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Book Review: A Year Without Made in China by Sara Bongiorni

A year without

So as my financial state has shifted from being broke as a joke (full-time student with a no-benefits “perma-temp” job that barely covered rent, food, and utilities) to having things like stable income, health insurance, and enough excess money to contribute to both a savings account and my student loan debt– I think a lot more about buying things. I do, in fact, buy a lot more things. I also read fashion industry blogs, and contribute to clothes-related Kickstarter campaigns. A higher influx of cash has even increased my time in thrift stores: reading all those fashion industry blogs helps me learn which clothes at the Goodwill are fancy, and that makes me want them (it’s a strange thing! I didn’t plan on getting materialistic in this way!).  So as a result, I sometimes wear $300 jeans (that I got for $8.49 thank you very much), I have a $7 organic cotton coat made by some small designer (that apparently retails for a price even higher than the jeans), and I have a few $2.49 t-shirts from the local company that sells them for $40 apiece. As a person who generally thinks that capitalism and materialism are kind of evil, I definitely have some mixed feelings about this new interest. However, there has been a positive development from all of this. I’ve started reading clothes labels.

As a vegan, I’ve been reading food labels for 15 years– but it hadn’t occurred to me to look at clothes labels until more recently. There’s the care instructions (which I don’t really care about), the fabric content (which can tell you a lot about a garment’s quality), and, of course, the “Made In _________” section. Since having more money, I’ve started reading clothes labels, and have become increasingly interested in where items are made. Sure, this can often predict quality. But in addition, now that I have more resources (a.k.a. $$$$), I can afford to try to acquire “stuff” that was maybe more ethically and locally made. I don’t have to go for the cheapest or easiest garments right now in my life.

This brought me to “A year without “made in China” : one family’s true life adventure in the global economy” by Sara Bongiorni. I ordered this book from the library because I’m so curious about other peoples’ paths in similar pursuits/interests. In the same vein of so many other socially-slanted memoirs, the author does an experiment that takes place over the span of a year in effort to draw some big conclusions about the society we live in. In the case of Bongiorni, she noticed that it seemed like everything in her house was made in China these days– and so much of it was bad quality and/or taking up space.
We’ll start with the good: The book is very readable. I’m always impressed when nonfiction has a fiction-esque narrative. I also want to give major props for writing a book on the topic– I’m sure it’s scary to attack mainstream consumerist habits in a public forum. Also, she did it. With a spouse, kids, and a lifestyle in suburbia. That’s big. I read it in about a day, which was nice because I had a bunch of books in my “to read” stack.

There were some parts that I wasn’t super thrilled about. I didn’t really like the author’s voice that came through– the way she regarded her spouse, how she seemed to interact with others. We probably wouldn’t be pals IRL. Also, sourcing. There was a serious lack of internet in this book (even though it’s from 2007, when e-commerce definitely existed), which meant there were lots of paragraphs devoted to driving around and looking for non-China products in stores. For example, at one point her kid needs new shoes, and it turns out that lots of kid shoes are made in China. So she goes to all the shoe stores, like ever, and reads tons of labels until she finally finds one pair that were made elsewhere. She spends weeks doing this. I would just go online and either search for “made in usa shoes” (they do exist, barely), or browse a shoe store website for non-China countries of origin (in this book, the author was OK with Taiwan and other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, etc). Same with the coffee maker. It seems that they bitterly abstained from coffee for the year when their coffee maker broke and everything at the store was made in China. They could have bought an Aeropress or gotten theirs repaired…

I could nitpick a little more, but I don’t want to spent forever whining about what was an interesting project. I think other authors could probably expand on this project (e.g. only buy “made in USA for 1 year), and I would be thrilled to read their books.

Find a copy here