Updated Friday, January 4, 2013 at 06:03 AM
It was the middle of that dark week before New Year's. The Christmas cookies were growing stale in tins on the counter and the emails had begun to pile up again. But the news of a plea for help from a forced-labor camp in China cut through my holiday hangover.
The Oregonian reported that a Portland woman had found a note shoved into a Halloween decoration she bought at Kmart. The note, written partially in English, claims to describe conditions in a Chinese government labor camp where the Styrofoam Totally Ghoul graveyard kit was made.
Those alleged conditions include 15-hour workdays, beatings and payment of less than $2 a month. The note's author asked that the information be turned over to a human-rights organization.
The Oregonian reported that Human Rights Watch and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were alerted. It also reported that Sears Holdings, which owns Kmart, stated publicly that it understands the "seriousness" of the allegations and will continue to investigate.
But I couldn't stop thinking about the note. The decorations were at least a year old before it was discovered. Had the author given up hope that help would come? Could any of the Christmas presents I was sifting through, many of them made in other countries, tell a similar story?
Then, from the bottom of the gift pile, my husband held up a water bottle with a novelty beer logo printed across it. "Made in the U.S.A." was stamped on the side.
I hopped on the computer and shouted to the other room, "You're not going to believe this, but they're made in Washington, some place called Union Gap!"
So we did what anyone raised on Mister Rogers might do: We took a tour of the factory.
On the way down I-82 into the Yakima Valley, I looked out at the frosty sagebrush scattered with stacks of empty apple crates and fruit stands shuttered for the season, and thought about "buying local."
Apples and jam are one thing, likewise boutique-y items like an alpaca-fur knit hat or screen-printed greeting card, but what about everyday consumer goods — things like dishes or toys or toothbrushes?
"We're 100 percent proof that you can do this in America," says Ryan Clark, one of the co-founders of Liberty Bottleworks — a young company that sees itself as part of a revival in American manufacturing.
Clark and his business partner Tim Andis are proud of their product (aluminum water bottles with cool art on them). But they're passionate about how and where the product is made.
"All American machinery, all American workers," Andis, who grew up in Edmonds, explains over the rattling of the conveyor belts behind him. "All recycled materials, all sustainable, zero-waste factory, no solid waste, no water waste, no air waste. "
Both Clark and Andis were raised in the 1980s in a de-industrializing America. Clark spent time in Ohio working for an apparel company that outsourced to China.
He tells of trying to comfort a neighbor who was laid off from the auto industry. "I'm having a really hard time looking her in the eye ... I wasn't selling car parts, but I was outsourcing jobs."
Liberty Bottleworks employs 35 people but says it is innovation and advanced technology (like the use of recycled materials and resources) that allows them to make a product that is competitively priced. Its bottles sell for less than $20.
"Aluminum today costs 92 cents and it costs that here and in China ... The variable is labor," says Andis. "We had to build a highly automated system where we could run the line with a half-dozen people, and we can do that."
Jesus "Chui" Larios, who oversees wastewater management at the factory, is one of those half-dozen people. He was born in Los Angeles but says he "finished getting raised in Union Gap."
"I just love it here because people treat you like they care about you," says Larios about his job. "I mean you actually look forward to it."
Listening to Larios, I was reminded again of that note desperately squeezed between two plastic tombstones by a worker on a very different factory floor, halfway around the world.
Surveying a string of newly minted water bottles jostling along the line, I imagined a world where regular, everyday stuff was manufactured locally and my money supported good jobs at home and boycotted abusive labor abroad.
It was New Year's Eve, after all. Tomorrow was 2013, and anything seemed possible.
Ryan Clark is one of the owners of Liberty Bottleworks in Union Gap, Yakima County. The company makes recycled aluminum bottles.