Saturday, July 14, 2012

Made in China

Despite the typical partisan harumphing that politicians in Washington consistently subject us to because they're incapable of acting like adults, they've amazingly managed to unite behind an issue that's clearly more important than health care, Afghanistan, the War on Drugs, or job creation: the fact that the uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team -made by Ralph Lauren- are manufactured in China. You can see the collection here.

I agree that to have our team's uniforms made overseas when there are plenty of American factories that could have done the work is in poor taste. It's particularly insensitive considering our countries' unemployment rate. And while I never, ever thought I'd hear myself say this, I actually agree with House Speaker John Boehner (apparently not pronounced "boner") when he stated in this article from the (don't ask) Christian Science Monitor, "You'd think they'd know better." He hit the nail on the head in both tone and word choice. Senator Harry Reid, on the other hand, gets his likely foreign-made panties all in a bunch when he complains, "I am so upset. I think the Olympic Committee should be ashamed of themselves. I think they should be embarrassed. I think they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again."

Really, Harry? Jesus Christ. I'm sorry the bad man hurt your feelings, but wipe the snot from your nose and be reasonable.

First, let's think about this from the perspective of supporting American businesses. I don't have access to the closets of the individual members of Congress, so I don't know if they exclusively purchase clothing that whose materials and construction are one hundred percent American. If they don't, however, comments like Reid's would start sounding real hypocritical real quick.

Second, I'm willing to bet that had the clothes been made in Italy, England or France -anywhere but China, really- there would have been much less of an uproar, if any at all. Jim Nelson, GQ's Editor-in-Chief, once put it succinctly that China is our econo-political "frenemy." They own tons of our debt and are known to commit human rights abuses against their workers, but the fact remains that we do business with them because paying Chinese workers dirt means American companies get their goods much cheaper than they would otherwise, and those savings are passed on to the consumer. The same goods (clothing, in this case) made in the U.S., England, Italy, or Germany -countries that have much better labor laws than China and many other Southeast Asian countries- would be much more expensive due to labor costs, and far fewer of us would be able to buy them. 

Ralph Lauren is no exception. The men's double-breasted blazer that's part of his 2012 Olympics collection retails at $795. The details listed with the coat mention nothing of the actual fabric quality (all we know is that it's Italian wool, no Super number assigned to it, no mention of what mill it came from) and don't utter a peep about the its construction. There's nothing special about any substantial detail of this jacket. While $795 might seem like a lot for a blazer, that's with Chinese labor. At American labor rates, the final retail price would be much higher. 

I'm not trying to make a judgement call here. I think it's terrible that a lot of Chinese factory workers work 12-hour shifts 6 days a week for like $7 a day. It's equally terrible that so many American factory jobs have become too expensive to keep in this country (in business owners' and board member's eyes), robbing too many people of employment opportunities. But I'm still complicit in the system, as is anyone who still buys things from countries towards which they feel ill will. Before we make Ralph Lauren our scapegoat, maybe all of us could take some time to think about our own buying habits and how they influence the global economy. 

I get why Congress is upset; Ralph Lauren should have at least had the good sense to manufacture his 2012 Olympics line in the States, but you lie in the bed you make. The U.S. does business with China and we look the other way when they commit human rights abuses because it's cheaper than taking our business elsewhere. A company like Ralph Lauren has been taking advantage of cheap labor for years, and while it would have been much more appropriate to manufacture this line domestically, what did Congress expect? For a business to increase its expenditures in a crappy economy when it didn't need to? Spare me the naivete and the selectively jingoistic election-year outrage while you're at it. Until our representatives and senators start exclusively wearing American-made garments, their time would be much better spent actually working on solving the country's problems. Legislate, legislators. Don't grandstand.


  1. Mike, this is a great argument and i can tell you from my perspective as working with emerging designers and being heavily involved in producing fashion products domestically in the US for over 15 years, the subject, as you can imagine is much more complicated, and both sides have their hidden interests. I would say though that in that specific case my opinion is that they should have been produced here and there are ways to make it happen. and btw RL was chosen for the job partially if not mostly because it being an American brand! In any event i just saw that for the next winter Olympics RL will make the uniform domestically.

    1. Boaz,

      Thanks for your insight. As I said, I also think that the merchandise should have been produced here, and I was happy to hear that Ralph says that the line for the 2014 Olympics will be American-made. On a side note, Hickey Freeman offered to make the entire team their clothes inside of two weeks from their factory in the States. Probably won't happen, but good press for them if nothing else.


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