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CHINESE TAKEAWAY

09-01-2007

It seems that even Christmas has been "lifted and shifted" to China muses Lynn Hawthorn, as she suggests a New Year's resolution for every Stirrer reader.

So that's Christmas done and dusted then. I hate packing away the decorations, partly because everything looks so dull and bare but mainly because you have to start dusting again - no tinsel to hide the residue!

Anyway, as I was taking down the cards, I spent time having a good look at them and decided to exercise my soggy brain out of holiday mode by analysing their origin because, oddly, you can tell a lot about the state of the British economy from such data.

Of the 74 Christmas cards I received, three were handmade, including one anonymous one, so if that was you, thank you very much but I have no idea who you are!

Thirteen were from sustainable resources and most actively promoted recycling through the project between The Woodland Trust and Tesco. For the purposes of this article, I shall turn a blind eye to the fact that Tesco sells Minky whale meat in its Japanese stores and pressurises farmers in South America and South Africa because they are, at least, trying to protect the UK environment by this initiative.

Twenty-three cards were raising money for charity, including a number of smaller, obscure organisations, which need support probably more than the larger, well-known outfits. Now that must say a lot about my friends and their income brackets, but I think that the season of goodwill is an excellent time to be helping charities by buying something we use anyway.

And talking of helping out, the country of origin - where declared - caught my attention. Only nine cards were printed in Britain, but 21 (a third, more or less) were printed in China, which is non-Christian country, but, crucially, a powerfully-emergent economy.

Everything you pick up in shops these days seems to come from China. Through the 1970's and ‘80's we were used to electrical and plastic items, in particular, coming out of Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but even these producers have been squeezed out by the vastlycheaper labour costs of mainland China. So what are the consequences for the economies of European countries?

We all like a bargain and fashion stores such as Primark, Matalan and New Look couldn't exist without cheap imports. We are now willing to sacrifice quality and even sizing (see my archived article Size Matters) to achieve our desired look for the smallest price.

Electrical goods, so essential to the modern lifestyle, can be slung into the trolley during the weekly supermarket shop for next-to-nothing, because brand-name has little bearing on our choice any more in this area of retailing.

But is this lowest-price ethic good for us? With electrical goods being so cheap, we are more likely to throw them away and replace them when they malfunction, rather than get the equipment repaired, because this often costs more.

This way, we can keep up-to-date with technological trends, but how many of us consider the environmental cost? Landfill rubbish sites are overwhelmed and electrical goods often contain components that are detrimental to the environment.

I was horrified when I saw a documentary recently which followed the journey of a discarded computer from a council tip. We naively imagine that local councils dispose of rubbish safely and responsibly, yet the vast majority of PC's end up on container ships bound for….wait for it….China, where they are dismantled by hand to extract the valuable components.

This work is dangerous to the dismantlers, who are given no protective equipment and work long hours in appalling conditions for extremely low pay. This is exploitation. And not only by the West, but also by their own kind, employers who do not have to abide by the same Health & Safety and Minimum Wage legislation as we Europeans.

I'm not calling for a boycott of all goods which originate in China or the re-establishment of Thatcher's “I'm Backing Britain” campaign - well, we couldn't, because we've got virtually no manufacturing left and even our agriculture seems to being going the same way - but I am asking you to spend a little more time considering before making a purchase.

Is there a local shop or an independent retailer where you could get a good deal instead of going to a multinational? Is there a local craftsperson where you could choose a gift rather than buy something mass-produced from abroad? And wouldn't lasting quality be preferable to use/wear-it-once-and-chuck-it?

We have ethical investmentssold by some banks and insurance companies. Perhaps we should abandon buying in bulk and instead be more choosy and what we buy and where it comes from.

And if we can still buy British, then let's do it and support our own workers, jobs and economy.

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