If you live in San Clemente, you probably own a pair of Rainbow sandals. Traditionally, you could be pretty sure they were made in San Clemente.
That's not the case any more: Three of four pairs of Rainbows are made in China.
One of the top-selling sandal companies in the country, Rainbow Sandals, has called San Clemente home for the last 37 years. The outlet/factory on Los Molinos produces top-quality sandals and is typically packed with shoppers.
In 2004, founder and owner Jay Longely decided to ship more than 75 percent of the company’s production to China.
“The air quality management division of the federal government said I could only make 1,000 pairs a day in the San Clemente facility because of the type of solvent used,” Longely said.
The solvent used in the glue, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) is a colorless, flammable liquid that can occur naturally in certain food and beverages and turns to gas when exposed to air, according to the E nvironmental Protection Agency’s website.
“In China we use a VOC-free glue that is green," Longely said, referring to volatile organic compounds, "but it cannot be used in the U.S. because it is flammable and the fire department won't allow it.”
MEK use became a concern, so the company's production was allotted 500 to 1,000 pairs a day, according to the Air Quality Management District’s standards for quality air.
"One of the ideas the South Coast AQMD has adopted is to protect public health," says AQMD spokesperson Sam Atwood. "The requirement is that the facility not pose a cancer risk that's more than 25 in 1 million over a life time."
The regulations put Longely in a position that required him to move jobs out of the country to grow; he's not allowed to use the non-toxic solvent because it's too flammable, and he can't scrub the fumes from the toxic compound fast enough to be allowed to make more sandals here.
If Rainbow created more than 1,000 pairs of sandals per day at the San Clemente-based factory, the catalytic converter would not be able to absorb the extraneous harmful fumes.
"It has to do with the speed at which the catalytic converter captures the solvent in the air and condenses it," said Longely.
The company has made improvements to the remaining U.S. production, Longely said. The Rainbow outlet in San Clemente is now at zero emissions after spending $1.5 million on an oxidizer, which scrubs out the chemical at 928 degrees, making the end-result emission ventilated hot air, he said.
“The owner goes over to China regularly to try to maintain the quality of his product,” said Rainbow assistant general manager Jon-David Christie. “There have been a couple of instances where they seem to cut a couple of corners to try to increase profit, but we’re really not about that. We’d rather keep it high-quality.”
Customers in San Clemente are still fans of the iconic brand, even if some aren't pleased with the manufacturing move.
“Rainbow sandals are extremely well made,” said Kevin MacGillivray, 41, a San Clemente realty company owner. “They’ve been around when I first came here in 1979, and I’ve enjoyed wearing them for over 25 years.”
“I wouldn’t want any Rainbows made from China,” said San Clemente local Chaz Berenger, 21. “I see Rainbows all over the place, and it reminds me of San Clemente, where it originated.”
Out of all the countries that would allow Rainbows mass production, Longely said he chose China because it has factories that do not employ children.