Possible Backlash Against Cheap Imports?

by Andrea Karim on 8 June 2007 18 comments

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.

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Guest's picture
Guest

If you're looking for well-made clothes, I can personally attest to the durability of Anvil tee shirts. My aunt bought me an over sized screened Anvil tee when I was eight. I'm twenty now and the t-shirt is still raging on strong. Only a couple holes in the hem, 100% solid everywhere. Well, the neck is stretched out, but considering it was meant for an 8-year-old head and it now goes over my fat head, I don't think that's unreasonable. They also take silk screening incredibly well. Twelve years and hundreds of washings later, it's just starting to fade and crack. The color integrity of the shirt itself is pretty amazing. Not perfect, but impressive.

I asked her how much the shirt cost her. She laughed and admitted that she bought it off some silly souvenir shop in Pennsylvania. "I couldn't have spent more than $10 on it."

Guest's picture
DJB

I'm right there with you, the crap we get from China isn't quality and in some cases when I shop around and do find a product not made in China half the time it is cheaper, go figure. I work hard not to feed the crap monster.

Guest's picture

Excellent diatribe, and I totally agree. However, I just try not to buy stuff at all. I try to get as many wears as possible out of my stuff, and although my clothes aren't the latest in style, I'm not unstylish. However, I'm married, and married people can get away with a lot more since we're not trying to please the opposite sex.

So basically, slow down your consumption rate by simply buying less stuff. We don't need a different outfit for every day of the month. I don't care if I've already worn this shirt 4 days ago. No one remembers, and if they do, then they need to get a life. We need to stop trying to live for appearance.

There was my diatribe :)

Andrea Karim's picture

However, I'm married, and married people can get away with a lot more since we're not trying to please the opposite sex.

You know, as far as I can tell, wearing a different outfit every day has never impressed a man (or a woman). I've never dated a guy who noticed the little things that I freak out about (bad hair day, etc.). And when I'm attracted to a guy, I really won't notice much other than his sense of humor.

I'm sure some people are different, but I still think that most women dress to please not he opposite sex, but other women.

The thing about Wise Bread is that we want to allow ourselves and others enough leeway to enjoy buying stuff while still being fiscally responsible. All of us need certain things like coats and shoes, but should we buy a crappy coat made in, oh, Vietnam or Turkey, or a really good one made here in the US? I'm kind of torn - I'd like a coat to last a few years, of course, but I also don't want to be wearing the same coat ten years from now.

But that's just vanity. :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Andrea, If you're looking for high-quality American-made clothing, there's a lot on a web site dedicated to American products --www.shopforamerica.com. In addition to clothes, the site sells furniture, guitars, pet supplies, tools, food and more. check it out.

Will Chen's picture

You can always start your own personal embargo against China.  =)

The last part is kind of sad:

Our son knows where he stands on the matter. In the bathtub one evening he told me how happy he was that "the China season" was coming soon.

"When we can buy China things again, let's never stop," he said.

 

Guest's picture
Bryan

I have a friend who recently traveled to China. Apparently the pollution is so bad that he never saw the sun on a two week trip. Everyone was coughing all the time and half the people on the trip got sick.

Eventually China will have to enact environmental restrictions, which will drive the cost of products up. And already wages are being driven up, and businesses are moving to Vietnam and other countries with cheaper labor.

The cycle will continue until at some point it won't be cheaper to manufacture in other countries. It's just a matter of when. Unfortunately it may be 50 years.

Andrea Karim's picture

It's interesting - the pollution. I lived in China for a couple of years - the pollution is so bad that the older people often cough up blood or have something akin to black lung from living right next door to coal-burning plants. But it seems like life just goes on. It's the price of economica growth, and very few people want to turn back time to live in the "egalitarian" Communist era - or course those are both extremes, but China's never been good with happy mediums.

Damn, Will, that was a great link. I wish I had seen it earlier.

I've been looking everywhere for this.  :)

Guest's picture
Guest

While reading the comments to Andrea's blog, I decided to be pro-American and check out http://www.shopforamerica.com/ and realized one of the reasons American products are as rare as the dodo bird is because they're not in tune with the mainstream.

WTF?

If I want to be a Harley driving, black leather clad hombre then this is the perfect site! If I need to find businesswear the Allen Edmonds would be perfect.. if I were 30 years older!

