Back in 2005, I was a student in the acclaimed Dale Carnegie course. I enrolled myself in the class with high expectations and very little idea about what the class actually entailed. Our class at that time, was held at the UAW hall in Canton, off of Ford road. There were 18 people in our class (very small by our standards today - my last graduating class had 35 students), and most of them worked together at the GM Powertrain plant in Ypsi.
Out of 18 students, all but about 4 or 5 of us were coworkers. One gentleman in particular won my respect quickly, his name was Mike Compton. Mike was about 50, and his talks were always heartfelt, captivating and insightful.
After about 6 weeks of listening to his words of wisdom and observing his thoughtful consideration, I loudly proclaimed to him that if he were 25 years younger, I would ask him out on a date. He turned about 30 different shades of red, and once he recovered, our friendship was born.
Mike had a Cadillac. It was a beautiful car, black with black leather interior with deep brown wood grain trim. He was telling me that owning a Cadillac was something he had always wanted, and was surprised when he encountered some unexpected trouble when he tried to park it in a UAW lot.
Several members of the UAW insisted that though the car was made by GM, it was not an "American made" vehicle, because several of the parts were actually made in Mexico. Some members argued that he should be able to park it in the lot, because Cadillac is an American company. After much ado and debate, it was decided that Mike would be able to park his car in the lot, but not everyone was very happy about it.
6 years later, I started Three Little Birds, and quickly started trying to source my supplies from other Michigan companies. I began looking for promotional items to showcase the logo drawn by Don at KnowAd in Royal Oak, and thought it would be nice to buy tote bags which were made in the US. As I set out to do my research, it was very soon apparent that American made tote bags are more difficult to find than you might imagine.
Not only are totes made in the USA more difficult to obtain, they are twice to three times more expensive than the totes made "overseas" (a sneaky way for customer service reps to say, "China"). For instance, a tote made in China, and printed with my 4 color logo might cost me $4.30 if I decided to buy 500. The same size tote, made in Texas or California is $9.
It was easy to see firsthand how difficult it is for a small business to compete because our margins are so slim. It was even more easy to understand why so many people end up buying products made in China, even if they don't want to. I was discouraged, but determined to find some type of compromise.
Over the years, I've purchased several tote bags from retailers and other companies I support. I decided to look inside each bag to see where they were made. Bag after bag was manufactured in China. The realities of operation were validated when I saw that even inside of my cheery little Whole Foods Market totes was the ubiquitous "made in China" tag.
It isn't a secret that there are several companies who print t-shirts, tote bags, etc. in our own backyard, and those promotional products may have been imported from other countries. These companies employ Michigan residents to screen print, embroider and otherwise fashion these products every day.
I drove out to Sterling Heights to visit a company called 'All American Screenprinting & Embroidery' because when I spoke with them on the phone, I was impressed with their friendly and efficient service. I was also impressed by their eagerness to hunt for anything I was looking for.
When I arrived at the warehouse, I met Sarah, who had been so enthusiastically helping me over the phone. I then met Christine, who took me on a tour of the facility and allowed me to take a short video. As she talked with me about her business, I knew I had made the right choice. It was obvious to see that she and her employees cared very deeply about their customers.
Not only do they care about promoting Michigan businesses, they also put their energies and goodwill behind the troops who are serving overseas by sending care packages to them. It is their way of reminding them that the people back home appreciate their service and that they're not alone or forgotten, even though they're so far away.
In her video, Christine echoed my sentiments that buying items that are made in the USA is sometimes cost-prohibitive, and that she has to offer imported products as well in order to be competitive. If Christine only offered totes and t-shirts that were made here, her prices would be much higher. If her prices were higher, she would lose customers, if she lost customers, her employees would be laid off.
I started thinking about how complex this issue is from an economic and political standpoint. Americans are addicted to cheap goods, cheap food, cheap resources (and this includes me). I'm not interested in being on a soapbox, I'm more interested in what's productive. I don't necessarily think that now is the time to "only buy American", but I do think that it is reasonable to buy local and American when you can. The issue is too large to be narrowed down to oversimplified platitudes and talking points.
For myself and Three Little Birds, I've made the decision to operate my business as responsibly as I can, which for me means supporting people like Christine and her employees instead of ordering from a similar company out of state. To me, it would be overwhelming and professionally irresponsible to try to solve the entire problem by never shopping at Target, or buying electronics unless they were made in the USA.
I like what Mother Teresa said, "If you cannot feed a hundred people; then feed just one."
To learn more about 'All American' visit their website at http://aatshirts.com you can also view the video on our facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Three-Little-Birds-Fine-Foods/164351416948712?ref=ts
Stacy Sloan; Chef & Founder of Three Little Birds