Be Happy, America. And Vigilant.

Shuttling among farms, mines and prison camps, he said, he was beaten…and placed in a coffinlike concrete case. He lost 75 pounds before he was released in 1979 when he was 42, three years after Mao’s death.
Harry Wu, Who Told World of Abuses in China, Dies at 79, The New York Times, April 27, 2016

_________________________________________________________

I’m chatting by phone with Vincent, the Pottery Barn representative. He’s friendly and warm and has an ah-shucks twang in his voice.  I ask where he’s located. “Las Vegas, Nevada, ma’am,” he says. “Pottery Barn’s strictly U.S.-based for customer service.” He giggles. I hear him and think maybe 30 Rock’s  Jack McBrayer / Kenneth Parcell has taken a job answering Pottery barn phones. This is America. Anything’s possible.

“If you wouldn’t mind helping me, Vincent, I’m trying to figure out where Pottery Barn’s patriotic stuff–all the flags and swags and such–were made? I don’t see country of origin information. I really try to buy products that’re made in the U.S.A.”

“You do? Me too! Let’s see, you’re talking about the Americana Collection, right? From what I’m told if it doesn’t say imported it’s not supposed to be, and these should be made here because they’re, you know, things with flags and so that would make sense…but…can you hold on for a second? Let me check with my supervisor.”

As I wait, PB’s Americana Collection glows from my laptop screen. Clean, crisp and front-porch-friendly, the red, white and blue flags, swags, banners, table runners and napkins seem to say: “Pull up a chair. Have a glass of lemonade. Sing something patriotic. So what if the U.S. merchandise trade deficit with China hit a record $365,694,500,000 in 2015? Don’t worry. Be happy.” The Bobby McFerrin song now in my head will stay with me for the rest of the day.

Fellow-patriot Vincent returns. “Thanks for waiting, ma’am. We can’t figure out where anything came from. I’m sorry. Try calling one of the stores that carries these items. Someone can check the packaging for you. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Buh-bye, Vincent-in-Vegas. Thanks anyway.

Turns out it’s all from China. Every last patriotic flag and festoon. “It shouldn’t be this way,” the salesperson at a bricks-and-mortar Pottery Barn store says with a sigh. “You know, someone should say something about that.”

Okay, here goes: America’s patriotic symbols shouldn’t be used on any retail products unless those products have been 100 percent made in the U.S.A. Those products should create American jobs. They should symbolize loyalty to this country. Anyone agree with me? Does it even matter? Why not let the issue drop?

I head over to my local Starbucks. Across the street, at the Veteran’s Hall, a bronze sculpture awaits those inclined to pause and think. Sometimes the families and friends of fallen soldiers gather, inches from the sculpture. They leave flowers and hand-written notes. I miss you. I love you. 

The total number of Americans killed in all U.S. wars? Over 1.1 million. All gave some. Some gave all. Freedom isn’t free. On Memorial Day, to honor those who’ve paid the ultimate price, we go about our daily lives. We grill burgers. We toast the coming summer. We celebrate the ordinary. Did you see? Apricots and cherries are back. Watermelons will be here soon.

Driving home I sip my latte, listen to a podcast. China-expert Gordon Chang is trying to express his thoughts about yesterday’s memorial in Washington, D.C. for Harry Wu. But the normally-eloquent Mr. Chang chokes up. Who was Harry Wu? Dissident. Activist. Survived 19 horrific years in Chinese labor camps. Regained his freedom, settled in the U.S., became a citizen. Then, amazingly, he “slipped back into China to gather undercover footage of the prison camps.” From the Washington Post:

The footage aired on the CBS news magazine “60 Minutes” and on the BBC in the 1990s. With those reports, Mr. Wu helped draw widespread attention to Chinese practices of using forced labor to produce exports — among them wrenches and artificial flowers ultimately banned by the United States — and harvesting organs from executed prisoners. According to his research, more than 50 million prisoners passed through the system over 40 years. 

From The New York Times:

Mr. Wu moved to the United States in 1985, arriving with $40 to take an unpaid post as a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and supporting himself by working nights at a doughnut shop.

He became an American citizen in 1994 and a tireless critic of the “reform through labor” system, known by the contraction laogai (rhymes with now-guy), which he refused to let the world disregard, even as Washington and other capitals sought commercial and political ties with China. He compared laogai to the Soviet gulag and to Nazi concentration camps…

I wonder if Laura J. Alber, CEO of Williams-Sonoma, Inc. (of which Pottery Barn is a subsidiary) has an opinion about prison life for human rights activists in Communist China. Considering Ms. Alber’s estimated compensation last year–$13,995,325–she should certainly be up-to-speed on all things China. If so, how can she allow any PB products to be manufactured there, let alone the red, white and blue Americana line?

Thomas Jefferson said “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” If you’re shopping for a new American flag for Memorial Day, be vigilant. Read the label. Pottery Barn chose China. We don’t have to. Instead, we can purchase flags from Annin, the oldest and largest flag manufacturers in the United States. Annin’s products are made “by Americans, for Americans.” Sounds good to me.