The best example of American companies lack of understanding and leadership is the automotive industry. For years, they've produced nothing but big, gas-guzzling behemoths without any focus on energy conservation and efficiency. Now, we are stuck with repercussions of their stolid decision and forced to buy more fuel-efficient imports; make no mistake we the American public are paying for it through import purchases, unemployment, loss of tax revenue and weakening of a major sector of the economy.

So, thank you American companies for putting us in the quagmire we're in now!

Guest's picture
Debra March

I'm a proud Canadian and would like to share with you that we are also under the over-buy, credit card debt, consumerism spell. More is not better. I have often discussed with friends that we live in a society that would rather have two pieces of crap than one quality item. I DO NOT buy products made in China. I simply will not buy into the destruction of their country and our economies! In short I am not part of the problem. Many store owners have told me how proud they are of me for not buying Chinese products. They see first hand the crap that comes into their stores and they don't like it but they must compete with the low prices of the made in China products to stay in business. It is sad really. This little project of mine is one of my biggest challenges. In doing this I have come to realize one fact, I really don't need that much stuff. Want it, yes, sometimes but need it, no way. I have 12 DVD's that I have ready to go to the Goodwill store for charity resale. There is never a shortage of garage sales in my area where I can purchase, if needed, US or Canadian made quality, even used, goods. Fortunately, I can buy locally grown, mostly organic foods. I don't have 50 pairs of shoes but I have good quality shoes and they take me anywhere I want to go in comfort. I am one person but if we all refused to buy Made in China products and paid a little extra for North American made goods, we would all be better off globally. Try it for a week, just don't buy a product Made in China.

Guest's picture

This is a great discussion - all the facets of it - and as the media cover it more I hope it proliferates. I agree with Andrea that a reflexive "buy American" policy is not necessarily the point, but that the question really is one of changing our culture to one that values quality over quantity. The self-esteem movement notwithstanding, it seems like we've moved away from genuine pride in ourselves and respect for one another to some core insecurity which drives this crazy, competitive consumption.

As I mentioned to a friend after coming back from a weekend in a tourist town in Mexico - the place was bursting with useless, soon-to-be-thrown-away souvenir-type crap - the sheer waste of it broke my heart: surely they wouldn't be making the crappy crap if people weren't buying it.

The disrespect the tourists appeared to have of the local culture and local pride saddened me, but the disrespect went both ways: the shopkeepers clearly believed we wanted the junk they were selling.

I'd love to think this mutual disrespect could be replaced by what Andrea alludes to, a renewed sense of national (or simply individual) pride on everyone's part. It's difficult, though, to picture big, corporate manufacturers taking this kind of pride - there's no connection anymore between the management and the product.

The obvious disrespect of importers essentially selling the U.S. poisons and garbage *as food* is chilling and might require more drastic steps, possibly government intervention. (I recently posted a link to an interview with an ex-FDA commissioner and questioned whether at the very least we could mandate food manufacturers to identify the source of their ingredients on their labels.)

But bottom line, perhaps, is for individuals to have a little pride, and to choose not to hang crap on their backs, or to put crap in their mouths; to understand the difference between fashion and style; and to understand how much power we each have in the global economy. (We're just starting to 'get' how much impact we can have individually on the global environment, so maybe the shift is possible.)

I know - easy to say when you have the money to make those choices, but just as somebody's got to buy the first roll of overpriced Recycled Toilet Paper to develop the market for environmentally conscious goods, maybe those among us who can afford to opt for smaller tailors, local produce and all the rest of it can pave the way for these opportunities to become real for everyone.

Guest's picture
Qwerty

DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU CAN BUY QUALITY GOODS FROM CHINA?? EVEN WITHOUT KNOWING

Did you know that there are QUALITY GOODS MADE IN CHINA??? Just that Walmart prefers to import the cheapest sh** available.

Did you know that 80% of well known quality goods are made in China? Did you know that Ipod parts are MADE IN CHINA, and get assembled in US???!!! Nike shoes, clothing, etc are MADE IN CHINA!!! Also Samsung, sony, nokia!

DID YOU KNOW THAT THE CHAIRS AND DESKS IN THE PENTAGON ARE MADE IN CHINA??? They are bought from an online company based in US, who IMPORTS ALL THEIR PRODUCTS FROM CHINA. Check it out on youtube, there's a little documentary about it. They are quality goods, but CHEAP.

