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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