Happy Memorial Day. And rest in peace, Harry Wu.

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Summer Roses and Sticky Wickets

Displaying FullSizeRender.jpgThe flowers that bloom in the spring,
Tra la,
Breathe promise of merry sunshine–
As we merrily dance and we sing,
Tra la,
We welcome the hope that they bring,
Of a summer of roses and wine,
Of a summer of roses and wine.
                                                                                       –The Mikado, by W.S. Gilbert (1885)

In 2010 Don and I set out to redo our 1950′s-era backyard. Don wanted lots of boxwood hedges. I didn’t. “Too formal,” I told him. I wanted fragrant roses spilling over a white arbor. He shook his head. “Roses are a pain. They need pruning and spraying and all sorts of stuff.” He had a point. After all, he’s the experienced gardener in the family. The one with a green thumb. I’m more the idea person. As in: “I have an idea. Why don’t you plant me some roses?”

In the end neither of us listened to the other (the secret to a long and happy marriage). We listened to someone else instead. “You guys want an English country garden,” landscape designer Peter said, sketching as he spoke. “I think a boxwood boundary here, around the patio, would be nice and climbing roses here, on an arched arbor over the back gate would do well in the west-facing part of the yard. More roses here, growing on lattices up against the house, would be nice, too.” Don and I nodded. Yes, sure, nice.

That autumn, Don planted climbing roses on either side of our newly constructed arbor and gate. Two months later my Dad passed away. Following Dad’s memorial in Orange County, Don and I returned to our home in San Francisco’s chilly, drizzly East Bay. The rose plants–bare, seemingly lifeless–on either side of the white arbor underscored my sadness.

As a tribute to Dad, I resolved to buy only products made in the USA for the coming new year. That single 2011 resolution spawned hundreds of blog posts, dozens of interviews with manufacturers and company owners and entrepreneurs; hundreds of USA-made purchases; countless conversations with fellow-citizens who seemed to be in varying stages of grief over the loss of manufacturing in this country. As I write this, books related to the globalization topic cram the shelves in my converted garage office. Pertinent articles fill several lateral file drawers. And Dad’s a vital part of the conversation, too, through his writing, inventions, lecture tapes, colleagues; through my memories and those of my siblings.

And the roses? As you can see, they survived, thrived and look more beautiful than ever. Can roses smile? These seem to. Anyway, Don’s made peace with them. “Once you get in the habit of pruning and spraying,” he says, “it’s no big deal.”

No big deal. Maybe the same could be said of trying to purchase products made or grown in this country. Red grapes from Chili or organic red grapes from California? Zucchini grown in California or yellow squash from Mexico? Why not choose Cali? Buying fresh, locally-grown produce is not that difficult, is it? (I know. First world problem, for sure.)

But…let’s say you’ve got a hankering for grass-fed 100 percent USA beef for your Memorial Day BBQ. Ah, there’s a sticky wicket, my freedom-loving fellow Americans, because just last December the World Trade Organization (WTO) authorized over $1 billion annually in trade sanctions against the USA unless we “weaken” or “eliminate” our Country of Origin Labels (COOL) on our meats.

Trade agreements have consequences. For one thing, they make me use terms like “hankering” and “sticky wicket.” For another, they make American consumers confused and angry. We want to know where the meat we’re buying originated–a ranch in California or somewhere in Canada? (The average Canadian is now better off than the average American, by the way; so they’ll be fine.) Do we pound on the meat counter? Demand information? Yell at the butcher in the no-longer-white apron wielding a meat cleaver? Become vegan? Sticky wicket indeed.

One last thing: remember that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza quits his job then returns to it as if he’d never left, hoping no one will notice? I guess this is my Costanza moment. Quit China Ate My Jeans? Who, me? No way. Why, I’ve been here all along…so here’s to merry sunshine and pink roses and weekly blog posts, tra la.  Oh, and wine. California grown, of course. Cheers.

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Make Your Holiday Shopping Red, White and Blue. Start Today. #AAMDay.

So, I’m at the skincare counter of a local department store the other day chatting with Alice, my favorite makeup / make-over miracle-worker, and she says: “Hey, what’s happening with the blog?”

Seriously? She remembers it? After hibernating in my converted garage office for days, weeks, months, surrounded by newspaper clippings and books and files and purchases, I’m so grateful to Alice for remembering the blog that it’s hard not to gush. I restrain myself. Wouldn’t want to frighten her or anything. (Bay Area Blogger over-hugs esthetician. Film at 11…)

“Well…I’m working on a book about my year trying to buy stuff made in the USA…but I do miss writing the blog…thanks for asking about it.”

Alice keeps pushing. “At the very least, you should post a Gone Fishin’ message or something. Let people know what’s happened to you.”

“People?” I ask, picturing Alice, party of one, perusing my website. Cue crickets in background.  

“Sure. I’m always telling people about your blog.”

The other reason I like Alice? She’s like a collagen-shot to this writer’s ego. 

