On outsourcing and foreign manufacturing.

It has been a very, very long time since I have used a traditional wooden pencil. I attended grade school back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and back then I had no idea what a true mechanical pencil was. The ones I had were twist-nib, single-use plastic things, and I decided that they weren’t worth my time, so I used to chew up wooden pencils like hammy actors chew scenery. At first I didn’t care what kind of pencil I used, but after a while not just any pencil would do.

Dixon’s Ticonderoga pencils caught my eye because of the patriotic images on the box, but what really made me love the brand was how smoothly I could write (or draw, as it may) with them, even when I was applying extreme amounts of pressure to the paper. I declared that they would be the only pencils I would buy, forever, and they were, until I became conscious of how much wood I was basically throwing into the trash. By that time, I had discovered the clickable mechanical pencil, and over the next few years I bounced around from brand to brand until I found a metal pencil by Zebra that wouldn’t break every time I tried to erase with it.

I have never forgotten the start that the wooden pencils gave me, and it is the manufacture of these utensils that brings us to the crux of this piece.

During the time that I was in love with said brand of wooden writing-stick. the Dixon company packaged their product in a gaudy 12-count box that would be any design student’s nightmare. An image of a pencil atop a corner of the Declaration of Independence… graced… the front of the box aloong with an American flag, while a full-body portrait of Ethan Allen (who captured Fort Ticonderoga from the damned Tories, hence the brand) standing in front of a 50(!)-star American flag was placed on the back. By early 2000s standards, it was probably considered good; today, it looks like a rather mediocre Photoshop job.

On the reverse, towards the bottom, was a blue star with red and white stripes trailing it, with the text “Made In U.S.A.” imprinted on the stripes.

It took me a little to get this shot. Florescent lighting is really bad for photos.

Dixon came out with a mostly green box several years later. The Declaration of Independence was removed, the American flag relegated to the bottom. Ethan Allan still appeared on the back of the box. A claim on the front stated that these Ticonderogas were “An American Original.” Other than the typeface on the rear, the result was an overall clean and simple design that put more emphasis on the product itself than on any connection to the past.

Despite all these changes, on the bottom center of the reverse was a statement that Ticonderoga pencils were “Proudly Made in the U.S.A.”

So bad, in fact, that I had to increase my ISO and decrease my shutter speed and this photo still came out with motion blur.

Even those gimmicky triangular pencils, which I totally bought into (they do make writing MUCH easier and more comfortable, though) had the U.S.A. stamp on the barrel.

This one turned out all right.

It was around this time that I made the jump to mechanical pencils, and for five years I was lost in a world of plastic barrels and rubber grips, and later on, more durable metal barrels and plastic grips. (I might make a move to an all metal pencil in the near future. Stay tuned… or not.) However, I recently had to go shopping for school supplies for my cousin, and one of the things he needed was a box of pencils. So I picked up a 18-count blister pack of standard Ticonderogas and looked for the country of origin.

Made in Mexico.

They sure do smell good, though.

Wait a second. Was that right? A company that had once prided itself in manufacturing its products at home in the USA was now importing them?

But then I thought, maybe it was only this specific pack that was being made elsewhere. So I found the current version of the 12-count box and looked for the country of origin.

Made in China.

Ba-dum-tish!

Sure enough, the wordmark on the pencils themselves had not only been reduced to a shade of its former, Times New Roman(?) glorious self — the Dixon company mark was now sans-serif, the model number was gone, and the U.S.A. mark had disappeared completely. (On a different note, they could have at least replaced it with the country of origin of the batch in question, but it seems they cannot even deign that to us. So now once the pencils have dispersed from the box, no one will be able to tell where they were made.) Indeed, the Wikipedia article on Dixon Ticonderoga (Hasty web search. Bear with me.) states that they had “recently” ceased domestic production of their pencils.

Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed. (I’ll apologize for being at least five years late to the party — again, it’s been a long while since I’ve used a wooden pencil, and I’ve only started paying attention to country of origin marks for the past year or so.) It’s not enough that our clothes and our electronics and our toys and whatnot come from China, but our pencils too? What, was American wood not good (read: cheap) enough for Dixon? At least Mexico is on the same continent, right? And we could export the American wood to the shops there and… no, that’s really not a legitimate excuse at all. It sounds rather contradictory and embarrassing that a so-called American classic would be manufactured outside the USA. It doesn’t matter that Dixon actually owns the factories where the pencils are made — they’re not being made here. (I have not actually used the non-American pencils myself, but from what I hear [read: read] over the Interwebz, the quality has taken a significant hit from the glory days of American-made yore.)

If this seems like childish pandering, consider this: how many of us can claim that their wardrobe has more than a few American-manufactured articles of clothing in it? How many of us can claim that they are wearing even one piece of fully American (read: material sourced in the US, and manufactured in the US by unionized workers) clothing? How many of us can claim that they own computers that aren’t made in China? I certainly can’t, and I bet many of you reading this piece can’t either. Heck, that reliable mechanical pencil I use nowadays is Japanese-made. (Although I’m certainly not complaining about that — Japan has a reputation for manufacturing some of the world’s best writing implements, so I can live with this one.) Dixon is simply one example of companies that have gone to other countries either to be able to compete and survive inside an increasingly globalized economy or to simply increase profit margins.

Now, I’m not calling for every American manufacturer ever to come back to these shores. That’s simply impractical. For example, in the technology industry, China possesses most of the rare earth metals needed to produce electronics. As difficult a position as it is to swallow, with the resources it has here, America simply cannot produce enough computers domestically to meet demand. Looks like Steve Jobs was right — those jobs certainly aren’t coming back, at least not on a large scale.

I also give a free pass to companies who have a larger overseas consumer base than domestic. To use a non-American example, the Japanese clothing company Uniqlo manufactures much of its clothing in China. Concerning what I’ve been harping on for this entire article, that would seem like a bad thing. However, as it turns out, one of Uniqlo’s fastest growing markets is China. It would only make sense for them to manufacture their products where an increasingly larger number of people can have quick, cheap access to them. (Whether that quick and cheap thing is actually the case, I don’t know.)

Notice that I give no such freebie to any “American” clothing manufacturer, exhibit A being Ralph Lauren and the “Welcome Aboard hur hur hur” 2012 US Olympic Team uniforms. (Strangely enough, Team Russia’s Opening Ceremony uniforms were made here. Hmmmm…) However, it doesn’t seem that the textile industry will be coming back to the US anytime soon, either. American Supima cotton is grown explicitly to be exported overseas, where it is processed and made into clothes, and re-imported. You might get a few small manufacturers here and there, plus American Apparel, but that might be it for the foreseeable future.

What could convince these “American” companies to return to the land whence they came?

Could the government raise tariffs and enact anti-dumping laws? They’ve already tried to do this with pencils and failed. These tactics may work with other products, but there are some in Congress who are afraid of pissing off China should we do this, so it’s not very likely that we would see legislation to that effect.

Do we start a petition and send angry, nasty letters to these companies? They’ve been outsourcing for years. What makes you think a few letters insulting the founders’ mothers is going to change that?

Do we invade China and nuke all their factories?

Did you hear? There’s a new movie coming out. It’s called One Billion Angry Men.

OK, I kid. But China’s military is the largest in the world by sheer numbers. Do we really want to be going up against that, even with the technological edge we have?

There’s only one thing we realistically can do: buy American.

If more and more people stick to buying only American-made products, and sales of foreign-made products drop, maybe these companies will get the message. We want quality products made as close to in-house as we can get, that can be made-to-order and delivered at a moment’s notice. Majestic Athletic manufactures all of its baseball jerseys in the United States, so when Ichiro Suzuki gets traded to the Yankees and has to play that same day, he has a proper uniform to wear. It’s also better for the environment, as precious petroleum is not wasted on shipping these things from foreign lands to familiar shores.

Now, like I said before, it would not be practical for every single industry to come back, but in those industries that could still make a nice profit manufacturing domestically, companies should take responsibility and move at least some production to the United States. Perhaps we may also start exporting these products as well, so that “Made in USA” becomes a hallmark for affordable, quality products once again.


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