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When 'Made In...' Means Something Else

There are nine Made in Oregon stores, including this location in Salem. Photo by Chris Lehman
There are nine Made in Oregon stores, including this location in Salem. Photo by Chris Lehman
These stuffed animals at a Made in Washington store in Seattle are labeled "Made in China." Photo by Erin Hennessey
These stuffed animals at a Made in Washington store in Seattle are labeled "Made in China." Photo by Erin Hennessey

SALEM, Ore. - Many holiday shoppers this year plan to "buy local." For decades, two Northwest retail chains have pitched themselves as the source for locally produced goods. But not everything you find at "Made in Oregon" or "Made in Washington" is actually... well... made in Oregon or Washington.

Walk into a Made in Oregon store and you're surrounded by iconic Oregon products: Myrtlewood bowls. Marionberry jam. And of course, lots of wine. The store appeals to people like Jane Botchin, strolling through the Salem Center mall.

"If I find something that's made in the USA, I will buy it over the other," she says.

Made in Oregon's website claims that all of its products are made by "Oregon businesses, artisans and craftspeople," though occasionally the packaging is not.

But it doesn't take long at this Salem store to find products that aren't so local: A baseball cap made in Bangladesh. Gloves made in Vietnam. T-shirts from Haiti, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. Even a box of crackers produced in Hong Kong.

In fact, in less than 15 minutes at this store, I found products from no less than 11 different countries. All of these items have an Oregon connection. Usually, the company that produces it is based here.

Shopper Jane Botchin told me that wasn't good enough for her.

"I'm surprised," she says. "I guess I haven't been in there for a while. The one time I went in, it was all Oregon made. And to find that they're selling the other, that surprises me."

We found similar examples at a Made in Washington store in Seattle. Stuffed animals from China. Shirts made in India.

Made in Oregon managers turned down repeated requests to comment about their international product selection. But Made in Washington's president, Mike Mondello, makes no bones about his store's policy.

"There are things that our customers want, such as t-shirts, hats, some souvenirs, that celebrate the area, that have local themes and such on them, and there's very little to often times no local alternatives," he says.

Mondello says Made in Washington will sell things made elsewhere if what he calls "significant value" is added to the product in Washington.

For example: salmon.

"The salmon is smoked here, it's hand-filleted here, packaged here and everything," Mondello explains. "The salmon may come from Alaska, but all the value is added here. It's created into a great food here."

Or in the case of a souvenir t-shirt, the actual shirt might be imported from abroad. But a local company then prints, say, Mount Hood or the Space Needle on it.

There's an obvious reason for this. In Oregon, for example, labor records show that the number of workers making clothing products dropped by a third in the past decade. And it's not like it was a big workforce to begin with.

"Oregon has never been a hub for apparel manufacturing," says Leslie Burns. She teaches a class at Oregon State University on global product sourcing.

She says many factors go into a company's decision on where to make its goods. Labor costs, production capacity, even political stability.

She says here's the reality: Most clothing we buy today is made somewhere else.

"There's right now over 130 countries that produce textiles and apparel for export," Burns says.

Back at the Salem Center mall, Joann Sheaffer is on her way to her seasonal job at the Made in Oregon store. Company officials won't talk, but Sheaffer says she's no fan of the store's selection of foreign-made goods. And she says customers have complained to her about it.

"And I understand that, and I appreciate that. But there's nothing I can do about it, unfortunately," Sheaffer says. "I wish they were all made in Oregon. I wish we would just hire our people so that they would have jobs."

That's why when Sheaffer does her shopping, she tries to look for the Made in the USA label.

On the Web:

Made in Washington product sourcing letter:

Made in Oregon FAQs:

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.