*

But let’s cut to the chase, as my impatient, always-thinking cinematographer-Dad used to say. Why a blog post now, after such a long absence? Because it’s American Made Matters Day. I couldn’t let this pre-Black Friday occasion slip by. Need motivation to think about purchasing at least one American-made product today? Consider this photo of super-sized, imports-packed shipping containers stacked up at the Port of Long Beach, CA. 

Congestion worsens at Ports of L.A., Long Beach

It’s a safe bet that most are filled with holly-jolly import-goodies destined for retail stores all across the USA. Did you know the number of imports arriving in Port of Long Beach in September alone increased by 11 percent?

Putting the trade imbalance issue aside, think about this disturbing nugget: according to author / former Western Digital Corporation executive Todd Lipscomb (Re-Made in the USA), “just 15 of those enormous cargo container ships produce as much pollution as all the cars in the world…they use ‘bunker’ fuel, which contains 2,000 times the level of sulfur and other pollutants. That dirty oil they burn equates to pollution emissions from 50 million cars for one year.”

Let me repeat. 15 cargo containers = a year’s worth of pollution emissions from 50 million cars. Now multiply that by a gazillion cargo containers slogging back and forth from China to Long Beach every day of the year, spewing unregulated gunk into our seas. Nice. Still, we need our Shenzhen-made iPhones, right? And no, I’m not volunteering to give mine up.

On the other hand, imagine if most of the holiday gifts, decorations, and clothing we’ll be scooping up in the coming weeks had been made here at home, somewhere in the USA.  Lipscomb estimates that “if every adult in this country made the commitment to buy one $30 American-made product per month, instead of its foreign version, we would directly create 500,000 jobs here in the USA…[which would lead] to additional jobs at suppliers, transporters, and other companies that support the manufacturing and sales processes.”

We can commit to that, right?

For example, let’s say you were going to pick up some Legos construction toys for your kids/ nieces/ nephews / grandkids.  Legos are manufactured in many, many countries–except ours. No worries. Buy K’NEX instead. Made in Pennsylvania. No oceanic travel necessary. From its website:

K’NEX is the only construction toy company committed to manufacturing in the United States. K’NEX bricks, rods and connectors are manufactured in Pennsylvania at [an] eco-friendly facility…While most toys are made overseas, we are committed to manufacturing in the United States.

Look what Troy (17), a devoted K’NEX builder made (thus simultaneously creating a charming focal point for his parents’ living room):

thrill rides car

Troy–who’s wisely decided to pursue an engineering degree–says Legos frustrated him: Legos had restrictions as to different shapes and angles I could build, [but] K’NEX provided a nearly limitless approach to rudimentary engineering because of the numerous combinations of connections between two pieces.

Check out American Made Matters for links to hundreds of USA-made products (and money-saving holiday discounts).  Happy shopping!

And Alice? Thanks again for the encouragement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree in American-Made Jeans

This blog began on December 31, 2010, with a silly-sounding name: China Ate My Jeans. The idea for the name came from my days as an elementary school teacher. Kids would come up with the most outrageous excuses for not turning in their homework. And yes, on more than one occasion, the family dog was named as the culprit.

Prior to my Dad’s passing on November 28, 2010, the fact that my favorite Levi’s or Chico’s or Style & Co or Caslon jeans were made thousands of miles away under dubious conditions mattered not a whit. Those were the concerns of other people. You know the type. They volunteer for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or for the Peace Corps or advocate in some admirable way for a worthwhile cause. That wasn’t me.

But when I pulled out my Dad’s writing shortly after his death, his concerns struck a nerve. Add to that an odd coincidence: On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, my final conversation with my Dad was about “Import Backlash,” an expression he’d coined in the early 70s. In trying to take Dad’s mind off his esophageal cancer by reminiscing about the past, I found myself intrigued. “What is made here anymore?” I wondered aloud. Dad nodded, tried to focus, but really only wanted to talk about food. He was hungry. He couldn’t eat. He was tired of sucking on popsicles. Three days later, he passed away.

Decades earlier, Dad–a Hollywood cinematographer who had begun to see film industry jobs go overseas–wrote a paper about his “Import Backlash” concerns. He’d feared that if American companies continued to move manufacturing jobs out of this country our middle class core, the vital engine that moves the entire economy along, would gradually vanish. Yes, the upper class would thrive (and it has) but the lower and middle classes would increasingly need more government help (and they have).

At some point, don’t we have to look in the mirror? China didn’t eat our jeans; we made choices. Companies made choices. They put a finger in the air and saw what we the American consumers would tolerate. They got us hooked on China (and India, Indonesia, Mexico, on and on it goes); thereafter imports became our addiction.

Can we quit? I was out shopping last night in search of a simple red sweater to wear on Christmas Eve. I’d searched online for an American-made option. Couldn’t find anything I liked. You know how this story ends. We all live it everyday. I made a choice. I’m not thrilled about the imported red sweater in the Banana Republic bag, but there you have it.

