Hey Mr. Green,
I was recently at a large outdoor retailer’s summer sale, and saw people like me loaded up with “eco-friendly" outdoor supplies, 98 percent of which are made in China. I believe that manufacturers go to China to circumvent American environmental and labor laws, and that therefore a Chinese-made shirt is bad for the environment. Am I wrong? —Thomas in Los Angeles
Your question really boils down to “Should I buy stuff from China?” But before going there, let’s watch our language: Unfortunately, terms like “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “sustainable,” are about as vague as “religious,” which can describe anybody from a doctrine-spouting hypocrite to an altruistic saint, from a televangelist groping a teenager in a cheap motel to a prayerful nurse giving a life-saving medicine to a kid in a makeshift shelter. Lots of companies talk a green line but don’t walk it. They might crow about their virtuous use of recycled material while remaining mute about the poison they wring out of the stuff into a watershed. Or they’ll televise the clean energy sources that propel their invisible dirty machines in impoverished countries. Hence arose the term “greenwashing” to describe painting a green camouflage on a dirty-gray product in order to attract environmentalists. This is not to say that there aren’t companies making a sincere attempt to be green on many levels, but they are, I fear, greatly outnumbered.
Back to “Should I buy stuff from China?” My answer is “Yes,” for the simple reason that not buying from China will have absolutely no effect on its manufacturing and environmental policies. If you want to make an impact, try this: when you do buy a Chinese product, write to the retailer or importer and ask about the environmental practices of the manufacturer. Trust me, this will take less time than many people already waste scrolling through those idiotic product reviews on the Internet, or comparison shopping at Web sites and malls. Granted, an individual boycott of China might give you a sense of moral purity, but the refusal to buy a Chinese-made hoodie or sleeping bag will have zero effect in China. Let’s face it: the place is a major manufacturer, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. What can change, however, is the way China manufactures. But that change will only arrive through engagement with the Chinese and through international demands for clean manufacturing, along with the willingess to extend technical and legal help to China—and all developing countries—to protect people and the natural world.
How could it be otherwise? After all, it was only 40 years ago, with the boom of the environmental movement, that we ourselves in the high-and-mighty United States launched an unprecedented effort to clean up pollution, and our battles here are far from over. So it would be crazy to expect China to be anywhere near our level of environmental safety.
But because of their rising environmental consciousness and stricter policies they have been making serious progress. I can personally testify to that progress, because 20 years ago I happened to edit a book, China on the Edge: The Crisis of Ecology and Development http://www.chinabooks.com.au/ChinaBooks/search.cfm by Chinese philosopher He Bochuan. An apocalyptic account of China’s environmental catastrophe that was very critical of the government, it sold over 400,000 copies before being in 1989.
The situation has changed considerably since then. Many organizations, including the EPA are involved, as can be seen from the EPA’s report on China at http://www.epa.gov/ogc/china/initiative_home.htm These efforts are urgent, because China has such a long way to go. Lead and mercury alone remain colossal there, as starkly reported by groups like Human Rights Watch http://www.hrw.org/home and the whistleblower OKInternational http://www.okinternational.org/. Although China has written strict new laws on lead pollution, many officials ignore them, and worse yet, some local politicos even refuse to allow people to be tested, or they cover up the results if they are. As HRW puts it, “Enforcement has been uneven, and little has been done to reduce lead levels in villages that are already heavily contaminated.” The result is that many people have lead levels 7 times as high as allowed by Chinese law—and that law is already considerably weaker than our own.
It’s the same deal with that other notorious heavy metal, mercury. Because of its dependence on coal, which emits mercury when burned, and its outmoded or environmentally sloppy industries, China emits 700 to 800 tons of mercury per year—5 times as much as North America, although its gross domestic product is only two-thirds that of Canada and the United States. But this mess will not vanish because a Made in China label gives us the willies. It will change through the kind of engagement described above, and, of course, it will help if we set a good example.