Sunday, March 8, 2009
Minimizing Made in China
Not long ago, I picked up a sort of personal journey memoir called A Year Without Made in China, by Sara Bongiorni. An expedition in the vein of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle experiment and others that have sprung up in the wake of Kingsolver's runaway hit, Made in China follows the first-person account of a young woman and her family that commits to purchasing no Chinese imports for one calendar year.
I was interested in see how her experience would compare to mine. I'd made a similar commitment after our son was born - but that was a decade ago and it wasn't easy then. I knew that Chinese imports had skyrocketed in the meantime. I dove into her pages with zeal and empathy.
But, as one chapter bled to the next, I found myself getting more and more frustrated - not just with the predictable loss of non-Chinese alternatives in many product lines, but the fundamental approach Bongiorni took. Time and again we find ourselves in the aisles of Wal-Mart and Target, lamenting the lack of choice and the overwhelming domination of the Chinese manufacturing machine. The giant grocery and warehouse chains offer no reprieve. China China China. Sunglasses become a crisis because of a serious eye condition, a desperately-desired plastic swimming pool almost precipitates divorce. Shoes for growing feet prompt financial angst and philosophical reflection on what we owe our children. And birthday parties for the kids are nearly crises.
Again and again, my reaction is: Well, where have you been the last 10 years? But, even more fundamentally, the question all but screamed itself: Why on Earth are you conducting this experiment at big box stores? I kept turning the pages, searching for the epiphany wherein Bongiorni would begin to discover the small wooden toys shop across town, the excellent resale store down the street that had toys from 20 years ago when plastic was not yet ubiquitous.
What about a few clothes that cost more but are simply styled and longer-lasting than trendy rags that look ridiculous soon and fall apart even sooner? Even more radical - how about using the internet to find people nearby who make and sell some of what you need and possibly even figuring out a way barter something that you make or do?
It cannot possibly come as a surprise that big box stores can only sell what they sell for what the sell it for by buying goods made of the cheapest materials and made by the cheapest hands. Those hands do not live in North America and those materials will often contain traces of even cheaper, toxic, elements.
Can we live a full, modern life without any Chinese imports? No. That is where we are today. There is, however, an almost endless rainbow of ways to minimize the presence of China in your household economy.
But, part of the answer is, again, something Bongiorni never contemplates: It's much harder to raise kids in a house filled with fewer trendy cheap gadgets and toys if they are exposed to those items endlessly. Part of allowing alternatives to Chinese products to present themselves is to not buy into the whole must-have, disposable culture we live in in the first place.
It's OK to give gift certificates to the local bookshop at birthday parties. We do. And we love getting them too. We also give out one nice toy or sciencey-thing in lieu of the absurd bag of plastic crap that has somehow come to be expected as your child's guests depart. Trust me, parents are overjoyed.
It's OK to shop at your local thrift shop or charity second hand store. Almost all our clothes come from ours - and my son is proud of what he considers the ultimate in recycling. It's OK for your children to receive a few high quality hand-crafted items alongside a few cheaper, trendier ones at Christmas. And, of course, it's more than OK to buy fresh vegetables grown by a local farm than to grab the frozen variety that's been cultivated half-way around the world and then shipped in high-cost refrigerated containers to your country, state, and town.
Our summers are nowhere near as suffocatingly hot as what Bongiorni endures in Atlanta, but we go to our local pool to swim. My son doesn't seem scarred by this. He likes running into other kids he knows. Not everything has to take place in your back yard.
Now more than ever, we all want to watch our wallets and spend where it helps our local economy the most. That makes looking for creative ways to keep China's residence in your closet and pantry to a minimum a challenge we might embrace with gusto...and a little creativity.