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The resurgence of 'pocketbook patriotism'

A small group of Americans have made it their mission to buy American-made products whenever possible. Some do it for safety reasons. For others, it's a political statement.

It started with the tainted pet food.

Then came the mass recalls of well-known toys: Thomas the Tank Engine, Barbie, Dora the Explorer. Next it was suspected issues with medicine and even candy.

For many Americans, a rash of health scares involving imported goods served as a wake-up call that a surprising number of the products filling our closets, toy chests, medicine cabinets and even pantries are now being made in China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico and other far-off places.

For extreme consumers like Barbara Toncheff, the news was an affirmation of her difficult and often frustrating quest to fill her house with items made in the United States. “I was raised to support your country,” Toncheff said recently. “July Fourth should truly mean independence. We shouldn’t become dependent on the rest of the world.”

While events like last year’s import scares and the 9/11 terrorist attacks may occasionally prompt Americans to look more closely at labels, Toncheff is part of a small group of Americans who have made it their mission to buy American-made products whenever possible.

Seeking out products on Web sites such as “How Americans Can Buy American” and “Still Made in USA,” plus auction forums such as eBay, these dedicated shoppers also trade tips on how to find American-made pants and bags, and they lament the loss of American factories that once churned out their favorite pots, glassware and other household staples.

American-made items, they believe, are more likely to be safer and higher in quality. They say buying American is better for the country because it keeps jobs and money within our borders. And, they say, buying American is easier and more cost-effective than you might think, if you know where to look.

“People can complain, well, 97 percent of the clothes we buy in the United States are imported. Well, I know where to find the 3 percent,” said Roger Simmermaker, who runs the “How Americans Can Buy American” Web site and has a how-to book by the same name. “Awareness is the key.”

Simmermaker began his quest to find American-made products in the early 1990s, when he was struck during a trip to a Florida mall by how difficult it was to find an American-made shirt.  His site mixes commentary (topics include “America’s fastest-dying industries” and “How to stop China from stealing our jobs”) with straightforward lists of products and their countries of origin.

Still, even Simmermaker concedes that you can’t buy everything from American companies, especially if you enjoy watching movies on a DVD player, using a clock radio or talking on the telephone.

That’s not surprising. The United States has been operating at a trade deficit since the 1970s, importing more goods and services into our country than we export elsewhere. The trade deficit has widened significantly in the past decade, ballooning from about $108 billion in 1997 to $708 billion in 2007, as more and more companies turn to cheaper overseas labor to produce stuffed animals, jeans, blood thinners and even organic produce.

Henry Paciullo isn’t the type of guy who tends to shop much, so he didn’t even really notice the trend toward imported goods until about four years ago. That’s when it hit him that whenever he went to a typical chain store, it seemed nearly impossible to find American-made clothes for himself or toys for family members. The 40-year-old Long Island native turned to the Web in search of American products, and soon he’d discovered American-made shoes, bags and other items.

“Once you start looking and you have a little patience, you can find what you want,” he said.

Still, he concedes that it’s easier to make the commitment to buy American because he doesn’t have kids. This past Christmas, Paciullo bought domestically made wooden toys for his nephews, but they were a tough sell in an age when kids want electronic gadgets that are made overseas.

“If I did have kids, I would try to educate them,” he said.

Raised in a family of war veterans and union workers, Toncheff, who is 50, can’t remember a time when her family didn’t just try to support American businesses but, preferably, those near her home in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

When she shops for food, Toncheff favors the grocery store that uses unionized workers. Perusing the shelves, she seeks out brands she thinks are most likely to be domestically produced. Her produce comes from the farmer’s market and her bread is from a local baker. She prefers California wine over imports.

Even her dogs, cat and horse eat American-made pet food from the local feed store. Her furniture, knickknacks and other decorative items are from the local Amish community, various American antique dealers and people selling on eBay. Often, Toncheff buys used items because the new versions are imported.

For a recent kitchen remodel, she relied on stones from the local Amish community and pressed aluminum from an Ohio company.

To her, being patriotic with your dollars is similar to being patriotic in a time of war.

