Bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US, one water bottle at a time

Frustrated with the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs, Ryan Clark and Tim Andis founded Liberty Bottleworks. The company makes recycled aluminum bottles locally using mostly US machinery, materials and labor. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Frustrated with the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs, Ryan Clark and Tim Andis founded Liberty Bottleworks. The company makes recycled aluminum bottles locally using mostly US machinery, materials and labor. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

It was the middle of that dark week before the New Year. Christmas cookies were growing stale in tins on the counter and 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 author of the note asked that the information be turned over to a human rights organization.

This disturbing letter apparently from a Chinese slave laborer pleading for help was discovered by Portland's Julie Keith in a box of Halloween decorations she bought at K-mart. (Photo via OregonLive.com)

This disturbing letter apparently from a Chinese slave laborer pleading for help was discovered by Portland’s Julie Keith in a box of Halloween decorations she bought at K-mart. (Photo via OregonLive.com)

The Oregonian reports that Human Rights Watch and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been alerted. They also report that Sears Holdings Corporation, which owns Kmart, stated publically that they understand 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 printed on the side.

I hopped on the computer and shouted to the other room, “You’re not going to believe this, but it’s 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?

Military veteran Mike Eddy works the production line at Liberty Bottleworks in Union Gap, WA. Liberty owners say they make an effort to hire mostly veterans and the formerly unemployed. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Military veteran Mike Eddy works the production line at Liberty Bottleworks in Union Gap, WA. Liberty owners say they make an effort to hire mostly veterans and the formerly unemployed. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

“We’re 100% proof that you can do this in America,” says Ryan Clark, one of the co-founders of Liberty Bottleworksa 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 particularly passionate about how and where, that product is made.

“All American machinery, all American workers,” Andis–who grew up in Edmonds–explains over the rattling of the conveyer 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 1980’s in a de-industrializing America. Clark spent time in Ohio working for an apparel company that outsourced manufacturing jobs 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.”

Bottles that have just had powdered pigment baked onto them come down the line. Liberty boasts that their bottles are made from 100% recycled aluminum and are BPA free. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Bottles that have just had powdered pigment baked onto them come down the line. Liberty boasts that their bottles are made from 100% recycled aluminum and are BPA free. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Liberty Bottleworks employs 35 people but they say that it is innovation and advanced technology (like their use of recycled materials and resources) that allows them to make a product that is competitively priced. Their bottles sell for less than twenty dollars and are meant to last for years.

“Aluminum today costs .92 cents and it costs that here, and in China,” says Andis. “The variable is labor…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.”

Tony Morales, a longtime employee, handles bottles on the line at Liberty. The company says they're able to compete with cheaper Chinese labor through advanced mechanization and lower shipping costs. (Photo by Alex Stonehill).

Tony Morales, a longtime employee, handles bottles on the line at Liberty. The company says they’re able to compete with cheaper Chinese labor through advanced mechanization and lower shipping costs. (Photo by Alex Stonehill).

“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 of 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 instead of abusive labor abroad.

It was New Years Eve, after all. Tomorrow was 2013, and anything seemed possible.

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.

3 COMMENTS

  1. It seems like there’s been so much discussion in the past few years about where our food is coming from, but not as much about the rest of the things we buy. We need more articles like this.

    • Thanks Sarah! I agree that it’s time for us to start examining our consumption beyond food and am very heartened to see growing interest in local/American manufacturing/fair labor!

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