Made in China – Consumption Versus Conscience?
When you read the ubiquitous words ‘Made in China’ on a garment label, what do you think? Most likely, you think ‘dirty sweatshops’, ‘indentured labour’ and ‘pollution’ – or you simply don’t think at all. After all, the words are everywhere: China produces over a third of the world’s apparel exports. Anna Norman opens her investigative wardrobe and explores the reality of apparel manufacture in China, the impact outsourcing has on the New Zealand economy and also, the consumers conscience.
Nowhere is globalisation more striking than in your wardrobe. In a highly unscientific test, a flick through my wardrobe reads like a roll call at the United Nations: just 13 garments were made in New Zealand (*blush*) – 35 were made in China, 9 were made in Australia, and others hailed from Italy, Indonesia, Morocco, UK, Bulgaria, Vietnam, India, Romania, Turkey and Lithuania. In most of those countries, workers are paid less and are not necessarily entitled to the same rights as in Western countries.
Is this all bad? Since the advent of China as a large-scale textile manufacturer, clothes have certainly become cheaper. The masses can now wear the latest ‘must-have’ garments without living on baked beans for a month. New Zealand-based clothing labels can turn to China for cheap, but high-tech garment manufacturing, making it easier for them to turn a profit. And of course shareholders get richer and the wheels of capitalism keep turning.
So why was I blushing when confronted with the fact that there were so few New Zealand-made garments in my wardrobe? Let me share with you a few images running through my head when I read the words ‘Made in China’.
I see 17-year-old Jasmine, who is paid less than a dollar a day (less meals and rent) to work from 8am until 2am, seven days a week, removing lint and snipping loose threads from denim jeans. She’s caught – and fined – for sneaking out to buy energy tea. I picture other workers clipping clothespins on their eyelids to keep their eyes open. These images were courtesy of the film China Blue (2005), which documented the human consequence of our access to low-cost goods.
Then there is the cost to the New Zealand economy, specifically the textile manufacturing sector. In the 10 years between 1996 and 2006, the number of people working in textile, clothing, footwear and leather goods manufacturing in New Zealand dropped by 10,000, from 27,241 to 17,097 workers. This fall was largely because the NZ Government lowered tariffs on imported goods, making them cheaper than their New Zealand equivalents.
Even some companies that formerly used the slogan ‘Proudly Made in New Zealand’ as part of their brand strategy have joined the manufacturing exodus. In 2006, Norsewear CEO Robert Linterman said: “Our success is based on the belief that consumers want good quality New Zealand made products which use only New Zealand-made materials. That is why Norsewear will never be tempted to manufacture in China.”
Despite market research which showed “people valued Norsewear’s uncompromising commitment to quality and our determination to stay New Zealand made and ‘true to the country’”, just one year after making that statement the brand was sold to Apparel Brands and much of its production moved to China.
When Icebreaker moved production to China in 2006, Barbara Sumner Burstyn of the ‘Buy Kiwi Made’ campaign claimed that Icebreaker’s success came at a high price.
“Icebreaker is manufactured in a country that quashes all dissent, that controls information, that jails environmentalists, the hides their environmental mess, that is teetering on the very brink of catastrophe that will impact unimaginably on the entire planet. This is not the ‘relationship with nature’ that Icebreaker proclaims to be so proud of.
“While I think the design and quality of your products are fantastic, I would never buy a garment from Icebreaker. I believe, as an individual attempting to make ethical decisions wherever I can, that I am not alone in this position.”
In reply, Icebreaker founder and chief executive Jeremy Moon said that the company was encouraging positive change in China by supporting the ‘new’ China.
“The three factories we work with all have water purification units that output drinking water quality, pay 10-30% above average wages, feed and house all staff, and have nil pollution output as they are all based on electricity, and are extremely energy efficient. Almost everything is recycled and reused where possible.”
“I agree there’s lots of bad stuff in China, same as in New Zealand (if you look for it), but on a different scale. And there’s also good stuff. Look at the factories under the new strict environmental laws, not just the old ones. I have spent time at every one of our suppliers and the ‘cleanest’ are in China. So what you say is true about the old China, but not true about Icebreaker suppliers.”
Debra Laraman, the programme leader of Bay of Plenty Polytechnic’s Creative Design programmes, recently returned from a visit to China, where she visited apparel factories. She agreed that China has started to ‘clean up its act’, but this, too, comes at a price.
“China is putting up their prices but is now forced to compete with India and Vietnam who are undercutting them; this is pushing the price down and lowering the standards and conditions for the workers, and factories in China are closing due to a decrease in orders and being undercut.”
She said the visit had done little to make her believe that offshore manufacturing “is a good thing for the environment, or the future of the New Zealand industry or even for consumers”.
She believed it was up to consumers to force change in the industry.
“Consumers do have a voice and they need to buy with a conscience, from an informed perspective.”
So next time you’re out shopping and read the words “Made in China”, what will you think? Does that must-have item become slightly less covetable, or do you praise be for blissful ignorance and march up to the counter anyway?