Growing up, my parents drove my brothers and me around in lumbering Fords and ungainly Oldsmobiles until one fateful day in the summer of 1980, when my dad showed up in a brand new, all-beige VW Rabbit. It was a completely foreign thing, something from the future, a compact — perish the thought — German automobile. Buying a European car was now OK, my dad made a point of telling us, because this one was made in the U.S.A.
I inherited my father’s “made in the U.S.A.” credo, obsessively hunting for labels, flipping over plates and chairs and turning clothes inside-out to find a country of origin. Which is how, over the ensuing decades, I became exquisitely aware that much of the stuff I bought was no longer made in the U.S.A. Everything from my Gap sweatshirts in the ’90s to my clunky desktop in the early aughts, and eventually to my refrigerator and dishwasher, was made elsewhere.
What happened to manufacturing in America and the environmental and economic consequences of offshoring — companies sending their manufacturing abroad — is a story we think we know. The demise of American production seems inevitable, the result of the rise of globalization and free trade. But now we are learning that the precipitous decline was the result of a steady, concerted, decades-long effort among power brokers to wrest the economy from a worker-dependent model to one where skilled workers are expendable. Corporate executives sold free-trade to policymakers as a way to lower consumer pricing, but the human and political cost of offshoring was high.
By 2020, bringing back manufacturing to America seemed pointless, like investing in rotary phones. But when Covid shut down the country in March of that year, Americans were confronted by empty supermarket shelves. Later, the larger, more chronic impact of the pandemic was deeply felt in industries that relied on expansive, complex international supply chains.
That summer, I met Ben and Whitney Waxman, husband-and-wife co-founders of American Roots, who had been making all-U.S.-sourced clothing like hoodies and quarter-zips in Westbrook, just outside of Portland, Maine, since 2015. When the country hit pause, the Waxmans worried that demand for their wares would dry up. Without revenue to pay the rent on their factory space and their workers’ salaries, they knew that they’d lose their company in a few months.
To avoid that fate, they could make things the country desperately needed: masks and face-shields. So the Waxmans asked their workers if they would be willing to return if they did all they could to make the factory safe. It was a big ask — vaccines were still a year away and information about how the virus spread was limited. In spite of the risks, every single employee said yes, energized by the idea that they could make a real difference at a moment of crisis.
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