Do We Need CleanTech to Save American Manufacturing?


Photo via Shane Gavin via flickr.

In Grist, Terry Tamminen argues that a push in clean tech could revive America's "laggard" manufacturing sector--noting how once upon a time 'Made in Japan' stickers denoted cheap goods, and now the nation is a leader in innovation. But Yglesias rebuts his argument by noting that American manufacturing is alive and well--we're still the world's leading manufacturer in terms of value, and productivity is still climbing. However, I think Tamminen nonetheless has a point--that the image of American manufacturing could use an overhaul, and that becoming a leading manufacturer of quality cleantech goods would be a huge boon to the "American" brand in the future.In 2007, America's manufacturing sector hit a record value of $1.6 trillion a year. And the SF Chronicle notes that "For every $1 of value produced in China's factories, America generates $2.50."

But America manufactures things that aren't sold in retailers. While Japan floods the market with electronics, America leads manufacturing in--you guessed it--some $200 billion worth of aircraft, missiles, and weapons a year. The US also manufactures $100 billion in cars and car parts, tractors, and agricultural machinery. Gas turbines, computer chips, and circuits that go in other products are also manufactured en masse here.

It can just seem like manufacturing is on the decline because jobs in the sector are--as the industry has grown larger and more efficient, it's shed the need for as many human jobs. But productivity and value rises nonetheless.


So take a look at Tamminen's argument:

Growing up in the 1950s, "Made in Japan" was synonymous with "cheap junk." Responding to the needs of a world that hungered for more labor-saving devices, Japanese manufacturers shifted to higher-value products and quality improved. Today, "Land of the Rising Sun" companies like Honda boast the hydrogen-powered Clarity automobile and Toto makes high-tech toilets that do everything from chemically analyze your urine to heat water that massages your backside.

In those same decades, American manufacturing has gone from the global leader in innovation and quality to a laggard in producing almost anything. Just as Japan reinvented its manufacturing base ahead of massive global economic and technological demand, can "Made in America" once again mean something special--this time ahead of the needs of both the economy and the environment?

This is what Yglesias took issue with, and the line I put in bold seems to be a false statement. But I think Tamminen has a point anyways, one that he perhaps failed to make clear. And that's if the 'American' brand of manufacturing continues to hinge on weaponry and auto parts, it may indeed come to be considered in the same vein as Japan's was 50 years ago.


A wind turbine factory. Photo via Acciona

There's currently a window for the US to take the lead in the cleantech market--we have the resources and the intellectual capacity to do so. Being competitive in cleantech will certainly be of the utmost importance in coming years, as economies move to wean their dependence on fossil fuels.

So while the argument that we need cleantech to somehow 'save' an ailing manufacturing sector isn't true now, not embracing it would be a great detriment to American manufacturing in the (not too far-off) future.

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