Possible Backlash Against Cheap Imports?
Is there a backlash against cheap Chinese imports coming? I, for one, secretly hope so.
We've known that it can't last forever, haven't we? This spending spree that Americans have been partaking in - between our big TVs, our cheap clothes and Target shoes, even many ingredients in our food - it has to end. Our trade deficit with China was long ago recognized as a problem, but not one that Americans were willing to really do anything about - as long as both of our economies kept growing, we felt, we should just keep doing what we're doing.
I'm as guilty of loving inexpensive good as anyone else. I like my cheap Chinese shoes on eBay, I really do. I like shopping at Target. I love low-cost imports as much as the next yuppie. Hell, the Pergo floors that I installed in my basement last weekend were from China.
The Washington Post had an excellent article* a couple of weeks ago about tainted Chinese goods that arrive in US ports every single day. Rotting shellfish, produce dyed and sprayed with banned chemicals, and the well-known melamine/acetomenaphine-in-the-dog-food problem - is there anything that China sends over here that is really GOOD for us, other than Jet Li (rowr)?
I don't blame China, not entirely. Oh, I have my problems with China's economy and growth, their artificially undervalued currency, and a host of other political and economic issues. But when it comes down to it, they are providing what we Americans are asking for. Sure, they're doing it in an slightly underhanded way by undercutting the competition thought unfair labor practices and cheap production, but we're buying it, so we can't solely point the finger at China.
However, it's become clear lately that we're not just getting less expensive goods from China, we're getting dangerously crappy goods from China.
Remember back in the 1980s, when Lee "Airbag" Iacoca was going on and on about Japanese cars infiltrating our markets, and how we should all "Buy American"? I've long been suspicious of this kind of talk, mostly because it's often framed in jingoist language and a rah-rah, flag-flying, "We're the BEST country in the world" rhetoric that I find both tedious and slightly dangerous.
I've got nothing against national pride, but I feel like Americans often take it just a bit too far. After all, Japanese cars were, and still are, far superior to comparatively priced American-made cars. Who can argue with the idea of getting the best product for your money? Isn't that what capitalism is all about?
The problem is that the cheap items that we are getting from China aren't high quality. My Japanese car is awesome - my cheap Chinese shoes? Well, they're cheap. There's a world of difference between something produced by skilled technicians and underpaid sweatshop laborers.
Now, those of us who are younger than 30 don't really remember a time in which clothing lasted for years - sure, you might have had your favorite jeans for a few years, but most of us go through an entire wardrobe every few years. This is partly because we buy trendy stuff that goes out of style, and partly because stuff just doesn't last as long as it used to. I have some shirts that I LOVE, purchased from Target in October, that are coming apart at the seams. I've worn each shirt maybe ten times each, and yet they look like hell.
Go into an antique or consignment store, and look at some vintage dresses. Anything that's been cared for is probably still in excellent shape. The worksmanship was superior back then, when clothing was made on a smaller scale, in small factories or by seamstresses. Before The GAP. Before Target. Before WalMart and Starbucks. Before every town in the US had a Red Robin and an Eddie Bauer.
I know this seems awfully French of me. And I know that we Americans are not French. But perhaps we can learn something from them, and find a sort of national pride in our products, minus the Toby Keith songtrack. What if we cared enough about our economy, jobs, and health to buy less but buy BETTER products? How many pets have to die before we start insisting that the food we feed them is free from poison?
I know that our mass consumerist mentality isn't totally American, but it certainly seems that we take it to the extreme. The French (and other Europeans) have an ongoing love affair with bespoke (custom-made) items, such a clothing and shoes. They understand the difference between quality and quantity, and will pay more for a good, custom-tailored shirt than we would, because it will last a long time and look fantastic. Not every Frenchman can afford a bespoke suit, of course, and I'm sure that plenty of Italians buy cheap Chinese junk off of eBay.
But no one can top America in terms of consumption, whether we are talking about energy, food, oil, or other resources.
The average European uses 130 kilos of paper a year -- the equivalent of two trees. The average American uses more than twice as much -- a staggering 330 kilos a year. The paper and board industry is the United States' third largest source of pollution, while its products make up 38 percent of municipal waste.
And that's just paper! Imagine the terrifying statistics for pleather!
Is America ready to let go of our addiction to cheap crap? I'm not suggesting that we'll all be swilling the finest champagne and downing foie gras, because that's not really what Wise Bread is about. Cheap is OK, but lots and lots of cheap sort of defeats the purpose of cheapness.
Is it possible that we, as a country, might finally look around at our stuffed garages and huge credit card bills and overflowing garbage cans and decide that enough is enough? How many more pets have to die, and how many more people need to go bankrupt from credit card debt before we finally learn to pare down, save up, and spend well?
*I'm aware that Consumerist linked this article, but I actually read it first at The Washington Post.
Picture by kamaru.