That said, we can keep trying. A t-shirt here, a space heater there. I do believe these small purchases, over time, accumulate and send a powerful message. Reshoring (returning manufacturing back to the United States) is the wave of the future. When asked, the majority of American businesses say there’s no place like home.

Even better news: Some companies never left in the first place. So for the final of CAMJ’s Twelve Days of Christmas, let’s salute the admirable makers of genuine American jeans; jeans actually manufactured here. I’m sure there are more, but here are a few. If you look for sales, especially this time of the year, you can find good deals on the pricier brands. All American Clothing continues to offer the best price point. I’m not including American Apparel (Los Angeles, CA) for reasons discussed at length in an earlier post (the situation’s only deteriorated further). 

Here’s a thought: Imagine if we put these companies (and the retailers that carry their products) on our holiday card list, sent each CEO a note (or email) to say “Thanks for making your jeans here!” Hundreds of encouraging messages would arrive. It’d be cool. 

Check out these brands’ jeans:

True Religion Brand Jeans (Los Angeles, CA). Online and in stores.

 

True Religion Brand Jeans women's "Whiskey Blues" ($198)

NYDJ (Not Your Daughter’s Jeans; Los Angeles, CA). Available in retail stores. Check the labels. NYDJ manufactures some styles in China.

 

NYDJ's Marilyn Straight Leg ($120)

 

Citizens of Humanity (Huntington Park, CA) jeans can be found in retail stores throughout the country. Here’s a pair currently on sale at Anthropologie.

 

Citizens of Humanity "Dixie" (originally $209; now $59.95)

 7 for All Mankind (Los Angeles, CA). Available online and in retailers.

7 for All Mankind men's "Venice Sky" ($109)

  All American Clothing (Arcanum, Ohio). Available online only.  

 

All American Straight Leg Jean ($48.99)

 

All American Clothing Ladies Phoenix Jean ($49.99)

 
 

Have a wonderful Christmas!

 
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Christmas Treats, California Style

Arguably the most intriguing business story of the last month has been taking place back in San Francisco, where a group of US developers is planning the biggest real estate expansion there since the 1906 earthquake. The group–which includes Lennar Corp., Ross Perot and others–isn’t getting financing from an American bank or pension fund.

No, the money, some $1.7 billion of it, is coming from the China Development Bank, a policy arm of the Chinese state…CDB [has attached] a special proviso. It’s asking that China Railway Construction Corp.–a state-owned infrastructure builder with roots in the People’s Liberation Army–take part in the projects, which will develop up to 20,000 new homes along two prime positions in the housing-starved city.

 –Wall Street Journal (12.19.12)

 

Merry Christmas, San Francisco construction workers! I know. Not very festive of me to lead off this post–a mere four days from Christmas–with details that recently emerged from the China-Lennar Corp deal. Ugly. I don’t know how else to put it. First came San Francisco’s Bay Bridge (which Don and I and our family members regularly travel across) largely Made in China by Chinese workers using Chinese steel, and now, too, a large swath of prime San Francisco real estate development will be constructed using laborers (and materials, no doubt) shipped here from the PRC? If I were a construction worker, I’d be buying poster boards, wooden stakes and wide tip markers. Time to picket, don’t you think? Raise public awareness?

Let’s see. Where was I? Oh, yes, CAMJ’s Twelve Days of Christmas, American Style, Day Eleven; now somewhat deflated by this disappointing news. But onward, fellow Americans. Let’s look on the bright side (as my youngest used to say when she was about eight): China believes in America. The real question, which WSJ journalist Dennis K. Berman asks in the column quoted at the top of this post, is why doesn’t America believe in itself? No financiers stepped up to the plate. This is worrisome.

I don’t have $1.7 billion stashed away to loan to Lennar Corp et al for this mega-development, but I can continue to purchase American-made products this holiday season. One Little Tikes toy at a time, I can make a difference. So let’s not get bogged down by big numbers. Keep our eyes on what each of us can do, right?

And now, on to CAMJ’s Eleventh of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Today’s theme: edible treats, all locally produced. First up: California Pistachios. I found these at a nearby grocery store, nicely packaged in a natural cotton bag:

California Sungold Roasted and Salted Pastachios

 

Here’s the scoop on the business behind this locally-grown product:

In 1983, my wife and I purchased 20 acres of pistachio trees. We both had other jobs; myself in the dairy business, and my wife as a high school English teacher.

The first crop of pistachios presented a financial dilemma: a large mortgage payment was due that we didn’t have money to pay for; and the money for the crop wouldn’t come in until after the mortage payment was due. With necessity being the mother of invention, we hand packaged our nuts and went on the road to try and sell them…

We now have our warehouse in the town of Oakhurst CA…where we package, store and ship our products. We have 3 year-round employees, and we hire local seasonal help for the holidays.

Our original pistachio acreage has expanded to 79 acres…We feel fortunate to be doing something we love, and selling products that people really enjoy!

