ensuring that there was little to no exploitation in the production of a good. Considering the ethical reasons to buy American made goods, I found a list of the 50 Best US Manufacturers. The list had many kinds of manufacturers, from Hershey, to Nike, to Polaris, Apple, and Hasbro. One of the more striking things about this list is that workers at these companies have a disproportionate amount of union membership when compared to the total body of manufacturers in the USA. While the unionization rate of manufacturing is under 10%, 60% of the companies on the list had unionized workers. We can gather that unionized workers are not a hindrance to successful manufacturing companies, but that having unionized workers is a quality of the majority of successful manufacturing companies in the USA. Unions can be beneficial to members as well, giving them a bargaining platform for negotiating with their employers.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that there are no abuses of workers anywhere in American manufacturing. That being said, workers who are legally employed have the support of the right to a minimum wage, and the Fair Labor Standards Act entitles employees to overtime (time and a half) for hours worked over 40 hours.

As for the higher environmental standards of goods made domestically, we can look at the top ten most polluted rivers in the world for some insight; two of the ten are right here in the USA. Some of the trends we see in the pollution of these rivers is chemicals from tanneries (leather production), textile production, and general industrial waste. Industrial waste usually refers to the by-products of manufacturing and industry such as dirt and stone, masonry and concrete, scrap metals, trash, oil,  industrial solvents, chemicals, weed grass and trees, wood and scrap wood, and more.

ten most polluted rivers in the world

  1. Sarno River, Italy-Industrial waste and sewage

  2. Citarum River, Indonesia-Human and industrial waste, plastic pollution, over 200 textile factories lining the riverbank and dumping harmful chemicals (such as lead, mercury, and arsenic) into the water

  3. Passaic River (NJ), United States-History of industrialization, high levels of mercury, dioxin, other toxic substances

  4. Ganga River, India-Human waste, sewage, industrial waste, trash pollution, dumping of waste from textile and leather production

  5. Matanza River, Argentina-Runoff from tanneries, factories, and chemical plants (causing high levels of lead in water), and sewage

  6. Buriganga River, Bangladesh-Dumping of industrial and household waste, dumping from tanneries

  7. Marilao River, Phillipines-Industrial and human waste

  8. Mississippi River, United States-Farm chemicals, urban runoff, high levels of fertilizer nitrates

  9. Yellow River, China-N/A; most credible sources too old to use

  10. Doce River, Brazil-Water high in heavy metals following dam collapse

To understand why it may be different in the US, we can consider the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Subtitle C. The RCRA Subtitle C created a federal program to monitor hazardous wastes from creation to disposal. The program monitors/inspects to gather data to determine compliance with these standards. Authorized states, the EPA, or their representatives perform the monitoring and regulation of storage, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste. Inspectors look at use and management of containers, tank systems, surface impoundments, waste piles, land treatment, landfills, incinerators, drip pads, miscellaneous other units, and take corrective action for solid waste management units. The most common disposal and storage method for hazardous waste is thought to be sealed underground containers. Manufacturers must also comply with EPA air emission standards.

Some successes of the RCRA over its first 35 years are increasing national recycling rates from 7% to almost 35%, incentivizing companies to modify manufacturing practices to generate less waste and reuse materials safely, and placing the cost of cleanups from hazardous waste on the polluters and not the taxpayers. While there is some debate as to whether these standards are enforced strongly enough, their existence seems to have benefitted us.

I suggest that one of the reasons pollution in the Mississipi and Passaic rivers is mainly runoff from cities, historic residue and runoff from agriculture is due to these regulations preventing improper disposal of many contemporary toxic wastes. It is also worth noting that many of the other rivers on the list are from countries who have experience rapid industrialization in the past decades and who manufacture and produce many goods that we consume in the USA. Comparing apples to apples, many of the worlds most polluted rivers are polluted by the leather industry, but neither of the USA’s most polluted rivers are polluted from runoff and dumping from tanneries. This is despite the American leather industry, which in 2013 earned 4 billion dollars.

All this to say that supporting American industries can be a way to support production without such blatant and devastating impact on waterways and the environment. While (unfortunately) there is always a chance for abuse of workers or noncompliance to good regulations, there seems to be a higher level of certainty that goods are at least somewhat more ethically made in the US, however, we cannot forget that our consumption is not separable from the damage manufacture of products causes, even when manufacturing happens abroad.

What about emissions?

Well, imports cause huge emissions, especially when virtually all of our toys, clothes, and many of our housewares and goods are imported from overseas. That being said, the biggest culprit for emissions from transit in the US is the passenger vehicle, aka our cars. Choosing to go to the store instead of having something ordering online to your home doesn’t always have less emissions than delivery. In fact, attempting to measure this would be extremely difficult because it depends on the good, the rate of shipping, how far you’re driving, and more.


I’m not encouraging you to shop more online and I really hope this doesn’t encourage anyone to actually shop more at all, but I hope that it encourages you to shop better. Be wary of expedited shipping, which will always be a less efficient use of resources than slower shipping. I can’t imagine anything you would actually need two day shipping for, except medical supplies, so if it’s not an actually emergency, give it a rest and opt for slower shipping options. Keep in mind that speedy shipping also ruins consolidation, ie. sending things all together rather than in separate packages, wasting resources and creating more shipping waste. Trying to send things out as quickly as possible doesn’t leave any wiggle room there.

This article suggest that, “online shopping would be greener than driving to local stores if we did three simple things:

  1. Planned ahead and consolidated our orders so we get everything we need in fewer shipments

  2. Avoided expedited shipping (even if it’s free)

  3. Bought less stuff.”

What we can infer is that if we were to choose something both made and distributed locally, it would have far fewer miles, per say, than something imported, shipped overseas or trucked across the country.

Small business survival ensures the livelihood of communities, the creation of meaningful jobs, the support of makers, and the preservation of traditional production methods.
— Why (and How to) Support Small Businesses this Holiday Season, shopify

Making any purchase in 2018 is a minefield of complications with the parameters of ethical treatment of workers and responsible resource management. Throw in a budget (because we’re not all made of money) and your choices are greatly reduced, if any remain. Choosing to buy less may allow you to afford ethically produced items when you absolutely must buy them new, and secondhand resources (those that already exist) are always greenest when available.

So next time you buy, support local businesses and locally made products to support your local economy and better manufacturing.


https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/toxic-waste/ https://www.statista.com/statistics/290618/revenue-of-leather-good-and-luggage-manufacturing-in-the-us/