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Jan Lee headshot

Trump's Suits Skirt the Legal Definition of Made in the U.S.A

By Jan Lee

Donald Trump's unusual definition of "Made in USA" is no secret these days. It seems like everyone, including his dogmatic opponent, Hillary Clinton, has pointed out that what he thinks is good for American businesses isn't necessarily what he maintains is good for his own enterprises.

Recently Buzzfeed went a step further and dug into the advertising that has gone along with some Trump products.

"[The] online retailer seems a little confused about where the suits were made," wrote Daniel Wagner, a reporter for Buzzfeed. "It lists some of them as both 'Imported' and 'Made in USA.' Those can’t both be true, right?"

A good point. So Buzzfeed ordered a couple of suits through Amazon, the online retailer featuring Trump's apparel for men, to get to the source of the mystery. Their financial outlay of somewhere between $300 and $600 revealed an interesting answer: The label on the suit listed the product as having been made overseas. Unlike the advertising information on Amazon, there was nothing on the label that said that the suit was made in the U.S.

Buzzfeed's story must have made quite a commotion, because this weekend the references to both "made in USA" and "imported" were taken out of the product descriptions (see the Buzzfeed link above to see a screenshot of the original wording). Amazon no longer appears to offer Trump's made-in-USA suits.

The FTC's made in USA definition

Still, the issue of how Trump could advertise a product (or a product line) as made in the USA and have them assembled elsewhere was still too interesting to pass up. So we decided to dig a bit further.

Just what is it that a manufacturer has to do to stamp that iconic claim on a product's advertising? More to the point, is it actually legal to say something is made in the USA and imported?

The short answer is, yes. The longer one is of course, as long as the product meets federal requirements. And that's where Trump's (presumably former) claim gets hazy.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) all textile manufacturers are required to state if they are made in the U.S. And if they have been manufactured in more than one country, they have to state that as well.

"For a product to be called Made in USA, or claimed to be of domestic origin without qualifications or limits on the claim, the product must be "all or virtually all" made in the U.S. The term "United States," as referred to in the Enforcement Policy Statement, includes the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories and possessions."

The FTC calls this the "all or virtually all standard." In other words, says the agency:  "All or virtually all" means that all significant parts and processing that go into the product must be of U.S. origin. That is, the product should contain no — or negligible — foreign content."

As a writer, I sometimes wonder if peculiar wording has something to do with how companies and consumers interpret laws the government makes. It shouldn't, but the FTC's Textile Fiber Rule is a boon for bored grammarians.

Merriam Webster's simple definition to virtually (adverb) is "very nearly, almost entirely." One would assume that means that all or very nearly all of the suit that is being marketed as having been made in the USA was actually manufactured domestically. But the the Free Dictionary, which takes a more modern interpretation that might fit, say, the use of virtual reality concepts,  expounds on this minute definition by adding the following:  (adverb) "in effect though not in fact; practically; nearly."

So a product that consumers think was made in the USA, could be "in effect, though not in fact, or practically" made in America. And nothing in this generous FTC rule seems to state what the limit is that defines practically.

Foreign content: None, neglected or unimportant?

The same is true for the question of foreign content. According to the the FTC's rule, the suits that carry Donald Trump's Made in USA label "should contain no -- or negligible --  foreign content." But there it is again: the perfect potential giveaway.

Merriam defines 'negligible' as "so small or unimportant or of so little consequence as to warrant little or no attention." The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, however, defines the meaning as "capable of being neglected or disregarded."

And in neither case does the Textile Fiber Rule offer suggestions as to how little or how much can be present in a suit that has been advertised as "Made in USA."

Trump suits: But (did) they comply?

For the consumer looking to purchase a suit that is (presumably) USA made, Amazon's advertising fits the bill. And the advertising is right in line with what the FTC requires: It notes that the product was both imported and of USA origin. But what Trump's product -- at least the ones featured and sold to Buzzfeed -- didn't do, was clarify to shoppers that the product was assembled in the USA. It also didn't follow the FTC's rule when it comes to clarifying the manufacturing process that was used in the two (or more) countries (Textile Fiber Identification Act, 303.33.4). And most importantly, it doesn't mention anywhere on the country of origin label that it was made in the USA.

Presidential candidates' claims sometimes shine a spotlight on problematic regulations that might normally have received negligible attention. But in this case, Trump's repeated suggestion that products should be manufactured in the USA (and not take advantage of free trade agreements as his products often have) appear to have circled back on his campaign. They raise more questions about his companies' business approaches than about the trade provisions that he is so critical of.

Ironically, the question of whether one can call for an end to trade deals and at the same time, use companies overseas to manufacture goods is debate that the presidential candidate seems to have realized isn't good for his campaign -- at least as far as his hats go. He now offers a selection of higher-priced ball caps for those appearance-savvy Trump followers who want to boast that their apparel is "100 percent Made in USA." And boast they'll have to do, because the new, higher priced USA caps look virtually the same as those he had manufactured in foreign countries.

Images: Made in USA label - Flickr/Mark Morgan

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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