–Rick, Demetra, and Natalie Chamberlain

Or how about a Rachel Dunn 2-3 pound apple covered with caramel, Guittard chocolate and nuts? There was exactly one of these left at a local department store. As I hesitated, another shopper grabbed it! But maybe you can find one left in your neighborhood. This yummy product–praised by Oprah, U.S. presidents, and foreign royalty alike–is produced by Rachel and Mike Dunn and family at their chocolate factory in Concord, CA:

Rachel Dunn's Unbelievable Apple ($22.95)

Or how about something simple and sweet with no added sugar? Have you tried California-grown clementines? Sun Pacific’s “Cuties” are available from November through April. My grandson loves these, and now I do, too. Pop a few of these into stockings. They’re seedless, easy to peel and practically melt in your mouth. Enjoy!

Sun Pacific California Clementines / "Cuties"

 I couldn’t end this post without mentioning See’s Candies. Headquarted in South San Francisco, See’s (now a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway) employs over 2,000 workers. This stocking-stuffer’s been a favorite in our family for years.

See's Winter Wonderland Box

 Hope these ideas will help make your Christmas gift-buying a bit brighter!

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Dear Santa: USA-Made Books, Please

I cannot live without books.

–Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams (June 10, 1815)

My family’s Oregon-grown tree still sits in a bucket of water outside. There are gifts to wrap, a college-kid to pick up, a Christmas Eve menu to plan (Ina Garten’s Turkey Sausage Lasagna tops my list). Yet I’ve still so much to share about USA-made gifts, and only three days left.

I’m pretty sure Don would say the Twelfth Day can’t come soon enough. I keep buying the products I write about. Last night, as Don and I devoured a late dinner (soup and salad from Whole Foods), I fessed up about ordering yet another CAMJ-mentioned item. Don rolled his eyes, but then wanted to know all about it. I eased into the purchase, took Don back in time, reminded him how our kids, powered by their own two feet, used to take turns zipping around the house, yard and neighborhood in their Little Tikes Cozy Coupe. “And it’s still Made in the USA,” I marveled. “Can you believe it?” He nodded, smiled. I let the good feelings hang in the air for a beat or so before suggesting we order a Cozy Coupe for our grandson (now 20 months). Done deal. Should arrive tomorrow. Now if I can just get my tree up and decorated, we’ll be set.

No Christmas gift list would be complete without books. I’ll leave the e-reader debate to others. Suffice it to say there’s a tangible joy, even comfort, in reading a “real” book, turning its paper pages, placing it on a shelf to return to time and again as the urge strikes. That’s my opinion. Hope you’ll agree. Visiting a bookstore is part of the pleasure. Browsing the shelves, seeing what piques your interest or what might be enjoyable to give to a friend or loved one. It’s relaxing and fun.  

Must admit the sad news about books, however: Those requiring color-processing (children’s books, coffee table books, cookbooks) are now 99.9 percent Made in China. But the good news is that most other books still say “Printed in the United States of America.” Nice to see those words inside a book cover, isn’t it?

Below are some book-gift suggestions with a twist. Since you’re probably done with Christmas shopping, why not give one or two of these to yourself? Perhaps, as a reader of this blog, you are drawn to the “Made in USA” topic and wish you knew more about it. Or you wish you knew more about, say, buying local foods. Or about life in China during the Cultural Revolution (the past informs the present, doesn’t it?). Or you wonder what life inside a Chinese factory is like today. These books will move, inform, entertain, horrify, and hopefully make you want to read more:

CAMJ’s Top 10 Books to Give to…You!

Fiction:

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok (This book, although fiction, is based on the all-too-real experiences of the author as a child working in the apparel sweatshops of Brooklyn, NY.)

Memoir:

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver

Nonfiction with compelling personal elements:

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry in the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford

Globalization, Free Trade, How to Revive American Manufacturing:

Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing is Still Key to America’s Future, by Ro Khanna

Make It in America: The Case for Re-Inventing the Economy, by Andrew N. Liveris

Great Again: Revitalizing America’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, by Henry R. Nothhaft

The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage, by Alexandra Harney

That’s it for Day Ten. Hope you’ll grab a cup of coffee or tea to-go from your favorite cafe, head on over to your favorite independent bookstore (mine’s Rakestraw Books, in Danville, CA) and browse to your heart’s content. If you come across other books on this topic to suggest, I do hope you’ll post them in the comments section for all to see.  Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hey Santa, Here’s One Word for American-Made Toys: Plastics.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

–”The Graduate,” 1967

If you need to buy Christmas gifts for the little kids in your life, take a cue from “The Graduate.” Think plastics. 1960s audiences probably snickered cynically at Mr. McGuire’s advice, but it turns out he was onto something.  Plastic manufacturing still thrives in this country, especially when it comes to toys. Unfortunately, plastic imports thrive as well, and sometimes seem to crowd out USA-made counterparts. Check the labels. Choose accordingly.

