August 2012

The China syndrome

By Gail Binkly

In recent weeks a barrage of outrage was directed at the U.S. Olympic Committee after the discovery that the uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team were (surprise, surprise!) made in China. The uniforms were designed by an American company, Ralph Lauren, but manufactured overseas.

“I am so upset. I think the Olympic committee should be ashamed of themselves,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (DNev.). “I think they should be embarrassed. I think they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again.”

A spokesman for the USOC, Patrick Sandusky, defended the decision as a way to save money. “Unlike most Olympic teams around the world, the U.S. Olympic Team is privately funded and we’re grateful for the support of our sponsors,” Sandusky said in a statement.

The controversy made me think of my experience last Christmas.

I’m not much of a shopper, but a couple of times a year my sister and I like to spend a couple of days bargain-hunting at the malls and the big outlet stores in our home town of Colorado Springs. Rarely do we pay attention to the country of origin of the goods we buy – I mean, it’s hard enough to find something you like that fits without worrying where it came from.

But last winter, I saw a lot of e-mails about China’s appetite for body parts from tigers, and how the demand is driving the last of these creatures to extinction. And then there was the footage of Chinese factory employees working shifts of up to 35 hours performing the same motion over and over and over as they made circuits for iPhones and other electronic gadgets.

At any rate, by the time my sister and I set out on our Christmas expedition, I had a strong aversion to buying nothing made in China, so Rhonda and I agreed to an experiment. We’d allow ourselves to purchase products from all other nations, even those like Burma or Vietnam that might have questionable governments or sweatshop practices. But anything with an actual “Made in China” tag was out, period.

When we hit the mall, Rhonda headed to the cheapest racks in Dillard’s and was dismayed that every shirt she grabbed bore the forbidden sticker.

“We’re going to have to pay a little more,” I said, making a beeline for a Ralph Lauren rack of tops. But all of them had a Chinese birth certificate.

I spied a row of Pendleton shirts on sale. Pendleton is a venerable American brand based in Oregon, and I’d heard it was launching a Portland-made line of clothing. So I examined the shirts – nope, made in China.

We tried Macy’s and J.C. Penney’s, but the story was the same. We thought Christopher & Banks might be different – no, nearly everything there was Chinese-made.

After a lot of searching, we left with a few brand-name shirts from other Third World countries, some underwear made in India, and a couple rather pricey pairs of “Not Your Daughter’s Jeans” that were actually (gasp!) made in the USA.

It was an eye-opening experience.

Now, it seems, the American public has realized what we discovered then and others have known for some time.

Most of us make noises about buying local, buying American, or at least buying fair-trade, but in practice this is very difficult. Our consumer world is awash in cheap products made under abysmal conditions. We in the “First World” are a little like the people in the old Star Trek episode who live blissfully in the clouds while others groan and labor in the mines underground to support their lifestyle. Walk into any discount store - Walmart, Kmart, Target - and the majority of items were made overseas. Toenail clippers, laundry baskets, light bulbs – you have to hunt high and low to find any that aren’t from China.

Who’s to blame? The outrage over the Olympic uniforms suggests that people believe some alien entity is responsible. The fact is, we’re the ones that brought this about. We’ve somehow grown to believe that more is always better; if you can buy three shirts for $20, it’s got to be a better deal than a single shirt for $30, right?

But is it?

Recently I mused over the best purchases I’ve ever made. Several sprang to mind:

• My 1988 Ford Taurus. I drove that car for more than 20 years and the engine always ran like a fine Swiss watch.

• My Chaco sandals, purchased in 1999 for $88. I’ve never needed a new pair.

• A down coat from L.L. Bean I bought around 1986. It was on sale for $99 – a lot of money for me at the time – but I wear it still. That $99 has amounted to less than $5 a year I’ve spent to have warm protection on winter hikes. As lomg as I can fit into it, I’ll keep wearing it.

Curious about where these products had originated, I turned to the Internet. As far as I could figure out, my first-generation Taurus was manufactured in America. As to my Chacos, I learned that the company’s products used to be made in Paonia, Colo., and apparently were at the time I bought my sandals, but all Chaco’s manufacturing has since moved to China.

I also found out that most of L.L. Bean’s goods are now made in China or Vietnam, though the company still manufactures some items, such as boots, in its Maine plant. But I couldn’t be sure about my own coat until I actually got up and looked in the closet. Still inside the bulky gray collar was the tag, “Made in USA.”

Of course, this is not to say that everything made in America is high-quality and everything made elsewhere is shoddy. My beloved 35mm film cameras, all made in Japan, are as durable as anything I’ve ever owned.

But we have to accept that the adage, “You get what you pay for,” is true. Buy something foreign and cheap and you’re not only going to get a product that’s lowquality, you’re going to get a United States with fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs and a world with more sweatshops.

Search hard, bite your lip, and pay a higher price for a well-made, homegrown product, and you might come out ahead in the long run – not only because the item will last longer, but because you’ll be supporting American jobs.

That’s a lesson that lawmakers and the USOC have apparently taken to home. Beginning in 2014, they announced, all uniforms worn by U.S. athletes in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics will be manufactured in America.

It’s a feel-good, symbolic decision – but it won’t change much of anything unless all of us change our buying habits just a little bit.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.