Monthly Archives: January 2012

Made in Germany OR China

A few weeks ago, one of my car’s headlights went out. Rather than the typical reaction saved for automobile malfunctions, I was touched by excitement. While staring at the one-eyed buggy that was my car, I remembered this blog! I would now be able to track down the origin of car light bulbs! This is probably the only time in my life when I will be happy that I need to replace anything on my car.

AutoZone is the only place I shop for car parts. Besides being fairly common in California, their employees have always been helpful, making it easy to “Get in the Zone.” Anyway, I waltzed on up to the counter and asked for a light bulb.  Watching the computer as the attendant typed away, I could see that I would have a fairly wide selection of light bulbs, which is great news for a guy that can’t buy anything made in China.

Per my request, the AutoZone guy brought out the cheapest bulb.  Immediately, I flipped to the back and searched for where it was made.  The package read: “Made in Germany or China.”  Made in Germany OR China, eh?  Well, which one? 

I could have easily asked for another bulb, but this perplexed and intrigued me.  Up to that point, I had always assumed that every product would indicate exactly where it was made, and again, I assumed that there was some law dictating that.  But “Made in Germany or China” had a particular non-exactness about it.  I decided to investigate.

After poking around the ole interwebs, I discovered that marking a product with the country of origin was originally codified in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.  Yes, the same Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that Ben Stein droned on and on about in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  As Ben Stein says, the Tariff Act of 1930 was passed to “alleviate the effects of the… anyone, anyone… the Great Depression.”  Essentially, it raised tariffs on a number of imports in hopes of raising revenues for the cash strapped federal government.  (You can read the Tariff Act of 1930, and its many amendments, in its entirety here, but be forewarned, it is an arduous and boring read.)

The Act also required imports to be marked with the country of origin whenever possible, assumedly to discourage people from buying foreign-made products.  Section 1304 of the Act delineates the basic rules of marking country of origin: it must be plainly stated, in English, in a conspicuous place on the item or its packaging.

But can two different countries be listed?  What about “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China?”  The authors seem to have foreseen possible complications with wording.  To this end, section 1304 also dictates that the Secretary of the Treasury (who oversees the collection of duties on imports) has the power to “determine the character of words… which shall be acceptable as indicating the country of origin.”  Essentially, Representatives Smoot and Hawley did not define specific wording, but left that open for future modification.  Which was a really good idea.

We are living in a highly globalized world.  That is to say, the products and services we consume come from all corners of the globe.  Let’s say I buy a computer.  That computer may have been “Designed by Apple in California,” made out of components from Japan, from minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that were finally assembled in China.  And when I have problems with my computer, I call a guy in India for tech support. 

So, where was this computer made?  Good question!  A lot of places, I suppose.

Let’s get back to today’s question: What are the current rules for indicating the country of origin in our highly globalized world?  To find the answer, I headed over to the US Customs and Border Protection (henceforth CBP) website and looked up the rules for marking the country of origin on US imports (link is a download).

Cognizant of the fact that many of the products that we consume are made in a multitude of countries, the CBP’s rules are fairly loose.  For example, if a product goes through different levels of production in different countries, the only country it must be marked with is the last country where the product went though “substantial transformation.”  This is why most things we buy only have one country listed, though the components, and the raw materials those components are made of, are seldom listed.

More importantly, the use of the words “assembled in” are totally fine, as well as the “from components of” phrase that usually follows.  But neither are required.  In fact, you don’t even have to include “made in” in most cases—one just needs to name the country!  Because there is very little else prescribed by the CBP, producers are allowed considerable play with what they write.

Unfortunately, neither of these points adequately answer whether or not listing two countries with “or” in between them is legal (i.e. “Made in Germany or China”).  It seems to be in contention with the Tariff Act’s original language that the country of origin must be clearly stated.  Perhaps I will write the CBP and ask…

Full Disclosure:  I decided to write Sylvania instead, as I am assuming that a private business will get back to me a little quicker than the gubment.  Here is what I wrote: “Dear Sirs, I recently purchased an H7 standard performance light bulb for my car.  I am very conscious of where the products I buy are made.  You indicate on the packaging of this bulb that it was “Made in German or China.”  Well, which one?  I am concerned that this is misleading to consumers, as well as in violation of 19 U.S.C. 1304 which stipulates that the country of origin must be clearly and exactly marked.  “Made in German or China” has a certain non-exactness about it.  Thank you for your time, Josiah”

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The loofah that ruined my year

Dear faithful readers.  I’ve already blown it.  I bought something made in China.

