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.

Artificial Flower Factory

Flower factory

Photographer Taylor Glenn has taken a different approach to many when trying to depict the mass manufacture taking place in China on our behalf. While others focus on the sheer number of people, Glenn is using portraiture to focus on individuals. In doing this he seems to capture not only the essence of life for those making things like, in this case, artificial flowers, but also the fact that this stuff is all pretty much hand-made.

“Because manufacturing has rapidly gone overseas I believe we are so less aware of what goes into making the products that most of us use, whether it be flowers or a toaster. A lot of it is still made by hand in places like this in China. Its mind boggling when you look at how much work goes into production of things that are really so meaningless in the scope of things.”

Flower girl

(Read and see more at An Artificial Flower Factory in China Photographed by Taylor Glenn.)

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.