Even if it is Made in USA, 75% of it's FROM CHINA! USA exports wood chips to china, and buy back paper. Export raw iron and import steel poles, car parts, computer parts. Export oil and import plastic products. Do you guys even know that plastic is made mainly from oil??

Soon it's going to be GOOD NEWS TO FATHERS OVERSEAS (especially in China)! WHY? Because USA is going to export wife and import sons!!!

Guest's picture
Guest

This post is rather insensitive and over-generalizing and even ethnocentric racist, and I can imagine if it said "Cheap Products Made in India" or "Cheap Products Made in Israel" or "Women" or "Catholics" how others would react.

You're basically referring to coastal China, and largely referring to megapolis manufacturing centers of Dalian, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Wuzi, though there are others. While it's perfectly understandable that China is in a slower industrializing phase cycle that needs to catch up to Taiwan's levels, it is making difficult leaps toward quality standards and acceptable labor practices to catch up. You're kicking a fledgling while it's gaining its bearings, and worse of all, using today's products to stymie tomorrow's potential by labeling it crap. Did your sixth-grade child struggle to barely understand algebra, well he's a hopeless moron, he should have been performing advanced calculus equations.

From what I've seen, the average worker and company sacrifices six-day 70+ hour work weeks and risks shipment rejects to meet Western standards at a time when they're lurching their entire country out of poverty. From where they were 15 years ago to where they are now, they've made tremendous strides in higher education, hands-on training, and learning multiple Western languages to meet your needs as the demanding consumer. There were only a few stellar American colleagues who were able to tackle the Chinese language, even though theoretically it should be as hard to learn that language as it is for them to learn yours.

Only a naive fool would think that today's intricate supply chain would allow the whole design-to-product cycle was all in one place; and a lot of our nation's top train students are going there to train locals and to build businesses, so there is a reverse "brain drain" happening. Your iPods, your Macs, your haute couture clutch, your Canon camera, your Columbia fleecewear, your fiber optics, your Toshiba flatscreen, your Dell laptop, your designer Beckham jeans were all assembled or partly made in China, and yes... Puma and Nike shoes too. While I have issues with Chinese people and its effect on environment, I accept that it's an evolving process they're taking strides to improve upon. It's not "them" versus "us" but a more global perspective that developing countries have people who are trying to serve your needs crossing gaping cultural and geographic barriers

I secretly hope they succeed in globalization, in fact, with such subtlety so that the average Westerner cannot even perceive the difference that the product was conceived, designed, manufactured, labeled, and shipped from a symphony of collaboration in Asia. I've hired Europeans to do jobs for me, and lemme tell you, I will never hire another Spaniard again. Expensive and delayed beyond frustration.

And I hope we crack the whip on America's youth so that they become industrious, frugal and tenacious too...otherwise, you are going to see North America's top universities and revered institutions and elite communities being filled with hard working foreigners who deserve advancement. There's a reason why top Canadian school UBC is derided as "University of a Billion Chinese" and Stanford, MIT, Harvard has to cap enrollment of Indians and those of Arabic-descent, why NASA is full of Asian-American engineers, and why it is no longer unusual to find Chinese talent in your professional class of lawyers, doctors, business owners, and in America's most private mansion communities.

Andrea Karim's picture

Yeah, clearly. I can see how this post could be seen as racist. Because I refer to China as a single country? I LIVED there; I know where Dalian is, thanks. And I bought some very high-quality goods there. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't hold both China and ourselves accountable for the miserable, poisonous junk flooding our stores here.

Guest's picture
Guest

I went into a store, and asked the salesperson if there was a single item in the toy or kids clothing department "made in the US." She asked, in a polite but frosty Bengali accent, why this mattered to me. I explained that I prefered to pay money for good farming practices and good wages, instead of paying mostly for the oil to ship materials around the globe. "I would like to see more Chinese goods made for the Chinese, more Indian goods made for India, and more US goods made for the US market." The frost melted, and I got a HUGE smile. 18 months have passed, gas prices are higher, "cheap" goods are higher, and US-made goods are starting to pop up, from time to time, on the shelves. Some are even geared toward the general market or towards young folks, instead of the 65+ Union Guy In A Pickup who has, for the last 3 decades, been a lonely hold-out in the "buy US, buy Union" struggle.

As to that guy, and the gear made for him: I may think he has boring taste. I may think he picked his stance for self-serving reasons. I may not like it that his musical taste gets about as eclectic as Springsteen. But you know what? He was RIGHT. All these years. He was right, and I was oblivious, and thrilled to be able to afford strange, cool gadgets and trinkets--stuff I didn't need.