Truth is, I’d forgotten all about American-made plastic toys until this morning when a helpful friend emailed to say she’d discovered an assortment of great looking, affordable plastic toys online, all made in the USA by a company called American Plastic Toys. I thanked her for reminding me. Yes, of course. Plastic toys! The perfect topic for Day Nine of CAMJ’s Twelve Days of Christmas. 

Here’s a bit about American Plastic Toys. From its website:

 American Plastic Toys has proudly manufactured safe toys in United States since 1962. We currently operate a total of five facilities in Michigan and Mississippi. Our product line includes over 125 different items ranging from a simple sand pail to a play kitchen set.

We assemble 100% of the toys in our product line in the United States. Most of the components in our products are molded in our plants or purchased from US companies. Less than four percent of our toy value content is imported from the Far East. The majority of this small percentage consists of sound components and fasteners. Toys with imported components only represent 25% of our entire product line. None of these components are painted or include phthalates.

All of the plastic used to make our toys is purchased in the USA. The majority of our toys are molded with Polypropylene (~80%) and Polyethylene (~20%) plastic. The colorant molded in all of our products is purchased domestically and is FDA approved for use in food packaging. None of our products are painted or include phthalates.

Try getting that kind of detailed quality assurance from Chinese manufacturers. So refreshing. The key word for me (besides plastic)? “Safe.” Isn’t that our top priority in purchasing toys for children?

This company manufactures hundreds of awesome looking toys–role-playing toys, riding toys, sports toys, vehicles, preschool toys–but I’m a sucker for a nice red wagon. Check it out. Found this one at target.com:

American Plastic Toys Runabout Wagon ($32.49) Made in USA

If you’d like to do a bit of comparison shopping, let’s look at Radio Flyer’s Classic Red Wagon, also at target.com:

Radio Flyer Classic Red Wagon ($89.89) Made in China

So adorable. Sad news: This all-American metal classic is now manufactured in China. However, Radio Flyer assures me it does make all its plastic wagons in Wisconsin, USA. Here’s the plastic Radio Flyer Pathfinder Wagon, also sold at target.com ($74.99):

Radio Flyer Pathfinder Wagon (Made in USA)

But wait, when it comes to American-made plastic wagons and toys, there’s more!

Little Tikes, based in Aurora, Ohio (now a subsidiary of MGA Entertainment) has churned out molded plastic toys since 1969. My own kids loved their yellow and orange Cozy Coupe. In 1998, the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe was so popular it outpaced sales of the Honda Accord and Ford Taurus. Happily, most Little Tikes products are still manufactured in the USA. Check out one of its many wagons, available for purchase at numerous retailers and at littletikes.com:

Little Tikes Cozy Cruisin' Wagon ($64.99)

 

Our wagon extravaganza wouldn’t be complete without one made by Step2, the largest toy manufacturer in the United States. I’ve purchased several Step2 products. I’d give ‘em all A+ This company also gets my consumer-vote for providing excellent information regarding its labeling system; but rest assured that most Step2 products are manufactured in the USA, with a small percentage of components–components not integral to the toys’ designs–imported. From its website:

With concern about toy manufacturing at an unprecedented level, we at Step2 believe we have a responsibility to clearly communicate the country of origin of our products. We understand that our customers want to make informed purchasing decisions.According to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines, nearly all Step2 toys can be labeled “Made in U.S.A.” Nevertheless, we set a higher standard, and it is our desire to clearly inform you about where our products are made. This includes noting when accessories or smaller toys are sourced from overseas manufacturing plants. We use a three-tiered labeling system on our retail packaging…

Again: Think you’ll ever come across that kind of meticulous explanation about a China-made toy? Here’s one of Step2′s wagons:

Step2 All Around Wagon (Toys 'R Us $79.99)

So many great choices, but one thing’s clear: It’s time to circle the wagons ’round American toy manufacturers that still choose to make products here. Support these companies. Buy their products. Get the word out: plastics.

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We Need a Little Christmas: These American-Made Products Can Help

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute,
Candles in the window,
Carols at the spinet.
by Jerry Herman

 

I could lead off with distressing factory news from distant lands, but instead decided that we Americans, weary from tragedy on our own shores, need a little Christmas, right this very minute.  I’m sure you’ll agree. So on with Day Eight of CAMJ’s Twelve Days of Christmas, American Style…
 
Picture this: You’re snuggling on the sofa, a lush blanket tossed over your laps to keep you and your loved one warm as you watch It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story. You’re munching popcorn, sipping apple cider or–why not?–a nice merlot. This heartwarming scene is actually a compelling way to spotlight a few American products that (depending on your finances) also make great gifts.
 
For those who’ve won the lottery, why not buy someone on your gift list (or maybe yourself) a new sofa from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel? Both retailers sell USA-made sofas. Crate & Barrel has 300 styles from which to choose. Yes, these are more expensive than Ikea, but it’s Christmas. Let’s be jolly. Do we really want to talk about how Ikea recently admitted it used East German political prisoners as “forced” laborers in the 1980s to help keep its prices low?  I didn’t think so. Next topic.
 