Barbara Toncheff, of Chagrin Falls, tries to buy American made products as often as she can, with some of her products purchased from local vendors. Even her horse Bucky, who she visits in his stall in a barn behind her house, gets to eat American made horse food. She finds that buying secondhand, through eBay, is a good way to purchase many American made goods not produced any longer. (Photo by Tracy Boulian)Tracy Boulian

“If you can stick up for your country and risk your life, why the heck can’t you stick up for your country when you go to the store?” she asked.

There’s no doubt Toncheff’s commitment is impressive, but some question whether it makes economic sense. Brian Bethune, U.S. economist with Global Insight, thinks some people pay too much attention to the issue of Chinese imports, when the effect of those goods pales in comparison to the major contributor to America’s trade deficit: those billions of dollars in petroleum imports that are imported to satisfy our thirst for oil.

“That’s the main problem on the trade deficit,” Bethune said. “These other issues are really very small in order of magnitude.”

Americans could make a major impact on the trade imbalance by relying more on alternative forms of energy such as solar or geothermal, or by reducing consumption, Bethune said. But in the meantime, if Americans really want to commit to buying American, perhaps they should start by getting a bike – or a bus pass.

“Every time you turn on your car you’re creating a problem with the trade deficit,” Bethune said.

For people like Toncheff and Paciullo, there is some good news. If you exclude oil imports, Bethune notes that the trade deficit actually appears to be improving. That’s partly because the slumping economy is crimping U.S. consumption of imported items, while the weak dollar is boosting the attractiveness of American-made products.

Nevertheless, there are still many items that are almost impossible to find domestically, and sometimes even someone as committed as Toncheff has to give in. Recently, she fell in love with a set of dishes that she suspects are made overseas, to replace the mishmash of everyday plates and bowls she’d been using. And when her old RCA television gave out, she knew there was little hope of finding an American-made replacement.

“Sometimes I feel like my back is against the wall and I’ve gotta have something, and I think, ‘This really stinks,’” Toncheff said.

If she absolutely can’t find an American-made version of an item, Toncheff will at least try to support a U.S.  company that is manufacturing its products overseas. But overall, by limiting herself to American-made products she also just buys less.

“I’m not a big shopper like I used to be because I was turned off,” she said. “I hang onto stuff until it goes kaput.”

As it turns out, making the commitment to buying American is for many people also an austerity plan.

When River Skybetter can’t find an American-made version of an item of clothing she wants, the first thing she does is stop and think, ‘Do I really need this?’

“Usually, the answer is no,” she said, and that’s often the end of that.

“If I can’t find it made here, I’m probably not going to buy it,” she said. “I’m pretty sick of the way consumerism has just taken over our country.”

Skybetter, who is in her 40s, began a more serious commitment to buying domestic products a couple years ago after she started to see the effects outsourcing seemed to be having on America’s middle class.

“I decided, I can’t change the world, but I can, at least with my money, decide where I want my dollars to go, and I don’t want my dollars to go for slave labor. I don’t want my dollars to contribute to global warming,” she said.

Turning to the Internet, she found American-made products on forums devoted to such seemingly far-flung causes as veganism, anti-sweat shop work and union advocacy. Skybetter, who lives in Los Angeles, said she was surprised at how much was out there, once she knew where to look.

Sometimes, she said she does make compromises, such as buying clothes that may not be the exact fabric or shade she wants because they are made domestically. But she thinks the items last longer and are of higher quality. She said she often finds bargains, especially if she scouts out sales, and thinks that for the most part she’s not spending more money than she would otherwise.

“It’s just a very different way of thinking,” she said. “You may not be able to find everything you want, or exactly what you want, but I feel better about what (I’m buying).”

Skybetter also makes sure her fruits and vegetables are grown domestically, if not locally, and she plans to buy an American car in a few years to replace her Toyota (she’s hoping Chevrolet’s electric Volt will be available). She was thrilled recently to discover a company that assembles computers domestically.

Still, her television is growing old as well, and Skybetter knows she’ll likely have to buy a replacement that is made overseas.

“This is the kind of thing where you pick your battles,” she said.