Slime is having a moment

A perennial favorite for school science projects, homemade slime has assumed cult status on social media. YouTube users have posted around 17.7 million tutorials showing off their favorite do-it-yourself (DIY) slime recipes. Search #slime on Instagram to find 5,256,705 photos (as of this writing) of glittery, crunchy, fluffy, or glow in the dark slime.

The DIY slime craze has been a boon to kids between 8 and 12 years old, who are exercising a natural instinct for capitalism, selling to their friends, hawking tubs at the registers in local stores, and even selling their unique creations on Etsy or eBay. Even if your kids aren’t into making slime, you may have found yourself searching the store shelves for Elmer’s glue while trying to fill your required shopping list for back-to-school this year. Elmer’s parent company told investors that slime-making was driving increased production to fill the surge in demand for gallons of school glue. It’s not just an American obsession, slime is having its day around the world.

Stretching global sales of glue

Slime has always been a popular project for middle school science teachers to convey Newton’s Law of Viscosity. It’s easy to make. School glue is a protein-based viscous polymer. When combined with a chemical borax solution, their polymers form cross-links, creating a non-Newtonian fluid that disobeys the Law of Viscosity because you have to squeeze and stretch it to change how it flows. Enter the social obsession. Add colors, glitter, and just about anything you want to create unique primordial blobs that you can show off on your Instagram account, that can make you a YouTube star, or just a star at your own school. To make all these creations, a regular bottle won’t suffice. You’ll want a gallon, or two, or several.

Elmer, the familiar cow on the bottle of glue “with the orange cap,” harkens back to the company’s roots as the Casein Company of America, which was purchased in 1929 by Borden. The first consumer glues were made from casein, a milk by-product (now it’s synthetic). The Elmer’s School Glue of today was introduced in 1967. Newell Brands of Hoboken, New Jersey, acquired Elmer’s in 2015 for $600 million. The company didn’t know then it was about see sales soar as Elmer’s glue was featured in millions of DIY slime videos on YouTube. Newell’s “Learn” segment of products, in which Elmer’s glue is featured, is leading company core sales with 6.6 percent growth last quarter; they call out slime in their earnings report as driving those sales. While 78 percent of the company’s sales across its diverse portfolio of products are U.S.-based, the growth is outside the United States, particularly Latin America and the Asia-Pacific.

Display at Michaels storeDisplay at Michael’s craft store.

It’s a straight line from import licensing to slime

What inspired my research into slime was a reference in a news article to the issues members of the WTO discussed recently in a meeting of the WTO Import Licensing Committee. Committee meetings are a regular opportunity for members to query import policies of other members, generally pretty boring stuff to the non-trade policy professional.

But here’s how my thought process went: WTO members met on import licensing > weird/interesting topics on the agenda including China no longer wanting much of the world’s trash and members asking India about it’s restrictions on import borax > when borax powder is dissolved in water it becomes a boric acid-borate ion solution > combine that solution with Elmer’s glue and you have slime > slime is popular among kids all over the world right now > sales of glue spiked in and outside the United States.

That’s trade and trade policy. If you go back to the original topic, which is that several countries have restrictions on certain uses and importation of borax, it has implications for even something as mundane as DIY slime. Import restrictions prompted more YouTube tutorials on how to make it without boric acid solutions (e.g., contact lens solution), which drives different economic activity.

#seetradeineverything

This is the way a policy wonk would follow the trail. I can take any trade topic and wend my way to a personal experience or a shared social phenomenon. But our approach at TradeVistas is to get people curious to follow the trail the other direction – to take an everyday product or experience and discover its global journey. Almost any good or service you buy, sell, or come in contact with, has one.

Elmer’s glue is an iconic American brand. Our personal experiences are connected through its ubiquity in our homes and schools. Its starring role in global social media around DIY slime has expanded this shared experience to kids around the world, who are urging their parents in Melbourne, Dubai, Toronto, London, and Peoria to run out for a gallon of Elmer’s glue. Glue has a global journey and global sales, one that’s taken an interesting turn due to the global social journey of DIY slime (you could say we are forming a global bond). Next time you put something in your shopping cart, ask yourself, what’s the global trade story here?