Good blanket for snuggling: Cable Weave Throw by Bates Mill Store ($60).  “Adorned with hand-stitched knotted fringe on two sides, this heavyweight throw is sure to keep you cozy throughout the year.” Sounds just right. Here ’tis:
Bates Mill Store’s Cable Weave Throw
According to batesmillstore.com, Bates Manufacturing Company ”opened its doors when America was a farming community of only 23 million people and 30 states.” Now owned by Maine Heritage Weavers, the company continues to manufacture and sell quality bedspreads, blankets and throws–all of them lovingly made in Maine.  
 
And about the popcorn in our heartwarming scene? It was popped over the stove (or outdoor fireplace) using a Jacob Bromwell Original Popcorn Popper ($64.99) The website promises “You can’t help but pop a smile with one of these.” And, like the blanket manufacturer just discussed, this company–and its poppers–have been around for a while:
…now in its 190th year of production—having warmly maintained its original design since it was given the gift of life in the early 1800s.
Unfortunately, it’s so pop-u-lar (sorry, couldn’t resist) you’ll have to wait 12 weeks to get one. But why not order now? Prepare for the ides of March. Give a post-Christmas gift to someone when he/she least expects it.
 

Jacob Bromwell Original Popcorn Popper ($64.99)

 

And as for the apple cider in our scene, it’s a gift for you and yours on a frosty night. Just heat up some 100% USA-made Tree Top Apple Juice (or your favorite organic brand). Add a cinnamon stick (yes, imported) and voila! Yum. Or, if you’re so inclined, uncork a bottle of Napa Valley’s Rutherford Hill Cabernet or Merlot and sip away as Jimmy Stewart decides his fate. Or wrap up the wine and give to some lucky host, hostess, friend or family member. Either way, cheers!

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What’s the Value of American-Made Gifts? Priceless.

More than 500 people have died in Bangladesh factory fires since 2006, according to estimates by labor groups…Authorities have begun to review the nation’s 5,000 registered garment factories…

As foreign retailers slash prices to attract shoppers, Bangladeshi factories have to produce for less…

Labor groups said factory owners, a number of whom sit in Parliament, have blocked efforts to improve working conditions and have sought to ensure that a ban on unionization in garment factories remains in place.

“When we spoke up, we had our organization license revoked,” said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Work Solidarity…

…about five new factories open a month, making it difficult for Western retailers to keep tabs on where their clothes are coming from…

After Factory Fire, Pressure on Bangladesh to Improve Safety, Wall Street Journal

Here’s a fantasy: Imagine that yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (December 15, 2012, quoted above) instead read: After Bangladesh Factory Fire Kills 112 Workers, U.S. Retailers Admit It’s Time to Bring Manufacturing Back Home.

Yeah, right. As if that’s gonna happen. But what about this: After Bangladesh Factory Fire, Consumer Pressure on American Retailers to Bring Manufacturing Home Mounts.

Baby steps, right? One All American Clothing T- Shirt at a time (come on, it’s only $8.99) we can create change. And here’s a guarantee: Whatever the product, you’ll feel good making a USA-made purchase. Seriously. You may recall that just the other day I ordered two pairs of shearling slippers from Wooly Rascals (one for Santa, one for Mrs. Claus). I’d read about the San Francisco-based company, written about it for this blog, and felt connected to the folks behind the label. My money into this company’s hands seemed right. On the same day, browsing at a local department store, I checked out comparable shearling slippers. Made in China; same price as the USA-made Wooly Rascals. I felt even better about my online purchase.

But it’s never that simple, is it? Today while shopping at Costco, I spotted other slippers–not real sheepskin, but super cozy-looking faux shearling, Made in China–for $9.99. How can any American manufacturer compete with that? I saw those slippers and thought Wow, I could’ve saved so much money. What am I doing?

As I drove home, the fresh wreath and cedar boughs (from Oregon) I’d just bought at Costco filled my car with heavenly piney fragrance. The bargain slippers faded from memory. And there, on my front porch, sat a package. Must’ve arrived yesterday. The return address: South San Francisco. Yup, the Wooly Rascals slippers. What’s the value of American-made slippers at Christmastime? As MasterCard would say: Priceless.

Now, on to Day Seven of CAMJ’s Twelve Days of Christmas, American Style. Looking for a warm coat to give to some lucky person this Christmas? How about a pea coat?

Consider, if you will, two different brands: L.L. Bean and Sterlingwear of Boston. Both brands make classic (and updated) men’s and women’s 100% wool pea coats in assorted colors and styles. Both produce beautiful products. But L.L. Bean’s pea coats ($189-$249) are manufactured in China. Sterlingwear’s pea coats (approximately the same prices as L.L. Bean’s) are manufactured in the New England area, where the company employs 250 workers. Here’s one of my favorites:

Sterlingwear Brittany Pea Coat ($195)

Turns out Sterlingwear is the official manufacturer pea coats for the United States Navy. From the company’s website:

Sterlingwear of Boston, Inc., has been the manufacturer of the official United States Navy pea coat for over 40 years. Started as Viking Clothing in 1965, now in its third generation of leadership, this family-owned and operated business has evolved into a state-of-the-art clothing manufacturing company, employing over 250 men and women in the New England area.

