Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Passing up bargains

This post was inspired by Weekly Geeks 2009-08: Choose a political or social issue that matters to you. Educate readers about your topic by telling us a little about it and any involvement you've had in this issue. Find books addressing your issue; they do not necessarily have to be books you’ve read. They can be non fiction, fiction, poetry, etc...Give a little synopsis of the book or a link to the description.

In the spring of 2007 my sister, nephew, and I had a delicious lunch in San Francisco's Chinatown, and browsed through dozens of stores, amazed at all the bargains to be had. I bought a cable car-shaped pencil sharpener, a parasol, a paper lamp shade, and a couple of jackets, among other things. Little did I know that it'd be the last time I'd even consider shopping in Chinatown.

In November, 2008 I reviewed Where Am I Wearing?, and learned more about the lives of the factory workers who turned out these bargains, as well as our shoes, our cell phones, our computer keyboards, and many of the toys my kids play with.

It was enough to make me say, "This Christmas, I'm not sending my spending money to China." We managed to have a fairly China-free Christmas, with the exception of gifts from others, books printed in China (I didn't look) and some things I'd already bought. That meant my kids didn't get the remote-control motorcycles they'd asked for, and my husband didn't get the standing mixer he wanted, even though it was on sale. It also made shopping take longer, with heavy sighs as "perfect" items were placed back on the shelves.

So, why bother? Well, let's start with a typical Chinese factory worker's schedule, according to the National Labor Committee:
  • 12-hour shift, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., seven days a week. Overtime beyond that is mandatory.
  • Workers are allowed two days off a month.
  • Workers sleep in factory dormitories, 6-8 people per room. If they choose to live elsewhere, they still have wages docked for the room.
But that's just the basics. Here's one worker quoted in the National Labor Committee report, describing his daily life:
I feel like I’m serving a prison sentence....The factory is forever pressing down on our heads and will not tolerate even the tiniest mistake. When working, we work continuously. When we eat, we have to eat with lightning speed. When I need to go to the bathroom, I have to try my hardest to control myself, to hold it in and not go. The security guards are like policemen watching over prisoners. We’re really livestock and shouldn’t be called workers.
It's a pain in the rear to check labels all the time, especially when it means paying more money for basically the same item. Our family gets by just fine on one public employee's income, partly because we're careful with our money and always on the lookout for a bargain. But, a bargain at what cost?

Do you have time to watch a two-minute CNN report about the Chinese factories Wal-Mart uses*?

This week, I read A Year Without 'Made in China,' which is exactly what it sounds like: author Sarah Bongiorni's account of the year she swore off all Chinese-manufactured products. For a full review, see Devourer of Books. I found it an entertaining read, helpful (I'll get to that later), in some cases discouraging, in other cases, funny.

Next on my Made in China reading list:

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie Chang

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli--seems kind of similar to Where Am I Wearing, but different.

Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows: "For anyone who's ever wondered what's behind the ubiquitous "Made in China" labels -- and how the United States economy has become so entwined with the Chinese -- Fallows' book offers an engaging, informative and occasionally prescient glimpse into the reasons why."

When I took my kids shoe shopping this week, I was glad I'd read A Year Without 'Made in China.' I went right ahead and took them to Target (which seems to have more items made in China than, say, Kohls or Fred Meyer) and didn't even bother checking where any of the shoes were made. Why? Because, thanks to Bongiorni, I already knew that any shoe I can afford that my sons will wear in public is certain to be made in China.

*For more information about Wal-Mart, I highly recommend the DVD Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.


  1. This is a great Weekly Geeks column. I've been a label reader for a while now, since my husband works for a company that manufactures in the US. After I read Tears in the Desert, I was more convinced to avoid Chinese made products. After reading Where Am I Wearing? last week, I am totally convinced to avoid products made from China. I know I can't avoid them altogether and my little bit of money doesn't make much difference, but it does make me feel better. I'm off to read Jen's review of A Year Without "Made in China."

  2. There are definitely some product categories, like afforadable kids shoes, that seem to trip up anyone that tries this experiment. I wonder if there are some brands which are more worker friendly than others? The chinese workday/week sounds hellish. And to think I complain about mine!

  3. Thanks for your great post. It just seems like a cycle - we want cheap things, China is willing to make them and supply the labor, we buy cheap things. It's the same thing with eggs, for example. People want to buy cheap eggs, so battery chicken 'farms' exist, most people don't or can't pay for eggs from chickens raised humanely. I don't know how this cycle can be stopped. Probably for many Chinese this may be the only work they can get. Also frighening are all the recalls from Chinese made products. I am rambling now, but thank you for your post. I am interesting in the book you mentioned, Factory Girls.

