Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Year Without "Made in China" by Sara Bongiorni

Cross-posted to my other blog, A Life Less Cruel.

The title of A Year Without "Made in China" is pretty self-explanatory. It's a chronicle of Sara Bongiorni's attempt to live without products made in China.I can't remember where I heard about this book, but when I found out that the library had a copy of it, I was fairly excited to read it. I wanted to like it. I absolutely love reading about someone who has drawn an ethical or moral line in the sand and their experiences with it. A couple of examples off the top of my head are A Plastic-free Life and The Zero Waste Home. Unfortunately, I didn't like it.

The opening paragraphs give a pretty good idea of the tone of the entire book.

We kick China out of the house on a dark Monday, two days after Christmas, while the children are asleep upstairs. I don't mean the country, of course, but pieces of plastic, cotton, and metal stamped with the words Made in China. We keep the bits of China that we already have but we stop bringing in any more.

The eviction is no fault of China's. It has coated our lives with a cheerful veneer of cheap toys, gadgets, and shoes. Sometimes I worry about lost American jobs or nasty reports of human rights abuses, but price has trumped virtue at our house. We couldn't resist what China was selling. But on this dark afternoon, a creeping unease washes over me as I sit on the sofa and survey the gloomy wreckage of the holiday. It seems impossible to have missed it before, yet it isn't until now that i notice an irrefutable fact. China is taking over the place.

Bongiorni primarily viewed as an experiment or a game. In fact, she sold it to her husband as a reverse scavenger hunt and put a lot of focus into creating rules (such as allowing gifts that were made in China). Later, she used those rules to technically adhere to the boycott while getting what she needed (like encouraging her husband's sister to buy an inflatable pool as a birthday gift for her husband when she is unable to find an inflatable pool that wasn't made in China). A few times, she made references to globalization and the fact that so many things were made in China that we were fast approaching the point that we no longer had a choice in whether to buy Chinese goods. In fact, in some areas, we don't have a choice now. Early in the book, when she was shopping for a new lamp, she found out that light switches are no longer made in the US. The subject of toys comes up frequently, since she has younger children, and she was only able to find a handful of toys (mainly Legos) that weren't made in China.

Unfortunately, aside from a few "China is too big" references in the book, she never really gave a well-reasoned argument for boycotting China, despite the fact that it's pretty easy to make a strong argument. China has a horrible record of human rights violations in factories (Foxconn, anyone?) and they're very lax on environmental issues. There's also the animal cruelty issues. In fact, I avoid fake fur and fake sheepskin (for instance, Ugg knockoffs) due to the fact that both are often made from animal fur (dog in the case of fake fur and raccoon doss for the Uggs and the slaughter process is poorly regulated and incredibly inhumane. (I'm not providing links because I don't feel like digging through the stories, but if you want to research the issue on your own, be warned that it's very disturbing.) Bongiorni doesn't really consider any of that, though, and the best explanation she gives is when she tells her son that it wasn't that they don't like China, but China was too big and they wanted to give someone else a chance to make things. Not surprisingly, given her reasons for the boycott, she had no problem with buying products made in countries with equally horrible working conditions as long as the products weren't made in China.

I was also disappointed with how she handled the issue with her family. She spends a lot of time in what strikes me as a power struggle with her husband, clinging to the idea that they must boycott China at any costs. Early on in the book, her husband loses his sunglasses and, despite the fact that he was supposed to wear sunglasses due to a growth on his eye, she pushes him to do without and, later, comes up with ridiculous and ineffective solutions to keep him from buying new sunglasses since American or Italian sunglasses were too expensive and the cheaper options were all made in China. This continues throughout the book and, frankly, it doesn't make either of them look good.

The way she handled it with her children was also a problem for me. She doesn't really make an attempt to change their values or really give them reasons to boycott China (though her daughter was probably too young to understand anyway). This means that her son develops what seems to be a hatred of the Chinese, saying at one point that he was glad people were hungry because they were bad. Bongiorni spends a lot of time worrying that the experiment had made her children xenophobic. I couldn't understand why she just didn't say "We like the people of China, but the people that make things in China make the people work in bad conditions, so we don't want to support them" or some variation of that. I can't find remember her son's exact age, but I remember understanding that sweatshops were a bad thing and that buying products made there was bad even when I was pretty young. I also found it interesting that, while she was pretty quick to deny things her husband needed (sunglasses and, arguably, flip flops for the beach), she decided that her son was suffering, yes, suffering for not being able to buy Chinese made toys.

Finally, I was annoyed at her lack of balance. One thing I struggle with is balancing various concerns, like buying a plastic free product vs a cruelty free product or choosing organic produce with plastic packaging (it happens more than you'd think) or plastic free conventional produce. Bongiorni, however, placed "not made in China" above all else. When she had mice, she had to choose between a Chinese humane trap or an American snap trap. After completely avoiding the issue and letting mice run rampant in her house, she chose the American snap trap. If she were boycotting for human rights reasons, I could understand her logic. But since it was just "China is too big," then why buy snap traps and kill mice when you'd prefer humane traps?

The writing style was that of a good blogger, if that. In fact, I think the book might have been better if she had kept a blog first and then condensed it into a book. That seems to be a very effective method in writing books like this, based on what I've seen in other books. I read the book in an afternoon and spent the entire time hoping it would magically improve. It didn't.

On the plus side, I suppose I learned a couple of things. Or, more accurately, it confirmed what I already knew or should have realized with a little thought. Chinese-made products dominate the market, especially in certain areas, and it's hard to avoid them. It's also positive to live without them, though it doesn't seem to be a long term solution to the problem. It was a good reminder to be more thoughtful about the products I buy, though, and I think that country of origin will be a larger factor in my choices. It's also encouraged me to read up on globalization a bit more.

This book counts toward the Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge.