Question

Are there any high efficacy luminaires that are 100% American made?

Asked by Toby Broemmeling
Spokane, WA

We are interested in homes built with 100% American Made Products.

Answer

David Bergman

Answered by David Bergman

New York, NY

David Bergman Architect

February 21, 2012

This interesting question converges (and sometimes conflates) several topics, touching on politics, economics and green design.

The Buy American movement originated in a desire to preserve American jobs and, relatedly, balance the foreign trade deficit in a globalized economy that has seen so much of our manufacturing depart for places where labor is cheaper.

Not incidentally, those are also places where environmental regulations tend to be more lax.

Manufacture of bulbs in the U.S.

In terms of the lighting industry, we’ve seen a huge exodus of the manufacturing of both light sources (the bulbs) and luminaires (the fixtures).

  • And this is particularly true with high-efficiency (or high-efficacy, in lighting parlance) sources.
  • You’d be hard pressed to find a domestic manufacturer of CFLs, though many tubular fluorescent bulbs are made here.
  • LEDs are a slightly different story and follow the general pattern of electronics development; much of the research and development occurs here and then, for the most part, larger scale manufacturing moves elsewhere.

There is, however, a growing number of American (by which I mean U.S.) LED manufacturers -- companies such as the Lighting Science Group where some of the most advanced LEDs are being developed and produced. Rumor has it the winner of Department of Energy’s L Prize competition for a 60-watt equivalent replacement bulb will be manufactured in Wisconsin.

Manufacture of luminaires in the U.S.

Bulbs are only part of the story. Then there are the fixtures (or luminaires, in more industry jargon) that these bulbs go in to.

As a generalization, fixtures that are less expensive and more mass produced are going to be made overseas.

  • Of course there are exceptions to this.
  • Jim Brodrick at DOE has a series of posts called “SSL in America” (SSL is an abbreviation of solid state lighting, which is another name for LEDs, itself short for light emitting diode) that profiles companies manufacturing here.
  • He tends to look more at commercial lighting, but there are some residential lines there, too. (Search DOE archive posts here for SSL in America.)

You might also consider some of the smaller manufacturers such as, to grab a not exactly random example, my own company, Fire & Water. (I had to get that in there somewhere.)

  • Or my friend Christopher Poehlmann’s studio, CP Lighting, where he combines handmade forms with energy-efficient sources.
  • A walk through the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, despite the “international” in the name, will yield a good harvest of very interesting products from American companies, many of them environmentally minded in their energy-efficiency and/or their materials consciousness.
  • (Until fairly recently, Fire & Water was apparently the only company looking at lighting from both an energy and materials point of view, but – happily – we’re no longer alone in that dual emphasis.)

100% Made in America

You stipulated 100% Made in America as part of your query.

  • It’s going to be almost impossible to find lighting that is literally 100% Made in America.
  • Indeed a “Made in USA” claim only has to be “virtually all” domestically made and assembled.

At Fire & Water, I would have to do a considerable amount of research to find out the countries of origin all the finished materials and components we use. And then we’d need to dig further to attempt to find out where the raw materials were sourced.

What is your goal: to preserve jobs, help the environment, etc?

But let’s step back and ask what we’re trying to achieve here, why you’re interested in sourcing 100% domestic products.

  • There are economic arguments in terms of preserving (or adding) jobs at home, particularly in a very troubled economic period. The political argument is basically a corollary of the economic one: the need to support and rebuild American industry.
  • This can also yield another (if somewhat less altruistic) benefit. A “Made in America” claim can bring bragging rights that may promote sales.
  • The environmental argument, though, is a bit more complex.

The environmental impact

I think the most common environmental argument for domestic manufacture is the assumption that locally made products have less environmental impact than ones that ship long distances. 

That, however, may not be true.

  • Shipping by boat from Asia to Seattle is likely to have less impact than shipping by truck from the east coast.
  • (And definitely lower than air freighting from anywhere.)
  • So it's really about buying local – such as within the LEED Regional Materials 500 mile radius -- not buying American.

Buying local, like buying American, also has economic benefits but in this case they’re more specifically about supporting local and regional economies. Here we’re referring not only to materials sourcing and manufacturing, but to design as well. Though many foreign-made products are designed here before being sent abroad to be fabricated, local production is more likely to also utilize local design talent. With that comes support for the development of intellectual property as well as manufacturing resources. Combine this with the increased viability of shorter production runs when less distance is involved, and the stage is set for more individualized and unusual designs.

I can think of one more environmental argument, and I alluded to it up top. Aside from lower wages, one of the major reasons manufacturing gets farmed out abroad is that other countries, especially developing ones, may have weaker (or no) regulations on pollution or on worker protection.

  • A product fabricated under those conditions may result in worse pollution or more harm to employees than the same product made in a country with strong regulations.
  • Recent stories on Chinese and other countries’ industrial pollution and working conditions illustrate the point all too well.

Lighting's energy consumption is its biggest environmental impact

If we are to look at this strictly from an environmental point of view, a light fixture’s eco impact – unless it’s powered by renewable energy – is inevitably going to be almost entirely an outcome of energy consumption during the light’s usage. This is true even when LEDs or fluorescents are utilized. 

Some years back, I ran a really basic life cycle analysis on a Fire & Water design.

  • As expected, changing the light source from incandescent to CFL had a dramatic effect on the overall LCA.
  • The eye-opening part was that, even after converting to the four-times-as-efficient CFL, virtually all of the remaining impact was still due to the electricity consumed in the life of the fixture.
  • Very little was in the materials, and even less could be ascribed to shipping impacts.

Point being: by all means look at all areas of environmental (and social) impact if you can.

But if your interest is fundamentally in green design, bear in mind that counting Made in America as a gauge can be insignificant or even misleading.

 

Footnote: Many thanks to Dan Blitzer of Practical Lighting Workshop who provided some great industry pointers for my research here.

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