  4. Wow. Excellent post, Ali. I am horribly ignorant about this topic, but now I really want to read What am I Wearing?

  5. Oh Ali, thank you for this wonderful post! We tried very hard to make this past Christmas a hand-made and/or fair trade Christmas. (Except for the oodles of books we bought.) We didn't succeed entirely. But it certainly feels good every time you know you make the responsible decision as a consumer.

  6. I picked up "A Year Without 'Made in China'" at the library today; they didn't have "Where Am I Wearing". I like books in the "I tried this for a year" genre ("See You In A Hundred Years" is a good one, but it's not at all related to the topic of this post).

    I was under the impression workers in China, especially factory and blue-collar, have had those type working conditions for quite some time, not necessarily as a result of so many companies moving production to there. Does the author of "Where Am I Wearing" discuss that? Does he feel that if Americans quit buying as much "made in China" stuff, doing so would alleviate the problem of long hours, not enough days off, and being docked for living quarters even if they live other than in the factory dorms?

  7. Glenda, Kelsey does address that issue in his book, I hope you'll get to read it at some point.

    As to whether not buying Chinese-made products helps those workers, I would say it does. Larger orders from U.S. companies mean more required hours--many of them unpaid--and more pressure. The companies are making billions of dollars on all those products we buy, so where is their motivation to change? Not buying those products also supports the other companies--the ones who are struggling to survive without moving or hiring out production to China--and it encourages stores to provide a wide variety of products made by other countries.

  8. Interesting. Especially your admission to heading to Target and not even looking at labels! I've spent years not buying big or small things made in China, as long as I could help it. And recently have just decided on a bit of "real world" activism. I finally figured out that it's just not possible to not buy from China, at least not without being greatly inconvenienced. So I look for things not made in China, and look for alternatives (shoes from Buffalo Exchange--also calms my leather issues) but if it's not easily available for an affordable price, I will buy items made in China. I'm am still conscious of it--but it's part of a bigger problem that I can't completely solve myself.

  9. Thanks for this great post! It is difficult to do what we know we should. On the one hand, we don't want to support China labour. On the other, there is no way we can afford to clothe our kids, for example, unless we have big-paying jobs. I have a hard time, especially, because only my husband works and we have three kids. Living on one income is pretty tight for a family of five. I'm just glad they're all boys and everything is passed down one to the other. I'll be on the lookout for these books you mentioned, thanks.

  10. Hi Ali! This is an interesting post indeed coming from someone like me who lives in a third-world yet WTO member country like the Philippines. We're also flooded with "Made in China" products and I have to agree that it's cheaper to buy them than other locally made products though from my experience, they suffer from quality.

    What I'd like to address is the fact that just because a product isn't made in China (for those avoiding stuff made there) doesn't mean it isn't made in a sweat shop. Ergo, just because something is made in China doesn't mean it's from a sweat shop.

    There are lots of countries with both sweat shops and legitimate factories, China among them. Big companies go there precisely for the cheap labor. But a generalized attitude of simply not buying China-made products gives the impression that China is the only country with sweat shops or something to that effect.

    I've studied a lot of cases concerning unfair labor practices here in the Philippines enough to conclude that we also have sweat shops here. It's good when it's discovered and the employees get their due somehow. But unless it's reported, then those patronizing products have no idea whether or not the goods come from a sweat shop. It's probably true in other third world countries as well.

    But awareness is always a good thing.

  11. Ali - this is a phenomenal post which has started a great discussion. I have *Where Am I Wearing?* TBR. There are no easy answers, but it's great to raise awareness, ask questions, and take the small steps that we can.

  12. Dawn, I agree about the great discussion. I'm loving these comments.

    Lightheaded, you bring up some excellent points, that sweat shops and unfair labor practices aren't limited to one country, or true of every factory in China. When I initially posted about this issue in December (here), I mentioned a German-owned toy company in China with fair labor practices. If anyone knows of others I can make it a point to patronize, I'd love to know about them.

    Claire, I so agree--it's tough to get by on one income. These choices are definitely not easy!

    Elizabeth, If you ever see skate shoes at a resale shop in any size above a boy's 4, call me and I'm there!

  13. Great post. I think the social-issues thing is great for Weekly Geeks and it's really terrific to be able to learn not only about issues but resources related to them. Awesome.

  14. Interesting post! I don't have kids, so I think I avoid a lot of these kinds of conflicts regarding buying from China. But I feel so conflicted at the grocery store-- I love to support sustainable agriculture, but some weeks I just can't afford to do it.

  15. Hi, all the time i used to chеck web sіte postѕ
    here early in thе daylight, as і enjoy to lеarn morе and moге.
    Also see my web site - kids educational toys