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This is Mike Strong, at Hays, for HPPR. The book is Made in China by Amelia Pang.
In Made in China, Amelia Pang tells us what happens to people caught in a complex tangle of responsibilities, corporate practices and relationships and the treatment of people around the world. Our protagonist is Sun Yi.
Sun Yi is in prison for his membership in a religion, Falun Gong. When Falun Gong started in 1992, China praised it. Four years later, it had grown to around 70 million members and had rejected government control over its messaging. Overnight the government slandered the organization and began arresting its members to “correct” them. This included Sun Yi.
With great difficulty, he manages to smuggle out a series of letters asking for help hidden in products he had to work on. One of those letters ended up in a Halloween decoration sent to a K-Mart store in Portland, Oregon. It made the news and sparked a search for the prisoner.
When Julie Keith bought the Sun Yi letter Halloween decorations, she did what so many of us do without even thinking and knowing no better. She had just contributed to slave labor in another country. And not just slave labor, but religious persecution in another country.
She was innocent complicit. We all know little about the conditions under which our goods are bought. Most of us just want a product that works at a low price. Being aware of what products are made by slaves is usually the
latest thing on our minds.
So of course we stop buying Chinese-made goods and stop outsourcing our work. To the right? It’s complicated.
If you’re old enough, you might remember Wal-Mart ads bragging about buying American-made products or Sam Walton’s “Buy American” campaign in the 1980s. It brought tons of publicity to Wal-Mart. Despite the name, Buy American was a two-man club that slashed supplier costs by pitting Chinese and American firms against each other.
Wal-Mart sent its first direct import buyers to China in 1976.
Sam Walton has also completely transformed the company from a merchandising company to a logistics company. While other large retail chains avoided small communities, Wal-Mart chose them. Area is drag market.
This is key to understanding the cost structure and responsiveness to global supply and local demand. Branch locations can be reached within a few hours from any supply center.
In The Retail Revolution, author Nelson Lichtenstein notes that in the mid-1980s, Sam Walton estimated that his company’s direct imports (excluding intermediaries) accounted for 5.6 percent of sales. However, this obscures Wal-Mart’s many suppliers who imported the goods or parts for assemblies that they resold to Wal-Mart. That puts the estimated amount of imported goods Wal-Mart sold more than 35 years ago at about 40 percent.
This is also when (1984) then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a clothing manufacturer in Bentley, Arkansas, was helping Farris Fashions get a contract from Wal-Mart when Van Heusen switched from Farris to offshore sources. The deal with Wal-Mart created up to 350 jobs, and Farris became the poster boy for Walton’s Buy American. However, it also made Farris what Nelson Lichtenstein called “Wal-Mart’s creature.”
Farris eventually ran out of supplies, employment fell to about 70, and when her fancy flannel shirts went out of fashion, so did her contract. They closed the facility in 2005 and the family now raises cattle. Wal-Mart has now completely buried the “Buy American” program.
Buying a product means buying the entire production and distribution chain. Knowing whether the goods produced use exploited and/or slave labor and other human rights abuses is difficult to determine. For big marketers, events like Tiananmen Square in 1989 and prison labor are just PR issues. Said Sam Walton, “Keep that under the radar.”
This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.
Sam Walton: Made in America – June 1993 by Sam Walton with John Huey https://www.amazon.com/Sam-Walton-Made-America/dp/0553562835
The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New Business June 8, 2010 by Nelson Lichtenstein https://www.amazon.com/Retail-Revolution-Wal-Mart-Created-Business/dp/0312429681