Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is "Made in China" Always Bad?

If you've been reading my blog for awhile or you know me personally, you know that I fully support the "locavore" movement. I truly believe that it's important not only to source your food from local sources, but it's important to support and buy from locally owned businesses, use local tradesman, and in general, be a good steward of your community.

I'm not exactly Anti-Walmart or Anti-Target, but I do know that if you don't spread your purchasing generosity around, eventually all we'll have is Walmart and Target and having choices, particularly healthy ones, is what being American is all about.

That said, I was reading a blog post over at Not Dabbling in Normal the other day and one of the commenters was on her soapbox about the whole "Buy American" movement and basically making it sound like Asian countries were nothing blocks and blocks of big 'ole sweatshops filled with poorly-treated people who are overworked and paid very little for the sole purpose of supplying goods to us rich Americans. Okay, I'm paraphrasing heavily--no disrespect to the commenter intended. Her argument was actually excellent.

Her excellent point got me thinking about the two months I spent living in Thailand while doing a school-related project. During my time there, I met a lot of really wonderful, hardworking folks who were making a living growing, manufacturing, or packaging products bound for America and they weren't all being treated poorly. In fact, many were what we'd call, "small business owners," and they'd be lost if they didn't have the American market to sell to. The reason is that many of these underdeveloped Asian countries don't have a middle-class. When you don't have a middle class, you don't have a market for mid-range cost items. It's really just that simple.

For example, each day I would walk home after work and I'd pass by a building where the family lived upstairs and worked downstairs, essentially out of their garage, cutting, sewing, and screen-printing t-shirts. The entire family helped-out when they could--even the little ones. If we suddenly stopped buying all of our T-shirts from Thailand, families like this all over the country would be out of the job.

Another example was a family in the hill villages who had a small sawmill as part of their home. They had this big blue tarp out in front with small slivers of sticks in it that I couldn't immediately identify.
If you guessed chopsticks, you're right! This family home in a very rural area of the country where they often have no indoor plumbing and in some cases, no electricity, is a chopstick factory.

Not far from the chopstick factory was a small family farm that grew rice.
While they were probably primarily "subsistence farmers," meaning that they mostly grow food that they need in order to eat, many sell the excess product when they have an exceptionally good harvest and use that money to supplement their food supply or pay for gas for the family motor cycle. That's mini-vans. If these families had vehicles at all, they might have a small motorcycle.

A fourth example is a woman who was sitting in a store front, minding the store. In-between helping customers, I noticed that she was wrapping small plastic toys in plastic bags and getting them ready for shipping. They were the types of trinkets you might find in the Oriental Traders catalog or inside of a Happy Meal. She probably gets a few pennies for each one she packs and uses that to supplement the income from the store.

I don't have a photo of her, but she was a very sweet lady and by no means did she look unhappy with life. She even helped me out with my Thai language skills a bit, getting a kick out of how bad I was.

Now I'm not saying that sweat shops don't exist. I'm quite sure they do and I'm quite positive that the likes of Walmart buy from them on a regular basis--even own some of them. However, the sweatshops are giving all of these independent folks a bad name. These people are working as hard, if not harder, than your local farmer or your local craftsmen, and they need our market to sell to just as badly. If we all stopped buying foreign-made things, these families would be out on the street.

So next time you hear someone ranting away about a "Made in China" label, remind them that China, or Thailand, or Indonesia, or anywhere else, all have hardworking small family businesses too and that they rely on us as much as we rely on them. Maybe one day, we'll be able to distinguish between cheap factory-made products and products made by overseas artisans and small businesses. In the mean time, don't be afraid to grab one or two items from the big box stores. You may be helping out someone like this.

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