“We are too dependent on schools for cultural reproduction and in the long run this dependency will damage our creative ability and productivity”- Ivan Illich

Is the overwhelming force of habit a reason to keep something which creates cognitive and employment obstacles for our children?

In their everyday life, most people think about consumption habits in terms of milk, meat, and gas; however, in reality these items are only a small part of our daily utilization of goods and services. Americans have changed their consumption habits significantly since the 70’s, the last time metrication was seriously considered. Why has no one really noticed?

Americans tend to believe that their entire world uses customary units, while that is far from the truth. Why does this myth persist?

The myth of customary units is not perpetuated from the production side of the economy, which if they require precise measurement relies on the modern metric system. And the new educational standards are beginning to educate people about the value of metric measurement instruction in the classroom. Rather, the myth that the US predominately utilizes customary units stems from and is reinforced in the consumption side of our economy.

If we are not truly a customary unit country, then why are most of my products still labeled in US customary units?

It is all about the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) , originally passed in 1966, and modified a few times in the 90’s. This is a complicated law with many good parts; however, the FPLA has played a huge role in transmitting, instilling, and entrenching the myth that the metric system is not used much in the U.S. The FPLA also has rules stating than anything greater than a pound must have a second set of customary units on the package. Many of us do not even see the metric units listed on the label; through our traditional K-12 education and buying patterns, we are in the habit of looking only at the customary units and habitually disregarding the metric units.

This habit of the mind is the same when looking at the items in your bathroom and food pantry. You might be surprised to see that most products are packaged in standard or normalized metric sizes: 250ml, 500ml, or 1-liter packages or bottles, with an awkward number of ounces listed on the package. Why the shift to normalized metric units- because 95% of the worlds population thinks and formally functions in the modern metric system.  If it were not for the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act,  Team Metric believes most companies would evolve beyond mandatory listing of awkward-sounding numbers such as (1Qt 1pt 2.7fl oz) the measurements needed to describe 1.5 liters of bottled water in customary units.

Another set of regulations is the Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation (UPLR), which is supposed to allow metric-only labeling on non-consumer packages (those packages marked for wholesale and industrial trade). However, in practice the UPLR may require different and explicit packaging regulations.

As an example: Packaged Seed – Packages of seeds intended for planting with net contents of less than 225 g or 8 oz shall be labeled in full accord with this regulation except as follows:
(a) The quantity statement shall appear in the upper 30 % of the principal display panel.
(b) The quantity statement shall be in terms of:
(1) the largest whole SI unit for all packages with weights up to 7 g; and
(2) in grams and ounces for all other packages with weights less than 225 g or 8 oz. (Amended 1995)

Due to the complexities of the FPLA and UPLR, most companies simply “choose” to dual-label their products as to not inadvertently violate any parts of U.S. law.

What harm comes from FPLA Act?

Quite a bit actually. First, it does not promote or increase a real “number sense” about metric units. This lack of number sense not only creates many preventable medication errors in pediatrics , but it also inserts obstacles to success in most STEM occupations and in the development of STEM-literacy .

Solution:  Modify the FPLA Act to incorporate all the changes in the National Institution of Standards and Technology (NIST) Handbook 130

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Congress established the agency to remove a major handicap to U.S. industrial competitiveness at the time—a second-rate measurement infrastructure that lagged behind the capabilities of England, Germany, and other economic rivals.

NIST makes several recommendations, but three of most relevant are the following:

  1. Require future labels, after some date, to place metric units first, with customary unit in parenthesis
  2. Allow companies to use metric-only unit labeling. This is NOT Mandatory but as a voluntary option.
  3. Change unit pricing in stores to reflect the option of metric-only labels. Find out more about additional improvements which could be made to unit pricing.

Team Metrics supports these changes, as they would 1) begin to change the American myth that our world relies on customary units, and 2) teach Americans to begin intuitively thinking in metric units, the universal units of precise measurement.

Consumption Habits

In an effort to demonstrate that the U.S. is much farther along the metrication scale than many people realize, we have included an incomplete list of common goods and services we consume in metric units:

Food (Nutrition information)

All nutritional information is in metric units. The small calorie equals the amount of thermal energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C (now usually defined as 4.1868 joules). Food energy is measured in large calories or kilocalories, often simply written capitalized as “Calories.” Large calories are defined as the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories. Many bulk food manufacturers and food organizations, such as The Whole Grain Council use grams as their unit of measurement.

Healthcare and Medicine

The entire healthcare system uses the metric system at all levels of service, including diagnostic equipment.

All vitamins, prescription and nonprescription medication

Data Consumption

Data consumption and Internet use, particularly primary sources of all scientific research. In 2008, Americans consumed data almost 12 hours per day , which is 3.6 zettabytes. Scientific literacy is a significant part of both the New Common Core Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards.

All transportation

Cars, bikes, ATV’s (four-wheelers), buses, trains, and newer airplanes were designed, manufactured and are maintained using the modern metric system.

All alcoholic beverages

Alcoholic beverages are all consumed in liters. These items do not even require customary units on their label.

Most household products

Review the products in your bathroom, and you will find that most are probably in normalized metric units.  For example, Listerine – its label states 1.0L (1QT, 1.8Fl Oz). Or Campbell’s soup, which is 289g (or 10.5oz.) We believe placing customary units on labels have given most Americans the illusion they are customary products, even when the numbers were converted from the metric system and are metric rational.

Metric Sports

Many sports are metric, including track and swimming. Measurements are essential to ensuring fairness in sports. The metric system is used on everything from keeping accurate event times, the correct pressure of sports balls, and measuring competition distances.

Most furniture

We suspect that most furniture in an “average” American’s home was both designed and built in metric units. If your furniture was built outside of the U.S., which most of it is now, even by an American company, they most likely used metric design and metric manufacturing. This includes your dining table, couches, end tables, TV stands.

Home appliances

Look around your kitchen; all of the foreign brands were designed and manufactured in metric units, but even international U.S. brands such as GE or Maytag were manufactured using metric. Why? Because it is very expensive for international companies to have two separate product lines with two different work-forces. International companies would sacrifice their “economies of scale” in doing so. And, the data is clear, metric manufacturing does not stop Americans from buying products.

Most Guns and Ammunition

Energy consumption

Electricity is measured in Kilowatt-Hours. The watt is defined as a joule per second.