A few weeks ago, one of my car’s headlights went out. Rather than the typical reaction saved for automobile malfunctions, I was touched by excitement. While staring at the one-eyed buggy that was my car, I remembered this blog! I would now be able to track down the origin of car light bulbs! This is probably the only time in my life when I will be happy that I need to replace anything on my car.
AutoZone is the only place I shop for car parts. Besides being fairly common in California, their employees have always been helpful, making it easy to “Get in the Zone.” Anyway, I waltzed on up to the counter and asked for a light bulb. Watching the computer as the attendant typed away, I could see that I would have a fairly wide selection of light bulbs, which is great news for a guy that can’t buy anything made in China.
Per my request, the AutoZone guy brought out the cheapest bulb. Immediately, I flipped to the back and searched for where it was made. The package read: “Made in Germany or China.” Made in Germany OR China, eh? Well, which one?
I could have easily asked for another bulb, but this perplexed and intrigued me. Up to that point, I had always assumed that every product would indicate exactly where it was made, and again, I assumed that there was some law dictating that. But “Made in Germany or China” had a particular non-exactness about it. I decided to investigate.
After poking around the ole interwebs, I discovered that marking a product with the country of origin was originally codified in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Yes, the same Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that Ben Stein droned on and on about in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As Ben Stein says, the Tariff Act of 1930 was passed to “alleviate the effects of the… anyone, anyone… the Great Depression.” Essentially, it raised tariffs on a number of imports in hopes of raising revenues for the cash strapped federal government. (You can read the Tariff Act of 1930, and its many amendments, in its entirety here, but be forewarned, it is an arduous and boring read.)
The Act also required imports to be marked with the country of origin whenever possible, assumedly to discourage people from buying foreign-made products. Section 1304 of the Act delineates the basic rules of marking country of origin: it must be plainly stated, in English, in a conspicuous place on the item or its packaging.
But can two different countries be listed? What about “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China?” The authors seem to have foreseen possible complications with wording. To this end, section 1304 also dictates that the Secretary of the Treasury (who oversees the collection of duties on imports) has the power to “determine the character of words… which shall be acceptable as indicating the country of origin.” Essentially, Representatives Smoot and Hawley did not define specific wording, but left that open for future modification. Which was a really good idea.
We are living in a highly globalized world. That is to say, the products and services we consume come from all corners of the globe. Let’s say I buy a computer. That computer may have been “Designed by Apple in California,” made out of components from Japan, from minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that were finally assembled in China. And when I have problems with my computer, I call a guy in India for tech support.
So, where was this computer made? Good question! A lot of places, I suppose.
Let’s get back to today’s question: What are the current rules for indicating the country of origin in our highly globalized world? To find the answer, I headed over to the US Customs and Border Protection (henceforth CBP) website and looked up the rules for marking the country of origin on US imports (link is a download).
Cognizant of the fact that many of the products that we consume are made in a multitude of countries, the CBP’s rules are fairly loose. For example, if a product goes through different levels of production in different countries, the only country it must be marked with is the last country where the product went though “substantial transformation.” This is why most things we buy only have one country listed, though the components, and the raw materials those components are made of, are seldom listed.
More importantly, the use of the words “assembled in” are totally fine, as well as the “from components of” phrase that usually follows. But neither are required. In fact, you don’t even have to include “made in” in most cases—one just needs to name the country! Because there is very little else prescribed by the CBP, producers are allowed considerable play with what they write.
Unfortunately, neither of these points adequately answer whether or not listing two countries with “or” in between them is legal (i.e. “Made in Germany or China”). It seems to be in contention with the Tariff Act’s original language that the country of origin must be clearly stated. Perhaps I will write the CBP and ask…
Full Disclosure: I decided to write Sylvania instead, as I am assuming that a private business will get back to me a little quicker than the gubment. Here is what I wrote: “Dear Sirs, I recently purchased an H7 standard performance light bulb for my car. I am very conscious of where the products I buy are made. You indicate on the packaging of this bulb that it was “Made in German or China.” Well, which one? I am concerned that this is misleading to consumers, as well as in violation of 19 U.S.C. 1304 which stipulates that the country of origin must be clearly and exactly marked. “Made in German or China” has a certain non-exactness about it. Thank you for your time, Josiah”