The Other Tsunami {What's a Country to Do?}

It's just a purse, right? Geez. Let it go. Isn't it enough that First Lady Michelle Obama looked casual yet stunning as she carried it? Isn't that what we want? That pulled-together, chic quality? And at least Reed Krakoff, who designed the teal blue $1,000 handbag, is a tax-paying citizen of this country, right? So come on, it shouldn't matter that his leather totes are manufactured in Asia. You feel like you should apologize for even pointing it out. And so you do: Sorry.

But when you spend your days researching the origination of products sold here in the USA, when the words "Made in Turkey" or "Made in India" or "Made in Cambodia" or "Made in Vietnam" or "Made in Thailand" or "Made in Mauritius" or "Made in Sri Lanka" or "Made in China" hit you again and again, you begin to see this image of foreign-made products crashing onto American shores; wave after wave of electronics and apparel and appliances and bedding and toys and furniture and food and even heavy machinery and steel washing over the landscape, uprooting once stable American businesses, hundreds, thousands of livelihoods carried away and tossed into the rising foreign-product seas like so much litter. You become alarmed. You wonder if everyone's heard. You want to grab a bullhorn and run through the streets: It's an emergency, people! Move to higher ground! Call in the Coast Guard! Alert FEMA! Ready the shelters! It's a freakin' tsunami!

The situation as you see it (email after frustrated email arrives) is critical. The damage inestimable. Loss of businesses, jobs, capital, morale. You see a dangerous cynicism festering among the uprooted, flung aside, torn asunder. No one protected us, they tell you. Yes, profits matter, but don't we matter, too? I thought this was America, they say, land of opportunity. And now my manufacturing / business opportunity has been snatched away. American corporations have outsourced my job and my livelihood. You listen and nod and want to help. The waters rise. You're in over your head.

And when you explain to a woman in Costco--as you both rifle through adorable, inexpensive (Made in Vietnam) Michael Kors raincoats--that you've pledged to only buy American products for a year, she clucks her tongue and says, "You're about 30 years too late, aren't you?" You fear she's right.

In the midst of sorting out this import-tsunami image, you read about Mrs. Obama's so-called American purse. But when you do a little research--a quick phone call to a Reed Krakoff store on Madison Avenue in New York--you discover the handbag's been made "somewhere in Asia." You're hit by another wave. Oh, come on. Can't our First Lady at least carry a 100% Made in America handbag? Can't her stylist, Meredith Koop, try harder? How about looking at the label sewn inside the handbag?

Sigh. It’s not the Asian-made handbag or the Made in China J. Crew sweaters or the H&M dress (Swedish company; made in some low-paying place in the world), or the British gown or the Lanvin (French; $540) sneakers Mrs. Obama wore to the D.C. Capital Food Bank a couple of years ago. It's this: "Women, wear what you love," Mrs. Obama recently said in her own import-buying defense. "That's all I can say." Ouch. She summarily dismissed designers and clothing manufacturers in her own country. How dare she do that?

Then you look in the mirror. Or more accurately, you look in your closet. You are just as guilty of free-spirited consumerism as the next person, even if the next person is the First Lady of the United States. It never mattered to you before that everything in your closet was made Anywhere but Here. It didn't matter until your Dad passed away and you started reading his "Import Backlash" paper just to feel his presence again. And you finally *got* what he'd been trying to tell you for the last 40 years (that Costco lady was off by a decade). You can't blame Mrs. Obama for not reading labels. You only started doing it yourself not-quite-three months ago.

And you hatch another crazy, Dad-inspired idea. Dad used to tell his kids not to "monkey around" with the low guy on the totem pole if they / we had a problem or product that needed fixing. "Ya gotta go straight to the top." You wonder: Who would that be these days, in terms of power and influence? Well, in 2010 Forbes published "The World's 100 Most Powerful Women." Who's Number One on the list? Michelle Obama.

What if Mrs. Obama announced that, in support of her husband's request that we all think about what we can do to support the American economy, she had come up with a plan of her own. From here on out, she would say--via Twitter, Oprah, all the nightly news shows--the entire Obama family would only wear clothing that had actually been manufactured in the USA. To launch her "Make It Here!" campaign, she would invite the press to follow along as she shopped for clothes and looked at tags. And several times a year, she would invite clothing designers who manufacture in the USA to attend "Make It Here!" White House conferences. Together, these brave Americans would discuss the challenges and triumphs of domestic apparel manufacturing. The import-apparel waters would, over time, gradually subside. It would be a start. Perhaps other manufacturing would follow.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama (the latter reportedly wearing a French / Lanvin dress) participated in the Women of Courage Awards. The awards were given to 10 women recognized for their "courage and leadership as they fight for social justice, human rights and the advancement of women." With our trade deficit at nearly a half-trillion dollars and climbing, with offshored apparel manufacturers employing women of dubious age in sweatshop-like conditions, surely a push for domestic manufacturing would be a courageous cause worth Mrs. Obama's effort.

At the Women of Courage Awards, Mrs. Obama said: "Time and again, these women have discovered a very simple truth: that courage can actually be contagious.” Sounds good to me. Now go forth, Mrs. Obama, and buy American-made clothes. Then watch what happens.