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In a recent episode of The Office, Steve Carell's perennially clueless Michael Scott arrives at work suddenly concerned about China's imminent global economic takeover, picking various items up off the desks and reading the labels aloud in disgust: "Uh-huh: China. China. China." This isn't news to his staff: "Yeah, that's where they make stuff," Andy Bernard says snottily.
And it isn't news to the rest of the world, either. It's no secret that a huge chunk of this American life is manufactured in China. Making stuff for us is such big business over there that there are whole towns devoted to pumping out a single product, like zippers or umbrellas.
But does it have to be that way? In 21st-century America, is a life without Chinese-made products even possible? I decided to give it a shot for a one-week trial during which I wouldn't buy anything — or use anything I already owned — that came from the People's Republic.
Resolution Guide 2011
(Note: This is not to pick on China per se, or generalize about the quality of its manufacturing or labor practices, or single out companies operating in China while exonerating those that exploit cheap labor in other parts of the world. We all know China isn't alone in this category.)
Transportation, food, clothing
I figured I'd start with the essentials. At first, it looked like I'd be in good shape. Both my car (a Honda Civic Hybrid) and bike (an '80s relic Centurion mixte) sport "Made in Japan" stickers. Food, too, should be easy: I'm a good little locavore with a CSA share who buys pastured chickens at the farmers' market. But I still make the occasional trip to Whole Foods, and a quick check of the fine print on the back of a bag of frozen spinach reveals that even that bastion of organic wholesomeness has Chinese connections. Even after the melamine-in-the-baby-formula scandal, the U.S. still imported nearly $5 billion of seafood and agricultural products from China in 2009.
Spinach crisis averted, and assured I'd be mobile and well-fed during my Chinaless week, I tackled the closet next, ripping everything with the Made in China label off its hanger and flinging it onto my bed. Out went my favorite navy-blue boyfriend blazer and everything else from my last Urban Outfitters haul. Out went much of my Banana Republic and Neiman Marcus cache; even my one designer dress — a body-hugging Elie Tahari number handed down from a much richer friend, the dress I was planning to wear to as many holiday parties as I could get away with — was out.
By now the bed was covered with a mountain of fabric, and the closet, what was left of it, wasn't exactly a model of fair-trade fashion: The remaining labels read Cambodia, Mauritius, Turkey, El Salvador, and India.
Since the prospect of spending the week wearing sweatshop clothes from Vietnam didn't sound particularly righteous, I tried whittling the rest down into a "Made in USA" section, which turned out to be a pitiful grouping of thrift-store finds, a couple of threadbare American Apparel tees, and a bright green hand-me-down sweatshirt that looked like something Debbie Gibson might've worn circa Electric Youth. (Whatever happened to all that "Buy American" sloganeering we heard in the '80s, anyway?)
Shoes, too, were a complete disaster. Out of 30-odd pairs, I was left with two: some worn-out made-in-Vietnam Adidas and a pair of rarely worn flat pleather boots from a long-ago trip to Spain. Everything else — including a bunch of name-brand boots, heels, flats, sneakers, and running shoes — was either labeled as from China or of indeterminate origin, which meant they were also out.
I was midway through sorting out hats and scarves when I heard a chime coming from the other room. That was the moment I almost called the whole thing off.
"Designed by Apple in California, assembled in China," the small print read on the back. It sounded almost apologetic. Though it was built in a factory 6,000 miles away, the thing was invented, cruelly, just a few minutes' drive from the house I grew up in.
A week without a phone? No way. I thought I'd won a small victory when a friend offered to lend me his old Mexican-made Nokia, but he'd lost the charger, and the replacements I found at Rite-Aid were all from guess where?
That's when the vastness of the task began to reveal itself. I looked around the apartment and saw West Elm, IKEA, Target, and Urban Outfitters, companies whose websites try to make their furniture sound exotic by describing it merely as "imported," without saying from where. But a few calls to customer service confirmed my suspicions: Almost everything, except my couch and a mid-20th-century Swedish armchair, would be off-limits during my week without China. And I could forget about the electronics: TV, modem, WiFi router? China, China, China.
Okay, no TV, no Internet — I wasn't ready to give up yet. I'd entertain myself the old-fashioned way: by reading. Except I couldn't do that, either, because the bedside lamp was made in China and so was the nightstand it sat on. Next to the lamp was a Chinese-made alarm clock that would also have to be avoided, meaning I might not get up in time to get to work, where there was no way around using my company-issued MacBook Pro anyway.
The situation was looking dire. While I had no problem spending the week resembling a "before" photo from What Not to Wear and eating breakfast while standing over the sink because all my dining chairs are Chinese, my dependence on technology proved to be my downfall. Giving up China also meant giving up virtually all communication with the outside world — and possibly even my job.
Suffice it to say, I failed. I failed spectacularly. That I couldn't even make it a week left me even more in awe of Sara Bongiorni, the author who spent a year not buying Chinese-made products, dragging her husband and young kids along for the ride. That adventure was Bongiorni's New Year's resolution in 2005, which she chronicled in her book, A Year Without "Made in China."
After the humbling experience of my failed week, my resolutions are a little less ambitious than Bongiorni's. In 2011, I will try to:
• Always read the label.
• Avoid the temptation to buy $20 shoes.
• Redefine my idea of a "fair price."
• Be willing to pay a little extra if it means helping a neighbor stay in business.
• Look up Mauritius on a map.
• And trash that heinous sweatshirt already.
BUY "MADE IN S.F." INSTEAD
Here are a few local businesses we love that make their products right here. To find even more, visit www.sfmade.org, which has a directory of local businesses in all categories.
Clothing and Jewelry
3318 22nd St. (at Valencia), 647-5888
1815 Union (at Octavia), 674-8811
Residents Apparel Gallery Co-Op (RAG)
541 Octavia (at Ivy), 621-7718
351 Divisadero (at Oak), 749-1978
2790 Harrison (at 24th St.), 550-6971
600 Guerrero (at 18th St.), 487-2600
630 Treat (at Harrison), 647-6446