Because it’s cheap!

I am currently studying jewellery design, but I will not be writing about beaded necklaces that are made for Mardi Gras. Actually, we do not celebrate it in Europe in the same way that it is celebrated in the United States. I am mostly going to express mine and others opinions about daily life and how we deal with jewellery and clothes shops in Dundee, the UK, France, and Europe.

In order to find the opinions of other people, I sent out a questionnaire to teenagers, workmen, students, unemployed, and retired individuals. I tried to ask people from different social classes to find if money made a difference. The questions I asked were simple and were based on questions that I was curious to find the answers to. After the answers I received, I also came up with a few more questions to ask.

The first question I asked was, “When I say ‘Made in China’, what does that mean to you?” The replies I received were very similar, ranging from “huge factories, poor people working, children workers, rapidity, profitability, cheap goods, bad quality”.  Almost everyone thought the same thing, more on a negative side. The question is, “do people continue to buy Chinese items even if they criticize it?” I found that people do still continue to buy items despite what they know.

Even as a jeweller, I admit that I buy cheap jewels that are made in China (Claire’s, Topshop, New Look, Primark). These jewels are the kind that are easily breakable, lost, cheap, and are not important.  I always check the labels of things I buy out of curiosity, including clothes and jewellery. Honestly, I know where and how the stuff I buy are made when it says “Made in China”, but out of habit I still continue to buy it. It seems wrong, especially when I am aware of the bad conditions, pollution, and other factors. Why don’t I change? It is probably because it’s a habit. I’m still a student so I always try to find the cheapest deal when I buy clothes and jewellery. Many people I interviewed do the same. Even though we are aware of what is happening, we live too far from the reality of the other side of the world and are more concerned about the money in our purse.

I’ve asked my friends and myself the reasons as to why we continue to buy cheap things all the time, especially when we don’t need it. Why do we not keep our money in order to buy something of better quality, made in Europe in good working conditions, but more expensive? The response that came up was quantity. Our society is a consumer society. The fashion society will tell you what to wear and say that what you are currently purchasing will be outdated in a few months! We do not want the expensive brand made by a fashion designer. Instead we prefer similar clothing just for the attitude and look. Most people don’t have the money to buy designer brands, unless they are from the upper class! You can just ignore that and try to buy “ethical” clothes and jewellery that was made in better working conditions or go to second hand shops. I try to do that sometimes, but I find that things made in Europe are too expensive to buy all the time or items in second hand shops are not “fashionable”.  I received similar responses from my panel. Some people are not interested in buying second hand clothes, but more to try less but Asian goods.

I’ve asked some people the reasons why they want to stop buying jewellery and good “made in China” and they reply, “ because Made in China items are destroying western jobs, factories, and the economy.” When I ask them about the working conditions, people are aware of how the products are made and feel guilty, but most of them admit that this is not the first thought that came to mind.

A few friends have argued that products “Made in China” are everywhere, so it’s kind of hard to boycott it. We can’t really do that because China has such a large export industry worldwide and it’s probably not a wise thing to do either. Europe is in a huge crisis and people are very aware of their money and how much things cost. We may tend to blame China, but actually they are just making what we want and ask for: cheap, consumable, but a detriment in quality and working conditions.

We tend to blame China for many reasons, but goods produced from other Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, South America and Turkey are all made in poor working conditions. The quality for products from these countries is similar to Chinese goods and pollution from clothing factories is quite harmful. A large number of jeans are made in Turkey and sadly workers in textile factories have serious health injuries. The public tends to turn a blind eye towards these issues. Why do we only really focus on what happens in China? I asked this question to my panel and gave them information about jean factories in Turkey as a comparison. Some people came up with interesting responses. They said that China is one of the most powerful countries in the world, western people and westerns factories are possibly afraid of that. They try to make China the black sheep because they were able to increase their economy so quickly. Chinese made goods quickly and at an affordable price in large quantity, due to the large numbers of workers they have! Westerns try to use the guilt factor with consumers in order to keep their economy alive.

