26 May 2008


Not always buying from China

[Made in China]I've developed a habit recently (which my wife pointed out to me) of checking the labels on clothing and other products to see if I can find anything not made in China. That's especially difficult with men's casual shirts, and shoes of any kind. Even venerable British bootmaker Doc Martens moved its production to China more than five years ago. (My three pairs of Docs are from the '90s, and were assembled in the U.K., while my Blundstone boots are from Tasmania.) Sadly, nearly all of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics goods I've seen for sale are made in China too, not Canada.

There are a few reasons for my label-reading effort. One is that I'm not fond of the People's Republic's internal and external politics, with respect to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, the death penalty, Sudanese oil, policy reactions to disease outbreaks, Taiwan, North Korea, and so on. I prefer acting on that economically, rather than with symbolic gestures such as urging Canada to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

Second is a combination of experiences I've had with poorly-made inexpensive Chinese goods, and concern about various quality problems that have posed health hazards—from contaminated pet food to tainted children's toys to poisonous food products coming out of the country.

Finally, I'm giving a small bit of pushback to the economic behemoth of Chinese manufacturing. I'd like to give other countries at least a fighting chance of getting my dollar. So, of some of our recent purchases, our vacuum cleaner was made in Mexico, my newest camera lens is from Thailand, my guitars are from South Korea and Japan and Canada (!), my video camera and other electronics came from Japan and Taiwan, the two pairs of sandals I bought today are from Thailand and Italy, and—following in the bare-calfed footsteps of my doppelgänger Darren Barefoot—my new summer man capris were sewn in Bangladesh. (Of course, the Bangladeshi government is no great shakes either.)

Still, it's tricky to avoid Chinese-made goods altogether. Nor is it necessarily desirable. Try finding a reasonably-priced small appliance or a spendy Apple MacBook or iPod made elsewhere, for instance. (In 1993, I was delighted to find that my Macintosh Centris 660AV had been made in Ireland.) Years ago, my friend Tara tried to avoid buying Chinese-made anything, and it was difficult. That was before the massive expansion of manufacturing and exports there in the past decade or so—now such an attempt would be nearly impossible.

I don't think that Chinese workers deserve jobs any less than anyone else. Victims of the recent Sichuan earthquake deserve as much help as those of the Burmese monsoon or the 2004 tsunami too. But it's also worth at least looking to see where your purchases are made, and maybe considering whether something created in another part of the world might be better worth your money.

Alas, those comfy Italian-made sandals turn out to be extremely slippery on the bottom, and I nearly hurt myself badly this evening when they caused me to slip and fall down the hardwood stairs in our front hall. Just because something is made outside China doesn't make it automatically better either.

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You know, I was just considering buying some new man capris. I couldn't decide whether I could pull them off locally...
I agree with being conscious of where things are made and we do basically the same thing. Yes, there are some stores that we no longer shop at because all of their goods are made in China. It does restrict us somewhat and there are things we have to relent on - renovating was a challenge to say the least - I think our electrical outlets are Chinese in origin. I found it interesting that your reasons for doing this are so close to ours - I guess it isn't really that original an idea.
In re the slippery sandals: about 25 years ago I bought two pairs of leather shoes; different stores, different brands, but in both cases the heels were so slippery as to render the shoes unwearable. I took them to a shoe repair shop, where the gentleman explained that the problem was that the soles of the heel parts were plastic instead of (what they should have been) hard rubber. He replaced the plastic with rubber (it looked the same), but what a difference! I wore those shoes until they fell apart with nary a problem after that!
Jann, that was the first thing I did with those sandals: I took them to a local cobbler, who put Topy rubber soles on them, and now they grip great. And the combined price was still cheaper than many other sandals I was looking at.
Good article; it's good to see someone really looking at purchasing from China from more than one angle. So many people seem to embark on a "do not buy from China" campaign without considering the consequences or being practical about it. (I like how you point out that a 14 year old in another country may be hurt more by losing their job because they don't get paid as much as we would like them to and that their low wage to us may be quite good where they live.) I am a furniture buyer and my company buys a lot from China; right now I am developing our code of ethics. We beleive that Western retailers are just as responsible for the ethical development of Chinese production as the Chinese government is; in fact we can probably do more than the Chinese government through our policies and practices! I hope that as a responsible retailer that my company is helping a developing nation and the world as a result; rather than shutting them out because of our fear of competition.
(mine was the last annonymous comment) I just wanted to clarify my view of the 14 year old employee. Of course I would rather them be playing with their friends at school and not see them in a factory! I've yet to see a young employee in one of our suppliers factories (I do visit them), however, I worked in an automotive shop part-time when I was 14. I hope my efforts make things better, that's all.