From pet food to playthings, Chinese-made products are difficult to avoid. But is it impossible? That's what journalist and author Sara Bongiorni tried to find out in 2005 when she, her husband and two children went a full year without buying anything manufactured in China. Bongiorni chronicled their efforts, their slip-ups and their frustrations in her new book, "A Year Without 'Made in China'." She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller about Mattel's toy recall, life without a coffee machine and why she's happy her family's self-imposed boycott is over.
NEWSWEEK: What inspired your hiatus from Chinese goods?
Sara Bongiorni: It was two days after Christmas 2004, and I was sitting on the couch surrounded by all this stuff on the floor, and I started looking at where it was from. All the toys were from China, so were the Christmas lights, the electronics, even the dog's chew toy. So I turned to my husband and said, "Don't you think it would be fun to live for a year without China?" He said, "No." But I twisted his arm and treated it as a family experiment, a New Year's resolution. It wasn't a protest or something political; I just wondered if a middle-class American family could go a year without goods made in China.
And can you?
Technically, you can, but your life would be nothing close to normal. We got through the year mostly by luck. We didn't need a new telephone or cell phone, which, as far as I can tell, come only from China. Also, our coffeemaker broke and we didn't replace it because we didn't want to buy an expensive one from Italy. Some things, it seems, only come from China, and doing without them for even a year is a reach.
Would you take a break from "Made in China" again?
No. There is no way my skeptical husband would have held with this—it's far too time-consuming. There are very few options other than Chinese items, and [most of] the goods from China are inexpensive and good quality.
But what about the safety issues and recalls with Mattel and other companies?
When I was doing this, safety concerns never crossed my mind. Because [about 80 percent of toys] are from China, so when there is a problem, odds are it'll come from there. I don't want to overreact, but I'm not sure how much caution is smart. As a consumer, I'm at a loss. Just the other day, my baby was playing with a wooden Thomas the Train whistle. While it wasn't part of the recall, it was painted with bright paint and I thought, "Let me just take that from her." We really are dependent on these larger system-level checks by the government and the manufacturers. As consumers, we can't safety-check things ourselves.
So, for the most part, you're satisfied with the imported goods.
It's easier to see the downside to trade with China when you worry about lost [American] jobs, labor rights and environmental issues. But I also came to appreciate the flip side: the access to inexpensive and good-quality products. We had to buy my 4-year-old son Italian shoes and that came to $68 dollars. We could have bought a $14 pair from China at Payless.
What about the more expensive imports?
People also have continued to associate merchandise from China with shoddy, low-cost goods. But a lot of high-end products are also made in China. When you go into fancy kitchen shops, for example, people think that the stuff is European because it might have a European name or the company might be based in Europe. But that's not always true. With imports from China, there's a huge array of goods and a huge array of quality.
Were your kids disappointed with their non-Chinese toys?
We wanted them to have fun at Christmas, but to them that involves colorful plastic toys, the majority of which come from China. Toys made in the U.S. or in Europe are well-crafted and tasteful but are [better suited] for grown-ups. I bought this beautifully painted German doll that was 3-inches tall and cost $20 instead of a [cheaper] Barbie. But with my young kids, even when we spent the money, it wasn't a good alternative. They wanted monster trucks and normal dolls. We did find some ordinary toys like Legos, which makes some of their products in Europe. I think we brought those for every single birthday party we went to that year. Our son complained, "Too many Legos." These days, a kid is used to flashing lights and remote controls.
I'm sure he was ready for the year to be over.
When he went shopping and he wanted something, I'd tell him to look at the label. So China became this magical place that makes all these wonderful toys. It had this mythic status in his mind, but he's glad to have that year behind him.