A Pre-conceived Idea of China and its Products

Many people have very set views of China and its products. China is renowned worldwide for its well made, and very well designed electronics.  However, it is also well known for mass-production, ‘well-made fakes’, and often poor factory conditions. A lot of people do not care where their product has come from, as long as it is good quality and value for money. And many people simply are not aware of how and where their product was made.

I interviewed around 7 friends, friends of friends, and self confessed shopping fanatics to find out their opinion on Chinese products, how they think they are made, and the quality of products which were ‘Made in China’. Each participant was given the same list of questions, but I asked a few different questions too, depending on their answer. Below is an example of one of the more interesting interviews:

Are you concerned with where your clothes come from? 

‘No, it makes no difference whether its from China, the UK or anywhere. I mostly care about the quality of the clothes.’

Would you be put off buying clothes from a certain company if you found out their factory staff were working in bad conditions?

‘I suppose so, but it wouldn’t stop me buying/using the products if they were good quality.’

When you see the words ‘Made in China’, what immediately comes to mind?

‘I just imagine huge, industrial and clean looking factories full of Chinese people making stuff. If something says ‘Made in Taiwan’ however, for some reason I picture kids working in poor conditions for a small wage. (that might be a bit judgemental!)’

Do you think the Chinese produce better quality products than Western countries?

‘If you’re referring to electronics then yes. They are the best at making electronics as far as I am concerned. But in regards to clothes, obviously there is a huge market for fakes in China and that makes me slightly suspicious that their clothing isn’t of as good quality as something you might find in a Western factory.’

If you were given a gift of a piece of clothing – not from a recognisable brand – with only a label that said ‘Made in China’ on it, would you be reluctant to wear it. Would you assume it was poor quality?

I might be a bit suspicious that it came from a market where you might find a lot of fakes, but if the item of clothing looked good and seemed like good quality, I would still wear it.

Coming up with interview questions with a friend in my group…

Each of the participants had very similar opinions on Chinese produce, which were all interesting to hear. However, naturally none of the participants actually KNOW what goes on in the making of products in China. These were all their pre-conceived ideas. I want to know what ACTUALLY happens in Chinese factories, during the making of clothing, electronics and other products, to see if these opinions and allegations are correct.

I recently read an article on Mark Shields, a communications consultant from Washington DC, who describes himself as an ‘Apple super-user’. After finding out about the poor working conditions in Apple Mac factories in China he decided to start a petition which gathered over 162,000 signatures in the space of a week. The petition was to try and attain a ‘worker protection strategy’ to try to reduce the number of injuries and suicides which typically peak when the workers are under extreme pressure to meet quotas. Shields said ‘Here’s the thing: You’re Apple. You’re supposed to think different. I want to continue to use and love the products you make, because they’re changing the world and have already changed my life. But I also want to know that when I buy products from you, its not at the expense of horrible human suffering.’

Female workers resting their heads in exhaustion during their short break at an Apple factory in China

In reading this it was evident that many people DO care about where their product has come from, and how/where it was made. It was also interesting to find out about working conditions in Chinese Apple factories. I can safely say now, as I look at my Apple Mac desktop, that I feel slightly guilty using it. I decided to ask some of my participants a few more questions. But this time, I gave them some facts:

Workers at some Chinese Apple factories are paid as little as £1.12 an hour. In one particular branch, 18 people committed suicide on the premises due to extreme pressure. Many factories are now covered with suicide nets to stop people jumping to their deaths in the facility.

How does this make you feel about using Apple products?

‘I love my Apple Macbook too much to stop using it, but this makes me feel sick and guilty to use it, bearing in mind that it could have been made in these awful conditions.’

Did you think Chinese factories had such bad conditions until now?

‘No. I always thought it was the poorer countries that suffered from poor working conditions. I never knew that such a rich and successful country would treat their workers this way.’

It was interesting to see that, in general, people here, in Dundee, either believe that their stuff is just mass-produced in big, shiny Chinese factories, or, they simply do not care. There is such an element of shock when they find out about the awful working conditions in many Chinese factories, however I found from my survey that this still wouldn’t stop people from buying something made in poor working conditions, providing it was good quality. Ultimately, we tend to want to keep our pre-conceived ideas and stay ignorant to what really goes on during the making of our products, so that we can go on using them without feeling guilty.

Made in China .

Many of our clothes come from China and that is the reason that they are so cheap. I can remember when I was a teenager clothes were much more expensive and I had a lot less of them. Today there is an amazing choice because of cheap imports from China.

However not everyone is jumping on the Made In China bandwagon and some have opted out. Mostly this is happening in the USA as they see huge job losses in their country as the manufacturing has moved to China. I came across a blog in the course of my research and a slogan which is proving popular with customers in the USA is “NOT MADE IN CHINA” .

One family on a blog I discovered has made it their goal to stop buying Chinese products where possible but they say it can be very difficult. If they can source a similar product from a reliable source where conditions are good they will go for that or try to do without. The foremost reason they have taken this decision is that they are Christians and are taking a stand against a regime which they see as being repressive. They say that when conditions improve for the people in that country then they will reconsider.

http://www.notmadeinchinalife.com/

They are not alone. http://www.friendsoftibet.org/mic/This sight lists some prominent figures  including the Dalai lama who urge people to boycott goods from China because of the brutality against Tibetans .

I asked around some of my friends and family to see what they thought about buying goods from China and whether they would continue to buy cheap goods from there even if they knew that the working conditions in some factories were horrendous and that the workforce is often exploited.

My friend Maggie said that she would definitely boycott any goods where the workers were not treated humanely and likes to buy “Fair Trade’ goods when she can. Also she buys some of her clothes from a company called Nomads which is a Fair Trade clothing company.

Another friend I asked for his thoughts on buying goods from China said that most people have bought goods from China which have used cheap labour and that maybe they would be worse off if we stopped buying their products.

My daughter Rachel had a look through her toddlers clothes and said that most of them were made in China ,she buys a lot of the baby clothes in Next. The clothes that were not from China were made in Italy and were clothes which I had passed on to her from my youngest daughter. She said that the clothes that were labelled Made in Italy were far superior in design and quality and always looked good but the cheaper Made in China clothes were fine for everyday and a fast growing child. I asked her if she thought you could hand the garments down the generation like I had done with my Italian bought clothes and she said no not the ones from China.

My daughter observed that if she could afford to she might not buy her child’s clothes from China.  Despite the fact that workers there may be suffering bad conditions price was paramount. She said people were too busy, too tired to think after working all week and if people could get cheap goods that were fit for purpose then most people wouldn’t really care about their provenance.  I asked her if buying less but better quality was an option she would consider and she said it might be.

My wardrobe is stuffed with clothes .  I decided to look at a few of my favourite  pieces and see where they were made.First a Moschino jacket, made in China. This jacket is well made and the tailoring is excellent .

Pringle of Scotland knitted skirt- silly me, I thought this at least would be made in Europe but no- made in China. Good quality and expensive.

Max Mara jacket, made in please let it be Italy… Doesn’t say!

Peruvian Connection dress, expensive and well made- made in China.

One of my favourite brands is Avoca Ireland, jumper and skirt – made in EU.

Out of Exile cardigan, lovely design and embellishment-made in England.

Tate & Style scarf-, funky and good quality -made in Scotland.

Most of my clothes are produced in China .  I found out about a town just outside of Florence in Italy where the Chinese have moved in and are producing cheap goods with a Made in Italy label. This has upset many of the locals who want their area to be associated with high end quality products. In this case the Chinese  immigrants have been producing on demand fashion in sweatshop conditions right in the very country that has become synonomous with luxury fashion. http://welkerswikinomics.com/blog/2010/11/22/the-great-wealth-of-china-shaping-the-world-economy/

What is upsetting the locals is that the Chinese are sending their profits home to China and not investing it back into Italy and also it is claimed that they are becoming more adept at tax evasion than even the Italians themselves.

