If you pick up an item in a gift store, chances are, you'll find a little label telling you where it was made. U.S. law requires it for nearly every imported good.
But shop online, and country of origin information is much harder if not impossible to find.
And that's frustrating some Vermont manufacturers like Ben Clark, CEO of Ann Clark Limited and The American Cookie Cutter Company. The Rutland-based company is the largest cookie cutter manufacturer in North America.
At this time of year, Clark's company employs about 35 people, many of whom work at stations turning strips of steel into cookie cutters.
He points to one employee who within seconds creates a cookie cutter shaped like a snowflake. "Right now we’re making just under 100,000 cookie cutters a week," Clark shouts over the din of the machinery, "or just under 20,000 a day."
The company sells to gift stores all over the country as well as to major retailers like Bed Bath and Beyond, Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma.
But Clark says millions more cookie cutters are sold online through e-retailers like Amazon and others. If country of origin information were provided there too, he believes he'd double his business and create more jobs.
"If you go online, it doesn't say where anything is made," says Clark. Most e-retailers provide product dimensions, washing instructions, a photo and even reviews. But Clark says rarely do you see anything on country or origin. "The fact that we don’t label online is beyond me," complains Clark. "We're sitting here trying to bring jobs to America and every politician who's worth anything, that’s what they talk about. Yet the Internet of how many billion dollar industry it is and what percentage of our economy it is - oh, there? You don't have to follow the rules because, well, I'm not sure why. It floors me."
But Jim Kohm, head of enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates Internet commerce, says there are no laws requiring e-retailers to cite country of origin.
He says the FTC only steps in when there are deceptive or unfair practices affecting commerce, such as when someone claims a product is made in the USA but it is not. "I don’t know of any evidence that there's always deception if a company doesn’t label its products regarding country of origin," says Kohm.
The website CookieCutter.com sells thousands of different cookie cutters. Tammy, one of the owners who asked that her last name not be included in this story, says they recently began including "Made in USA," next to cutters they get from Clark. But she says they don't state online that products they import are Made in China. "Most people know that if they're not made in the United States they're made in China." And for a product like a cookie cutter, she thinks most people don't really care.
But a 2013 Study by Consumer Reports found customers do care. When given a choice between a product made in the U.S. and an identical one made abroad, 78 percent of Americans would rather buy American. And more than 60 percent of respondents said they'd spend more for it.
At Maple Landmark Woodcraft, a Middlebury toy company that employs about 45 people, owner Mike Rainville knows that first hand.
In 2007, his company got a huge boost when toys imported from China were found to contain lead. Because of that, he says many online retailers are now better about including country of origin information, but not all. "We try to encourage our retailers to put in their advertising that it was made in Vermont or made in the USA, and sometimes it's a hard thing to get them to do."
Rainville says he feels strongly that country of origin information should be provided. “I happen to think that’s important information. It doesn’t matter if you’re concerned about safety or not. Maybe you’re concerned about domestic jobs.”
Rainville says earlier this year, his company chose to be proactive. “We’ve kind of decided to tag "Made in USA" on the end of our product names – add it right to the name of our product. They’re starting to call us on that right now, the retailer is,” says Rainville. They think that’s inappropriate. But we’ve seen an uptick in our business since we’ve started doing that and we don’t want to take it off.”
In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reportedly processed more than $2.3 trillion worth of goods into the United States, with China, the lead trading partner.
Mike Rainville says he’d like to see U.S. lawmakers do more to help domestic manufacturers by mandating better country of origin labeling online, but admits it’s unlikely. “There are a whole lot of people making a whole lot of money selling imported product who have an interest in keeping a lid on American-made designations and things like that,” says Rainville. “It’s not in the best interests of everyone in this country to be sure that American-made is information that’s available.”
But he and Ben Clark say if lawmakers want to create more jobs, it’s a good place to start.