As wedding season approaches, socially-conscious brides and grooms will try to make their special days as eco-friendly as possible. They might buy a Canadian diamond over one from Africa. They will print their invitations on recycled paper. They will choose locally grown flowers. Some may forgo favors all together and just make donations in the names of their guests to a charity, which I always think is sweet. After all, who actually eats those chocolate covered almonds?
Recently I was clicking around a friend's wedding registry when it occurred to me that the registry is an area where even the most social-savvy couple may overlook their public commitment to being responsible. After all, when pretty water pitchers only cost $30, you have to wonder why they're so inexpensive.
Crate & Barrel was my first victim of inquiry, mostly because almost every couple I know is registered there and because I already have issues with the quality of their products. (Pick up a wine glass and it's easy to see why they only cost $4.95, on average.) One evening after work I wandered around their store in SoHo and checked out where some of their products were made. It was like taking roll at a United Nations conference. True, some things were made in the U.S., but others came from places not usually associated with cheap, factory labor, such as France.
As expected there was a litany of products from China, including the classic toaster. There were also wicker frames from Thailand. 100% Egyptian cotton sheets were made in India, not Egypt. A French press, an item I bought for a friend's wedding last year, was made in Portugal. Does that still make it French?
A curious item you can register for at Crate & Barrel is a bag of unused corks, made in China, and most likely to be used as fillers in one of the many poorly made vases on offer. Really? Unused corks? Wouldn't it be more fun just to drink a lot of wine and fill a vase with the used, purple-stained corks? Or is that too collegiate?
There was more of the same across the street at Pottery Barn, another registry favorite. My personal favorite were the Rio Glycerin Soaps, which were not made in Brazil but rather in Mexico, which as we all know doesn't have the best track record when it comes to labor laws.
I know, I know. It's all so much to think about, especially when all you want are matching platters for your next wine and cheese party. I understand. We all want nice things and it's nearly impossible to cut questionably-made goods from foreign countries out of our daily lives. It is possible, though, at least if you're aware of what you're doing. For example, over the past year or so many parents became edgy about plastic toys from China, for fear of lead paint. Because of this wooden toy makers have seen an increase in business. Changes were made, and many children may be healthier for it.
That mentality can be applied to choosing your wedding gifts. As you scan your high ball glasses and cereal bowls and request them in multiples of eight, stop and see where it's made. If you're okay with it, scan away. If not, find an alternative. You could always go high end. You'll get higher quality goods which will likely last a lifetime, albeit possibly fewer of them. And what do you need all this stuff for, anyway? You'll just end up throwing all those plates at each other when you have your first marital fight.
Let's do some simple math. Be conservative and assume that the mark-up on a $10 wine glass made in Turkey is 50%. Subtract another third for shipping, and a place like Crate & Barrel ultimately paid $3.50 for it from the manufacturer, assuming there was no bulk discount. Where in that number do you see a livable wage for the worker, after the cost of materials has been factored out? Have you also considered the air quality and other environmental issues that some of these unregulated foreign factories contribute to?
These goods also speak to a national, economic issue. The American economy is teetering on a recession, and lots of people, from journalists to bankers are headed for the proverbial bread lines. If you want to do something that's really good for the economy, choose products that were made here and let someone in a factory in Michigan keep their job. Granted, factory work anywhere is not the most mind-expanding way to spend your days, but at least in the U.S. it is regulated by laws and labor unions. As consumers, we can't know for sure how they are run in other countries.
I realize that planning a wedding comes with enough headaches, and adding on guilt about where the gifts are made is disconcerting. But if you're going to have a "green" wedding, you might as well make sure all your bases are covered, including the origins of the registry. It probably makes a bigger impact on the world at large than deciding not to hand out boxes of chocolates at the end of the night.