I think China can produce quality goods but they are expensive, but that applies everywhere not just in China. I think that the better quality goods which are produced in China are for established western brands who insist on a quality product. These same western brands are having to insist on better working conditions for the employees who work at their factories because customers are becoming more enlightened as to working conditions. They don’t want to feel guilt about products they buy and brands have to keep their customers happy or sales will drop and their reputations will suffer.

I think over all we all need to be more aware of where our goods come from and the impact the production has on lives and the environment.  I for one would like to see brands declaring what factories they use so they are accountable for what goes on inside them.

The “I Don’t Knowers”

These are the days.  The days when we can ‘know’ everything, but understand very little.  The days when we can find out anything, but don’t really bother. Knowledge, information, statistics, data; grasping hold of these are but a click away thanks to the wonderful world of internet and television.  These contain a universe of constantly updated information, not just about here and now, but knowledge about then and before and faraway regions; places and peoples that most of us will never meet, at least not face to face.  WWW and TV-the god’s of our present day.

These amazing ‘information stations’ are able to bring life, stories, cultures, peoples, tastes, sights and experiences and plonk them right down in the middle of our cosy little homes.  So with all of that unlimited knowledge sitting right in our living rooms we are the generation of ultimate “knowers” right?  Ummm no.  I think not.  Despite all of that information on tap do we even know where our shirts or shoes come from or how they were made?  Do I even know where this lovely, flat little piece of technology that is making perfectly formed letters appear on a virtual page as I ‘write’ is from?  Ahem, no.  I could guess?

When given this assignment to go out and talk with shoppers, I knew that for me this would probably be counter productive.  I am not really what people would call socially inclined.  In fact I am the mostly the opposite and strangers seem to know this and will gladly step into puddles or will dodge into unplanned shops to avoid being caught in unwanted dialogue with me.  However, all is not lost and thanks again to the web I decided to throw out a little survey asking anyone and everyone I know some questions about their shopping tendencies and more importantly what do they know about the purchases in their bags.  Well, it turns out not much.

Exhibit One

Question 1: Do you know how the products you buy are manufactured?/if so how did you find out?

Answer: Ummm…no not really.  I mean, I know that most of the stuff I have is made in factories.

Question 2: Do you know if any of the things you buy are made in China/if so what types of products do you own that are a Chinese make?

Answer:  Well, yeah I think a lot of the stuff I buy is made in China because they all have those little tags that say “Made in China” on them or it’s like stamped on the back of stuff.   I think my phone is a Chinese make…and my shoes…and my bag…and my headphones…and my top says “Made in China”, yeah pretty much everything I have on me right now.

Question 3:  What do you think about the quality of products made in China vs. those made in the west?

Answer:  Ummm I don’t really notice a difference.  I guess they both have stuff that is good quality.

 

Exhibit Two

Question 1: Do you know how the products you buy are manufactured?/if so how did you find out?

Answer:  I know how some my things are made because of watching TV documentaries but I guess apart from that not really.

Question 2: Do you know if any of the things you buy are made in China/if so what types of products do you own that are a Chinese make?

Answer:  Mostly no.  I mean I know that my Ipad was made in China and I think my shoes might be a Chinese make but that’s about it.  Isn’t most stuff made in China though?

Question 3:  What do you think about the quality of products made in China vs. those made in the west?

Answer:  I don’t know I think they are about the same.  I think it just depends on how much you pay not really where it’s made.

 

It appears that many of us are guilty.  We don’t really care about the ins and outs of how are stuff came to be or by whose hands.   Quality does not seem to be an issue either.  As long as we have bills in the bank and our products do not immediately perish it doesn’t really appear to matter where or how they were made

Whilst a few of the people who took part in my mini research project were slightly more clued into the origins of their purchases and how they came to life, I have to say that most (like myself embarrassingly) were almost completely oblivious about the beginnings and birthplaces of their stuff.  I mean I don’t know about you but I was pretty sure all of those, computers and t-shirts and mobile phones just sort of appeared when needed and restocked themselves on the shelves of the Apple store and Topman.  Right?

