Made in the U.S.A.; Sold ... Nowhere?

Not made in the USA?ABC News Photo Illustration
"Nightline" visited three temples of American consumerism to try to buy only products made in the U.S.A.: clothes, tools and household goods.

Reminders to buy American are everywhere you turn. Analysts warn of trade deficits and politicians talk endlessly about preserving U.S. jobs, while America's once-great automakers shutter factory after factory, done in by foreign competition.

So, what if you, as a patriotic consumer, decided to live by the slogan, restricting your purchases -- from clothing to tools to tents -- to products made in the U.S.A.?

A recent Utah shopping trip suggested not only that it would be expensive, it might well be impossible. To get a bead on what it takes these days to buy American, "Nightline" visited three temples of U.S. consumerism: Sears, Wal-Mart and Lowe's. The mission was to acquire clothes, sporting goods and household items while buying as few foreign goods as possible.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET.

There were indications that it wouldn't be easy. American factory output is at a 26-year low, Reuters recently reported. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, more than 2 million jobs have been lost to China since 2001.

And jobs aren't just headed to China. We stopped in Tremonton, Utah, home for 30 years to a factory devoted to a quintessentially American product: La-Z-Boy loungers. The local plant closed in June 2008.

Buy American: Jobs Go Abroad

Darrell Christensen, 60, worked at the La-Z-Boy factory for 28 years.

"They just stood up there and said we've decided to move all of our facilities, sewing -- cutting and sewing facilities -- to Mexico, and we will close the plant," Christensen said in an interview at his Tremonton home. "We were making good money, and of course, you had to work, but that's good for people to work. That's what it's all about."

The first stop on our mission to buy American was a Sears department store in Salt Lake City. We were after a full suit of clothes, with as many items made in America as possible. We came out with eight items total: sports jacket (made in China), pants (China), necktie (China), belt (China), boxer shorts (Mexico), undershirt (Honduras), dress shirt (Bangladesh) and suitcase (China).

Buy American: 'Not the Way Country Works Anymore'

None of the items was available at Sears from an American manufacturer.

Next was Lowe's, where we went shopping for tools and household goods: a hose (U.S.A.), hard hat (U.S.A.), hammer (U.S.A.), U.S. flag (U.S.A. ... but with the flagpole made in China), paint brush (U.S.A. ... but with imported materials), box of screws (Taiwan, China, Canada...), gloves (China), drill (China), rake (China), bucket (China), safety vest (China), toolbox (Israel).

A better outing. But far from perfect. It was on to Wal-Mart: sleeping bag (U.S.A.), cooler (U.S.A.), towel (India), goggles and flippers and fishing pole and life jacket and backpack and soccer ball (China), and those nice classic U.S.-brand Rawlings football and Wilson tennis racket (China).

Christensen, the former La-Z-Boy worker, said that without a salary, even if he wanted only to buy U.S. goods, he might not be able to afford it.

"It's hard to buy total 100 percent made in America," he said. "It's just not the way the country works anymore."

Christensen and his former colleagues are facing a central irony of the U.S. market. Unable to afford American goods, they end up buying foreign -- in effect, paying the very workers who took over their jobs.

In a 2004 Associated Press poll, 93 percent said they prefer to buy American if the prices are the same; 54 percent said they'd prefer to buy American even if it cost more. How much more was not specified.

If willing consumers are unable to find U.S. goods, the retailers aren't all to blame. The biggest, and simplest, obstacle to the sale of U.S. goods is that not many are being made.

Utah Woolen Mills is a family business that made fine textiles for decades. Family patriarch Briant Stringham, 79, explained how business is different now.

"A mill is a difficult thing to operate," said Stringham. "It got to be such a burden to sell output, you couldn't do it -- with the advent of synthetics, the cheaper fabrics."

Utah Woolen stopped making textiles altogether, and is now devoted to selling fine clothing -- mostly foreign-made.

Buy American: 'Sad, but True'

"Our business has kind of maintained that idea of 'let's stay with quality, wherever we have to go to get it,' and it's just sad that you don't find a lot of American makes," said Bart Stringham, 55, Briant's son. "Out of 50, 60 lines, we maybe have 10 that are made in America. Not because we wouldn't buy from this country, because they don't offer the quality we want. ... It is sad, but true."

It is still possible to buy American goods. Our last stop was another family-owned business, an outdoors store run by Jack Kirkham. The store's signature product, the SpringBar tent, was designed by Kirkham's father in the early 1960s. It's an aficionado's tent, produced at a factory less than a mile away from the show floor.

The company sells thousands of tents a year, keeping about 25 people employed. Nearly every part of every tent is made in the U.S.A. "These steel wire stake loops come out of Chicago," said Kirkham. "The zippers are made in Georgia. The netting comes out of Massachusetts. The floor material is made in Ohio. The frame components basically come out of California, Seattle, Washington and Missouri."

There's one part of the tent that uses foreign parts, however: the fabric.

"Most of it is woven in India, various locations. But it is finished in Georgia. ... We can't find a textile made in the U.S. that does what we need it to do. We just can't find it.

"The level of quality that we put into these tents ... has to do with the workmanship and the materials. Just, there's not — it would make the tents too expensive to take these tents to another level of distribution. So we find that if we sell these tents direct, that we're able to sell them at a reasonable price. And it keeps us in business."

Reasonable, in this case, means just short of $500. That's maybe five times what you'd pay for a similarly sized tent at Wal-Mart.

Which is why you can't find buy a SpringBar tent at Wal-Mart.