When one decides to stop buying Chinese goods, one must be very careful when they shop.  And I have been—scrutinizing every label!  Up until this point, I’ve eased up on the scrutinizing when at the grocery store.  This is because I assume that most food does not come from China.  It is an awful long way to ship food, not to mention all the Chinese mouths to feed.  But everyone knows what assuming does…

A few days ago, I noticed that my loofah was looking pretty old and sad.  On a recent trip to the grocery store, I picked up a new one for $2.99.  For some reason, I just didn’t check the label.  How hard could it be to make a loofah?  Surely we don’t need to export their manufacture to China.

Well, I was wrong.  The loofah was made in China.  My hands, defiled.  My one goal, failed.

After a short period of mourning, I resolved to make the situation right.  I gave the offending loofah to my roommate (as penance­—if I were to take it back, I wouldn’t financially suffer for my mistake) and went back to the store.

There were lots of scrubbies to choose from.  There were loofahs, scrub brushes, and even exfoliating gloves!  My girlfriend (who came as moral support and to serve as guest photographer) and I looked at every tag.  And they were all made in China.  Literally, all of them.  Even the Ecotool brush that claimed to be “soft and cruelty free” was made in China. 

We finally found a bath tool that wasn’t made in China.  It was a sort of bumpy brown sponge that was made in Taiwan.  I know the US government has a “One China” policy, but for the sake of my sanity, and the cleanliness of my skin, I don’t.

While in the bathroom section, I checked out a few of the other toiletries I normally buy, just to be safe.  Barbasol, Crest, Dove and Irish Spring (though the name suggests otherwise) are all made in the USA.  Head and Shoulders is hecho en Mexico.  I would have checked the Mach 3 blades, but they were behind a theft guard (but honestly, at $25 a pack, I would be happy to give those up).

Full Disclosure: I consider myself absolved of all sins, and will be continuing the project.  I will now be on full alert at the grocery store.

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Ten bucks says your socks were made in China

I bet your socks were made in China.  I believe I will win this bet for two reasons.  The first reason: lots of socks are made in China.  In fact, I went to the store to buy socks the other day and had trouble finding socks that weren’t made in China.  More on that later.  The second reason: it’s hard for you to check.  I am assuming you unpackaged your socks before you put them on.  No sock that I know of has where it was made stitched directly on it.  That is usually only indicated on the package.  A safe bet, I think.  If anyone can prove me wrong, comment below.  I may owe you some money.

I went to Marshalls to buy socks the other day.  This was partially because I needed socks and partially because I assumed that all of my then current socks were made in China.  I am currently prepping for the “Great Purge” of all my Chinese-made stuff and want to make sure that I have clothes to wear on the day that I get rid of it all.

The particular Marshalls I visited had an excellent selection of socks.  There was an entire wall dedicated to every variety of socks you could imagine.  I mean, it was a veritable smorgasbord of sock.

And to my only-sorta-kinda surprise, just about every sock on the wall was made in China.  From Nikes to Under Armor, Perry Ellis to Nautica, Wilson to Puma, Kenneth Cole to Polo, Timberland to Sierra Club (who knew they made socks?), all were made in China.

About 90% of the socks I looked at and photographed (with my Chinese-made iPhone) were made in China. 

Why are so many socks made in China?  Pietra Rivoli, an economist at Georgetown, wanted to find out.  She wrote “The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy,” where she followed the life of a t-shirt through every stage of production, all the way back to when it was just a little tuft of cotton growing on a heavily government-subsidized farm in west Texas.

I won’t spoil the book for you, but essentially Rivoli found that the cotton and textile industries only barely exist in a “free market.”  Cotton farms are heavily subsidized by the government here in the United States in order to make their prices competitive on the world market (China, India, Pakistan and Brazil, the world’s other major cotton producers, can likely grow cotton for much cheaper).  Conversely, textile factories in China are heavily subsidized by their government in order to dominate the textile industry.

It makes me wonder what the true cost of socks is.

In my mind, the better question is: Can we make socks in Mexico cheaper than in China?  I truly don’t know the answer.  I will do some research and get back to you in another post.

I ended up finding some New Balance socks that were made in the USA.  Strangely, on this particular type of sock, the country of origin varied per pack.  Some of the packs, of the exact same socks, were made in the USA and some were hecho en Mexico.  Same socks, same price, two different countries.  I am not sure how common this is—and it doesn’t make immediate sense to me why New Balance would do this.  Anyway, I bought the pair made in the USA.

Full Disclosure:  For all things outdoorsy, Thorlo is the Rolls Royce of sock brands.  I love their products to pieces.  I was thrilled to discover yesterday that Thorlos are made in the USA (see the American flag on the top right of the package).  So glad I don’t have to get rid of them!