I read a quote recently that said something along the lines of “ This is the generation of smart computers and lazy people”.   Although this can not be said of the faces behind the factory fences in places like China, for many of us on the ‘western’ side of things, it seems this statement pretty much sums us up.

 

Working Conditions for Chinese Factory Workers

For most consumers (the ones I’ve spoken to anyway), where something is made is usually an after thought. The purchase is made and taken home then those who are interested enough will check the label.
So most people really aren’t too bothered where something is made as long as they get the product they want for a price that they are willing to pay. Yet when you ask people how they feel about manufacturing being outsourced to developing countries the response is usually along the lines of ‘it’s terrible, these people work for pennies in appalling conditions’ and that they would never willingly support it. So what are conditions actually like for the average Chinese factory worker?

Let’s start by looking at what laws the Chinese government have in place to protect their workers. The PRC labour laws of 1995 are surprisingly comprehensive. Some of the main areas they cover are; minimum wage, working hours, overtime pay, health and safety, child labour and labour disputes. There is a maximum workweek of 40 hours, minimum wages are decided locally to cover the cost of living, overtime must be paid at a fixed rate, workers must have at least 1 day off per week and wages must be paid on time without deductions (without good reason). Sounds good enough does it not?
In reality these laws are rarely followed. The problem is that whilst the labour laws may be adhered to for the local residents, a huge majority of Chinese factory workers are migrants coming from rural China. These workers can expect to work much more than 40 hours per week, have just 1 or 2 days off per month, be paid just £50-£70 per month and have money taken out of their wages for breaking trivial rules which the factory has set (such as talking whilst working or having too many bathroom breaks). It is also common for the factory to withhold their employees first 2 months wages as a ‘deposit’ which they receive when leaving – making it hard for migrants to move onto a better paid job (which often come up unexpectedly and must be taken almost instantly before the chance disappears) or leave without consent of the factory owner (which is not always given). One of the main problems is that the migrants are generally looked down upon by local residents and government officials and therefore treated as second-class citizens to whom the ‘rules’ do not apply. It is also usually the case that migrant workers don’t actually know their rights under the PRC’s labour laws of 1995.

Why, then, are thousands upon thousands of migrants arriving at these ‘factory cities’ every year? Why does China’s cheap labour force and cheap manufacturing industry continue to thrive? For most migrants the appeal is the independence, the chance of a new way of life – leaving behind their parent’s small farms and quiet rural settings. Most migrants are young and see it as a chance to travel and ‘see the world’ – although this may seem confusing to us as they don’t actually leave China, the average rural dweller in China would rarely leave the small group of villages in which he or she was brought up. With so many young people from all around China arriving at the same places it’s also a great chance to meet new people. So it’s not all bad, there also the accommodation provided by the factories. Most factories will provide a place for their workers to live whilst working at the factory and although this is usually very basic, with up to 10 workers sharing one dorm style room, it gives the workers a secure and steady place to live.

Of course, not all factories are the same, not all factories ignore the rights of their workers. One such factory is the EUPA factory in southeast China. EUPA has a massive complex, housing 17000 workers and pumping out tens of millions of domestic products per year. Factories such as this one; do comply with the maximum working hours per week, pay their workers a fair wage on time and on top of this provide them with many benefits. The workers live there, they eat there (in one of their 5 different themed cafeterias which are subsidised by the company to keep the cost of meals down), their children go to school there – they can even get married on site! There is also opportunity to move up the ranks, if you’re good enough at your job and you work hard you can be promoted to line manager and continue to work your way up. Being promoted comes with the benefits of better pay and more spacious accommodation. One of the main reasons that EUPA can afford to treat its workers so well is the size of it’s operation which in turn means that it has consistent, reliable orders from its customers.

conditions in the majority of Chinese factories are not what many of us in the west would consider acceptable although there are some exceptions to this rule. Yet we also have to take in to account the fact that the majority of the people who are migrating to these factories are choosing to do so in the hope of a better life – lifting themselves and their families out of rural poverty