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One mom's fruitless quest to boycott China

After the latest wave of toy recalls, one mom decided to boycott all products made in China this season. Her reasoning was simple: to protect her family. Her task was tough.

There’s a package of Hanes boys’ cotton socks on my desk that I ordered online a few weeks ago, but I refuse to give them to my 5-year-old son even though they’d fit him perfectly.

Why? They’re made in China.

Every day we’re inundated with recalls of lead-tainted and other unsafe products from China. A U.S. government Web site offers an alarming list of hazardous toys, almost all of which were made in China — everything from lead-tainted Curious George dolls to exploding remote control planes.

The latest recall news is surreal — toy beads from China coated with a chemical that can turn into a toxic "date-rape" drug when ingested. It’s enough to get any mother’s hair to stand on end.

Recalls like this prompted me to start boycotting China a few months ago. My reasoning was simple: I wanted to protect my family from unsafe products. As an added benefit I thought maybe I could contribute to a renaissance of U.S. manufacturing jobs, decimated by cheap China imports.

I figured shopping online would be my best option, because the megachains are awash with China toys and clothing.  But it turns out that online retailers are not that open with information about country of origin. Many just say “imported,” and I have spent lots of time calling 800 numbers or e-mailing my “Is it made in China?” question to retailers. In most cases so far the answer is yes.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I called Hanes before I ordered the socks off the company’s Web site and a customer service representative assured me the products I chose were not made in China. I went ahead and ordered them.

The package arrived and guess what? The label of the medium-sized boys’ crew socks stated: “Made in China/Hecho en China.”

When I called the customer service line they offered to give me a refund, but I was still steaming mad. Was this just an innocent error or a bait and switch?

I called Hanes to find out. Matthew Hall, a spokesman for the company, said the customer service rep should never have told me with 100 percent certainty that the product I ordered was not made in China. “We have a global supply chain,” he said, and sometimes a product  may end up being outsourced to a contractor in China.

What’s a China-boycotting consumer to do? “The only way to know for sure is when you get the product,” he said.

This is one of a litany of reasons I feel my mission is doomed. I’ve begun to feel like a consumer cornered by Chinese dragon that has engulfed the global marketplace with its hot breath.

OK, maybe I’m a bit melodramatic. But trying to live my life sans China during this time of year in particular is looking pretty insane about now.

First off, about 90 percent of toys in the United States are made China. I realized early on that the big-box toy stores were going to turn up little for me, so I opted to go to small, mom-and- pop retailers. I found a few German puzzles made by Ravensburger, but overall the small stores were little better than the megaretailers. Even the quintessential holiday gift American Girls dolls are made in China!

What has kept me going until now has been the thought that in light of all the recalls, U.S. retailers and producers would start to shift more of their sourcing back home or to other destinations.

No dice. Only 15 percent of the nation’s retailers have any plans to change their supply chains, according to Doug Hart, a partner with consulting firm BDO Seidman’s retail and consumer product practice.

As for U.S. toy companies, “they aren’t leaving China tomorrow. They are well established there,” says John Fontanella, vice president of research for AMR, a market research firm, despite the massive recalls. While he believes India will become a manufacturing powerhouse in the next five years, “the critical mass of products will continue to be made in China for the foreseeable future.”

Even if a product isn’t totally made in China its components might be.

I was quite proud of myself when I found an American-made toy among Chinese products at a local retailer. It was a Yahtzee Jr. “Spiderman and Friends” game.

When I got home and gloated to my husband about my find, he picked up the game and read out loud: “Made in USA with dice made in China.”

I thought I was being smart during Halloween convincing my daughter and son to be ghosts instead of buying a China-made superhero or fairy costume. The kids were excited, and all I needed were a couple of cotton white sheets. We went off to Target to buy the sheets and rushed home to cut out holes.

While the kids were running around haunting the living room, I went to throw out the plastic bags the sheets came in and suddenly I realized I hadn’t read the country of origin. I slowly turned the bag over there it was, China.

I was beside myself at this point and realized I needed a pep talk.

I had recently purchased “A Year Without 'Made in China': One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy.” Author Sara Bongiorni tried not to buy any Chinese products for a year. I decided to track down the author and speak to her, mother to mother.

Bongiorni decided to boycott Chinese products before the onslaught of safety issues. Human rights, working conditions and environmental concerns were the foremost issues on her mind.

So I asked her the burning question: Is it possible to completely boycott Chinese products?

“I think it’s possible to a certain extent, but it’s very difficult,” she explained. “So many ordinary items come only from China.”

“You can’t do this part-time," she said. "You have to fully commit yourself to it. It took over our lives for the year.”

Indeed. I actually dreamed recently that I was drowning in a sea of Chinese toys.

I have to keep this all in perspective, including whether I may be blowing this all out of proportion, and that maybe my kids will be OK after all if I take my chances with Chinese goods.

Seung Kim with the St. Louis University’s Boeing Institute of International Business says boycotts are an emotional issue. “A person like you, in the media, should be objective and fair,” he says. “U.S. products are safer than Chinese products, no question about that. But the Chinese are improving quality.”

And the reality is we have few choices.

All my daughter wanted for her birthday a few weeks ago was a Webkinz, the popular furry stuffed animals that have virtual lives on the Web. But, you guessed it, made in China.

Up until that point, my daughter has been great about the ban, but this one hit her where she lives. "Everyone in my class has one, Mommy," she said in her saddest little-girl voice.

We didn’t get the Webkinz and opted for a book illustration kit called Illustory I bought off the Web. My husband also bought a Kodak camera for our budding 8-year old photographer.

But as I sat at my desk writing this story I got a sinking feeling. Neither my husband nor I checked where the camera was made.

I asked my daughter to bring me the camera. There were those familiar words, “Made in China.”

“Darn, my first camera, and I have to throw it away,” my daughter cried.

I surrender!

You win, global marketplace.