In addition to serving the needs of our brave servicemen and women, we are proud to offer a commercial line of superior outerwear to you, our customer. We have taken the skills and craftsmanship of our loyal and dedicated union workforce, the very best of domestic and imported materials, along with the exact quality control standards required by the United States government and created an outstanding line of outerwear for the entire family.

Sterlingwear of Boston is pleased to offer an alternative to foreign imports and to have created a brand that serves both fashion and function. Needless to say, we are very confident that you will find the Sterlingwear brand of pea coat and outwear to be as outstanding in style, craftsmanship, and value as we believe it to be.

Given the choice, armed with Sterlingwear’s story and pro-American philosophy, wouldn’t you choose its pea coats over those made by L.L. Bean? L.L. Bean touts its American roots in marketing campaigns, but long ago chose the offshore route. Currently celebrating its 100th year in business, L.L. Bean’s website boasts the company’s status as a “global organization” with annual sales of $1.44 billion. It takes pride in its “heritage and values” yet only manufactures a few products in Freeport, Maine (canvas tote bags, shearling boots). Is it too harsh to say L.L. Bean cut and run? After all, some would argue it had been on the verge of financial ruin and now is robust. Consider this: Our country’s GDP is stuck at 2%. Unemployment hovers near 8% (with effective unemployment in the double-digits). What’s the true cost of L.L. Bean’s decision to manufacture overseas? Inestimable. 

If you don’t need a pea coat but do need a lift, check out Sterlingwear’s holiday jingle. Here’s a bit:

All of our elves have been

Busy sewing away

Bringing you quality outerwear

Made in the USA! 

What’s the value of a company corny enough to post a holiday jingle? Priceless.

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Yes, Even Christmas Gifts Have a Circle of Life

An AP reporter searching the Bangladeshi factory where more than a hundred people died in a fire over the weekend found shorts from Wal-Mart’s Faded Glory brand…as well as Sean Combs’s ENYCE line. They also found books listing Wal-Mart, Disney, and Sears as buyers, plus cartons of children’s hoodies marked “Disney Pixar.” Other reports say garments with C&A, Dickies, Fashion Basics, and Infinity Woman labels were found amid the ash. Adjust your Christmas shopping accordingly.

–Kat Steoffel, The Cut / nymag.com

 ***

Ironically enough since Disney’s mentioned in the quote above: I’ve been thinking a lot about the circle of life lately. Surely farmers’ markets (and brick and mortar stores like Whole Foods) in communities throughout the USA thrive because shoppers care deeply about the circle of life as it relates to the foods they and their families eat. How were they grown? Were harmful chemicals used? What about genetically modified foods? Are they safe? We want to know that the food we ingest will nourish, not harm us (which is why the World Trade Organization’s ruling that Country of Origin Labels be removed from imported products is unbelievable and horrifying).

But how to make the leap from caring deeply about the foods we ingest to caring as passionately about all the products we “consume”? Don’t they, too, have life cycles? The clothes on our backs, the shoes on our feet, the laptops at our fingertips, the cars we drive: doesn’t it matter that we know how these products were made, what materials were used, and whether they were produced in a humane way?

Consider the recent fire at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Bangladesh that killed 112 workers. Would you want to buy from the brands mentioned in the quote at the top of this post knowing  their products may have been made in an unsafe factory, sewn by full-time workers of dubious age who were paid $37 a month? Consider, too, the dozens of suicides over the years committed by Foxconn workers in Shenzhen, China. Millions of computers and iPhones and electronic gadgetry are made at Foxconn’s Chinese factories by underpaid, overworked workers for Apple and other American companies to import and sell to us.

Yes, sad to say, all products–edible or not–have a circle of life. We should pay attention to the stories behind them and, when possible, choose wisely. And so as we move on to Day Six of CAMJ’s Twelve Days of Christmas, I’d like to suggest All American Clothing. No circle of life worries here. These products are 100% Made in the USA. What a relief!

I last wrote about All American Clothing  (including an interview with founder and CEO Lawson Nickol) in 2011. At the time, I’d ordered a few things for Don but hadn’t yet received the items. Fast forward to the present day: Don’s affordable jeans from All American Clothing are, hands-down, his favorites, replacing the China-made Levi’s we used to pick up at Costco. He also gives two thumbs up to All American Clothings’ t-shirts and golfwear.  I give two thumbs-up to the company’s philosophy. From the website:

Our mission is to support USA families and jobs by producing high-quality clothing in the USA at an affordable price. By keeping our production in the USA we provide jobs and a tax base that supports our communities.

We care about our country and the people in it; if we were only in it for money we would move our production overseas. We will NOT trade USA jobs for foreign profits…

Wow. Now that’s what I call the Circle of Life. Cue the “Lion King” music, and head on over to allamericanclothing.com. Spread a little All American Christmas cheer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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