When It’s Better Not to Share Where Things are Made

For more than a century, American manufacturers have added a “Made in the USA” label to their products to signify that their products were, as the label suggests, made in the USA. For many consumers, that label can mean a lot of things. Some prefer domestic-made products because it speaks to their sense of national pride. Some believe that products bearing that label are of a higher quality than stuff made overseas. Some prefer “Made in the USA” products because workers have protections in the States that they may not elsewhere. Regardless, the “Made in the USA” label is almost universally seen as a good thing to have on your products if you’re a manufacturer, which is why the Federal Trade Commission regulates its use.

“Made in Germany,” though? When it was first introduced, it was also seen widely as a seal of approval — but not intentionally.

Let’s start with a picture (via dw.com):

That product — it looks like a machine part — is labeled “Made in Germany.” But as you may have guessed, that product isn’t being offered for sale in Germany itself — they speak German in Germany, not English, and it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to have English-language labeling promoting the virtues of buying locally-made products in a place where they don’t speak English. That product is sold in England, and, in fact, “Made in Germany” labeling got its start in England, back in 1887.

The idea was similar to the modern use of “Made in the USA” labeling, but instead of being a way to sing the virtues of domestic production, it was intended to signal, well, the opposite. The rule wasn’t unique to German-made products. As DW.com explains, “It came about as part of the British Merchandise Marks Act, which took effect on August 23, 1887 [and required that] each trading nation that wanted to do business in Great Britain had to label its products with their country of origin.” But while the rule applied generally, Germany’s products were the specific target Parliament had in mind. Discovery Germany explains:

Great Britain introduced the label in 1887 when it passed a law forcing foreign companies to make the origins of their products clear. Apparently, several German companies had copied British products, and Great Britain wanted to keep these German products from gaining more popularity than the British products domestically, by labelling exactly where they came from, in the hope that the British would instead support their own.

That worked in the short-term. But as the decades ticked by, something strange happened After World War II, most industrialized nations focused their manufacturing on achieving scale, which is to say, they shifted from artisanal work and toward mass production. Many German manufacturers did the same, but a higher percentage did not. As Werner Abelshauser, an economic historian at the University of Bielefeld in Germany told DW, it became a point of national pride in German to “produce quality work” and focus on “post-industrial custom-tailoring.” The reputation of “Made in Germany” goods shot up.

While the labeling was originally intended to be a scarlet letter, “Made in Germany” became a highly sought after bit of marketing collateral — and for much of the latter part of the 20th century, manufacturers began adding it wherever credible. And because the original law requiring “Made in Germany” markings didn’t anticipate people wanting to use that language, there were no restrictions on who could use the label.

In 2012, the European Union considered restricting the use of the mark. Speigel explains:

Whether it’s attached to a car, a dish washer or a pepper grinder, the “Made in Germany” label is key to selling products made in the country. But if the European Union has its way, goods carrying the tag will soon have to comply with higher standards, much to the consternation of German industry representatives.

EU Commissioner Algirdas Semeta plans to restrict the sought-after “Made in Germany” label to products where at least 45 percent of the value content comes from Germany. Until now, EU rules defined the country of origin as the place where “the last substantial, economically justified processing” took place.

The uproar from manufacturers was swift and loud, and the EU rule never became law. Each country can still regulate the language — German law, for example (outlined in this pdf), echoes many of the guidelines that the EU rule would have put in place — but it any event, the original intent of the label is long gone. “Made in Germany” isn’t something that manufacturers are afraid to put on their products.

Bonus fact: While “Made in” labeling has a lot of legitimate purposes, it can also be used for xenophobic ones (obviously?). One particularly bad example comes from the 1870s in California, as the Washington Post explains: “Racist fears of demographic change, fused with economic anxiety about changing manufacturing practices, led to initiatives to physically mark the origin of products. In 1874, cigar makers and shoemakers in San Francisco introduced ‘white labor’ labels, encouraging consumers to purchase products made by White, often unionized workers over those made by non-unionized Chinese workers.”

From the Archives: Star Spangled Ad Banner: When American athletes used the flag to prevent a brand from getting TV time.