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Well, I have made it one week without buying Chinese goods!  This is primarily due to the fact that I haven’t really bought anything this week.  But hey, a small achievement is an achievement nonetheless.

Why would I voluntarily give up buying and using things that were made in China?  Why would I go through the hassle?  After all, Chinese goods are plentiful and cheap.  Conventional wisdom dictates that one should spend less money in order to afford more things.  Conversely, the American Dream says having more is better.  So why fight both of these powerful forces?

I am not the first person to try to shop and live China-free.  All previous boycotts and carefree learning experiences (mine is much more of the latter) have had their reasons.  Some point out the poor quality of Chinese products (see the picture of my recently broken Chinese pan), tainted products, dangerous products, questionable labor practices, widespread environmental degradation/pollution, etc.  So what is my reason?

Mine is a bit different.  I believe it speaks directly to the values and interests of my generation.  Millennials and Generations Xers are busy trying to make it in spite of the Great Recession.  While we want to see ourselves employed, we still have strong philanthropic leanings.  We also want to see people living in the developing world emerge from poverty.

We need to rethink the way we export our labor.  In a free market economy, exporting labor from a place where it costs a lot to a place where it costs a little is unavoidable, and is not necessarily a bad thing.  But I don’t think we are doing it right.

For instance, why aren’t we doing more business with Haiti?

The CIA World Factbook reports that China is our largest trading partner.  In 2010, about 20 percent of all that we imported from abroad came from China.  Why do we do so much business with China?

Because Chinese labor is cheap.

Cheaper labor means cheaper goods, which means more goods per dollar, and having more stuff is the point of being American, isn’t it?

But is China the only place with cheap labor?  Certainly not.  Haiti’s people could be hired on the cheap.  Is China the only place with industrious people who are happy to work in factories?  Of course not.  Hondurans also fit the bill.  Is China even all that close?  Heck no, but Mexico is right next-door.

Why aren’t we trading more with our relatively poor neighbors who could use the business?

Not only that, but China is our biggest economic (and soon-to-be political) rival.  The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reports that China will “dominate” world trade by 2030.  Being “dominated” is not something any American is comfortable with (the British have largely gotten used to it, while the French continue to ignore it).  The BBC also reports that China will “overtake” the United States on scientific output in two years!  Who is funding all of this exciting economic growth, research and development?  Well, who does the most business with China?

This year, I won’t be purchasing items that are made in China, but I will be buying them from somewhere. And since most American manufacturing jobs have been exported, I won’t be buying many of them from the USA.  But I will be buying them from Vietnam, Guatemala, Indonesia, Romania, Peru, and Egypt.

From my perspective, I believe that shopping and living China-free will be beneficial in two distinct ways.  One, it will send my money to other developing countries that could use my business.  Two, it will stem the flow of money (ever so slightly) to a rising giant, who will likely overtake the Unites States during my lifetime.

Full Disclosure:  I have nothing against the Chinese.  Really.  In fact, hats off to them for being so industrious.   But can’t we diversify our imports a little better?

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My New Year’s Resolution

Hi, my name is Josiah.  I am a history teacher living in Los Angeles.  One of the reasons why I became a teacher is because I love to learn and explore.  I came up with the idea of this blog in order to give myself a platform to investigate a niggling question: Can I survive without using things that were made in China?

Happy New Year!  Over the course of 2012, I have resolved to not buy or use anything that was made in China.  I am not doing this out of any dislike for the Chinese, their products, or their labor practices, but to see just how pervasive Chinese products are in the United States.  Can modern Americans live without goods from China?

I intend to find out.  Perhaps it will be easy.  Perhaps it won’t .  Either way, I expect to learn a lot.

Along the way, I intend to not only to abstain from purchasing products that were made in China, but also to get rid of everything that I currently own that is.  This will allow me to seek out alternative goods that weren’t made in China.  (To all my LA peeps, I don’t yet know when the “Great Purge” will commence, but I will sure you let you all know.  I promise you first dibs before Goodwill).

I figure that if I am wondering about this now, 40 years after President Nixon’s famous visit to China, I am likely not the only person to have done so.  This blog is for you, then.  And all the people who are interested in the wider implications of an increasingly globalized world.  And all the people who want to see me suffer without all the things we have taken for granted that were made in China.

Full Disclosure:  This blog will primarily be written on my MacBook.  There may be a few clever people out there who are thinking: “Aha!  He has already failed!  While MacBooks may be ‘Designed by Apple in California,’ they are most certainly ‘Made in China.’”  Indeed.  No comment.  Do allow me this one infraction.

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