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Down and Out in the City of Socks

Caroline McCarthy

At first, they were an unlikely threat: In the 1970s the people of Datang, a rice farming village about three hours’ drive to the southwest of Shanghai, started selling handmade socks by the side of the road to supplement their income. This earned them the ire of the Communist government, who accused them of partaking in capitalist activities.

How times have changed. By 2004, a third of the world’s socks were being made in Datang thanks to relaxed trade regulations. The town burgeoned from 1,000 residents to 60,000 and its rise was unfazed by the onset of the global recession in 2008: “People always need socks,” one manufacturing executive told The Guardian in 2012. Since the 1990s, Datang has produced enough socks annually to give two pairs to every resident of the planet, in an economy worth $5.3 billion. And every aspect of sock production is handled in Datang, where vertical integration has meant that the overwhelming majority of the city is reliant on the sock industry.

The idea of a “city of socks,” an entire town’s economy sustained on the manufacturing of a single incredibly quotidian product, seems like something out of a children’s picture book or a novel about a dystopian future (depending on how you look at it). But in China, it’s the foundation of the ever-cheapening manufacturing industry that we hear so much about and yet know so little about – the ever-cheapening manufacturing industry that many Americans only think of in momentary flashes, when they see a “MADE IN CHINA” tag on a piece of clothing. And the environmental and social implications of this economic model cannot be understated.

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An hour north of Datang, a far bigger Chinese city called Yiwu (population 1.2 million) is home to even more socks – 90% of Walmart’s socks are made there – but also a broader wholesale manufacturing industry that produces, among other things, 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations.

In late 2013 a London-based architecture school’s experimental “nomadic design studio” called Unknown Fields Division, who blend documentary filmmaking with speculative fiction, traveled to China to tell the story of the country’s largely invisible supply chain and how it produces so many of the goods that the West takes for granted. One member of the group, a writer named Tim Maughan, published an article in the BBC about the surreal experience of being surrounded by Christmas decorations in every direction while on a visit to Yiwu. (Maughan also wrote a piece of fiction published in Vice in which Detroit has been turned into a Chinese-dominated special economic zone for the same kind of manufacturing.)

Maughan’s travelogue explained that in large part, these items are not automated in their production but instead are assembled primarily by hand, with wages systematically driven as low as possible so that it’s cheaper to produce goods this way than with machines. This has another side effect for the companies involved: It’s easier to make quick changes in production with a human labor force than one dominated by machines that need to be reprogrammed and refit.

“It allows small companies like Yiwu Hangtian Arts and Crafts to get started with relatively little investment, while giving them the flexibility to adapt and change what they produce to fit their customers’ needs,” Maughan explained. “[W]e’d been given just a small glimpse at China’s vast manufacturing infrastructure. More importantly it felt like we were starting to understand why it existed: so that young workers in a far country can make the rest of the world our disposable, impulse-buy goods. The implications of this, for so many things from climate change to unemployment, were dizzying to comprehend.”

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Consider this: A 2014 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that air pollution from Chinese manufacturing can be carried across the Pacific Ocean in a matter of days thanks to powerful wind patterns called westerlies. According to the World Bank, textile dyeing may account for up to a fifth of China’s water pollution, and the World Health Organization estimates that 75 percent of diseases contracted in China can be connected to water pollution. Yet change presents an even more complicated situation, because simply boycotting goods or instituting top-down modifications to the supply chain risks hurting the people who stand to lose the most – the workers themselves. Some factories are responding positively to the newfound demand for ethically-sourced goods, though it’s a slow march forward.

But the image of an entire city dominated by the manufacturing of one incredibly precise niche of cheap goods is a difficult one to shake.

“Watching Christmas being assembled by hand in front of us that day, I heard more than one person in our group remark that the holiday season will never be the same again,” Tim Maughan wrote on his visit to Yiwu. “Perhaps they were right.”