We built the county though wages paid for hard labor, by people who mostly bought what they needed, or really cherished. And now we're selling off houses, public buildings and even roads at fire sale prices, and buying landfill-fodder to prove that we had the "thought that counts." Pot up some cuttings, or plant some seeds, already, for a gift that means "I thought of you, and put actual time and sweat into the gift."

Guest's picture
reb

I HAVE BEEN BOYCOTTING CHEAP CHINESE CRAP FOR YEARS!!!! I became utterly sick of it all when upon realization that EVERY store everywhere (read: CHAIN STORES) was full to the brim of nothing but plastic Made in China JUNK that falls apart 2 weeks after you buy it, and it's probably also poisoning you. So my solution has been more or less to STOP SHOPPING altogether. (Not that I was ever a big shopper to begin with.) Most stuff we really don't need anyway-- and if I DO need something, I will search high and low until I find an American manufacturer, a local craftsperson, or someone who is making it out of real material that lasts-- (NOT PLASTIC!)- or just do without.
Plastic falls apart, looks ugly, and how do you dispose of it?? So.. I refuse to buy into this Chinese junk addiction. I don't buy appliances anymore (ALL Chinese now- they don't last).. Chinese crap has even infiltrated the CLOTHING market- great. Remember the recent incidents of people breaking out in horrific acid-burn type rashes from Wal-mart flip-flops, and from Victoria's Secret bras, which were found to be sprayed with formaldehyde? Disgusting. So I only thrift shop, once in a while- otherwise I wear stuff til it falls apart. Also am learning to sew so I can make my own.
And food?? Don't get me started on that. I am so distrustful of Chinese toxic crap slipping into our food supply, and deceitful food trade practices... that I ONLY buy from local farms & farmers markets, and from health food stores only IF I am sure the food is American or Canadian-grown. (No stuff from Mexico either!).. and grow my own.
Anyway it's so good to hear there may be a backlash coming.. it's about time!!! YES I am angry about it- and I will be right there at the front.

Guest's picture

I guess I might be of a different generation than some articulate persons posting here, but I hearken, also to the days when things were made to last-or were made to be fixed!

I digress a bit from my original intended topic, but in looking around my "Little Ranch" lately, I realise how many things today are just not made to be repaired...they are made to be thrown away.

Recently In my readings on Environmental Issues regarding China I read an opinion that rang true:

Economically and Industrially, China is the US of yesterday!

While the US is now fat and content to consume willy-nilly, having passed pretty much completely from it's originally necessarily filthy Industrial Base into a cleaner, wealthier consumer and cleaner Intellect-sharing economy, "3rd world" countries are Industrialising at a rapid pace to fill our "needs".

Look at the parallels. My Family came to the Americas as some of the original settlers prior to the Mayflower. They farmed the country; some moved into commerce because of the farming income, as most early Americans did. America was an Agrarian country. My family cleared land and used the Timber to build...

hence, Industrialism began to take hold. The Farmers needed tools, and manufacturing took place. Ore was mined. Iron, Copper, Zinc. Fabricating plants were built, Coal was mined, Steam was needed to operate the machinery in the manufactories.(Wonder how many knew the root source of those 2 words?-Wink)

Next came the Internal Combustion Engine, and with it Automobiles and the like. More factories...to make the needed things for our country (and the world eventually) to grow. Gasoline became the fuel of choice (tho it was NOT the original planned fuel...read up and see).

We polluted right and left-with little thought of nothing in the future but "progress". We needed to pollute to get where we thought we wanted to be...able to buy things we thought we needed.

Then, and only then, comes the stage our "Industrialised, Civilised" countries are in now...learning how NOT to pollute...and we are just babes in this stage, as we were in the prior stages.

China, India; you can take a look at any labels and you can see the names of our "Technologically Younger Siblings"-they are not in a place to be able to get to where we are without doing what we DID (and are still doing, to a great degree). Stepping on the backs of the Environment to Justify the Ends.

We are learning now...we need to learn WITH them the ways to get what we want in the safest way possible.

It's a fun ride! Won't you come along with me?
---12th Child Nick

Guest's picture
Guest

U can blame it all on your greedy politicians who have allowed all of our manufacturing to leave this country. Next u can blame the greedy corporations for trying to imitate cheap goods. I feel that manufacturing in the USA has seen its better days.