A Fascination With Copying

For decades China has been renowned for it’s ability to copy and mass-produce foreign designs on a massive scale. It is this mass manufacturing that has been the driving force behind the country’s massive economic boom in recent years. However, as a new generation of young creatives begin to embrace today’s changing China and the new freedom that comes with it, will the phrase ‘made in China’ soon be evolving into ‘designed in China’?

China’s primary industry today is taking sample designs of gadgets, clothes, toys, etc. provided by western companies, reproducing them on a large scale in one of hundreds of thousands of factories, to then export back to the west to be sold. To be able to do this and do it well, meticulous attention to detail is key, and this is something the Chinese have certainly mastered. Team this with an abundance of workers willing to work long hours for little pay, and it’s no surprise so many companies, big and small, both high end and low end, choose to manufacture their products in China. No wonder it’s been labelled ‘the world’s factory’ seeing as only a tiny percentage of goods produced in China’s factories actually stay in China, the rest end up in shops all over the world.

However this Chinese fascination with copying foreign designs is no longer simply a means of successful mass production for foreign companies, it has become a part of everyday life in modern China. Whether it be American style homes and suburbs, British style villages or imitation and counterfeit goods, this obsession with copying has spread through all parts of Chinese consumer culture.

Counterfeit Capital of the World…

Chapter six of Karl Gerth’s As China Goes, So Goes the World, explains how consumers live in uncertainty due to the huge number of low quality counterfeit products on the Chinese market.

Brand owners in China estimate that 15 to 20 percent of all prominent branded goods in China are actually counterfeit…’

Sometimes there’s no way of telling what is real or what is fake until it’s too late, as victims of countless counterfeit scandals, such as the ‘big-head-baby’ formula scandal of 2004, have found out.

Shanzhai Culture…

Gerth also explains the concept of Shanzhai culture, when copies of popular western designs, most commonly mobile phones, are passed off not as fakes but as imitations, usually with similar sounding names, far lower prices and sometimes with more features to suit the Chinese market. These shanzhai products are not viewed as negatively as counterfeit products, they are sold openly and have ‘gained a level of social acceptance’. These ‘imitations’ are interesting, because although the appearance of the product has been copied, shanzhai manufacturers often add features, alter programs and change certain aspects of the design, therefore, in Gerth’s words, ‘blurring the line between imitating and originating.’

Thames Town…

30 km from central Shanghai, you will find Thames Town, a town made up of English style houses, streets, parks, shops and churches. Everyday soon to be married Chinese couples flock here to have their wedding photos taken against this bizarre backdrop of a perfect English market town.

Copy Artists…

I recently watched a documentary called Copy Artists, that explored the town of Dafen in Shenzen, a town famous for its oil painters. However the majority of the painters that live and work here are not creating works of their own, they are working in assembly lines, producing imitations of famous paintings to sell. Most of the people who work in these assembly lines are art students, working to pay their way through their studies, but others are struggling artists who have never been able to make a living selling their own work. Despite the high quality and amount of effort that goes in to each and every painting, workers earn very little, probably about as much as factory workers do in the city. People have argued that this process of copying classic pieces to sell is wrong, but the studio owners behind them argue that because they are not trying to sell their pieces as the original and are always open with the fact that it is merely an imitation, that it is perfectly ethical and not counterfeit.

A New Generation…

It is exciting to know that to counteract this copycat culture, an aspirational new generation of creative people with big ideas now have the freedom to express themselves and open the door to make way for a new way of design thinking in China. This generation are not content with copying foreign designs and are striving to push China in the direction of not only making, but also designing their own products. The documentary China Rises: City of Dreams, features Shanghai based fashion designer Jenny Ji. In an interview, Jenny sums up the attitude of this creative generation and their new found freedom…

‘I’m a designer from the new generation and I feel great. I don’t have the old restrictions and boring attitudes…

The old pessimism has gone, and I can embrace the new changes. I’m always dreaming of the choices available to me…’

Fuelled by a society that is bursting with confidence and originality, the future of China has the potential to be one of design and innovation rather than simple replicating and manufacturing, an exciting thought for any young designer like myself.

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.

Made In China

Recently, my eyes have been opened to the working conditions in Chinese factories and the lives of their migrant workers, through books and documentaries such as Factory Girls and China Blue. Every year millions of young men and women travel from their homes in poor farming villages to the cities, in an attempt to work their way out of poverty. They are looking for jobs in one of China’s many sprawling factory complexes, in order to earn money to send home to their families and build a new life. They see this migration from the countryside as a great opportunity, a chance to better themselves and make their families proud. However, for many of these migrants, the reality is harsh working conditions, long hours and very little pay…

As a textile design student, I think it’s important that I look into the working conditions many migrant workers face in Chinese textile and garment factories. I did a bit of research, and what I found was unsettling. It seems that once someone gets a job in a factory, they are somewhat trapped. Young and in a lot of cases naïve, new employees are rushed into signing contracts, without being given a chance to read them, and most likely never given a copy. They are often rushed into the workplace on the same day as applying, and sent to work, with minimal to no safety training, just a brief run through of their responsibilities. Once employees have started working, it is immediately very difficult to leave the factory. It is likely that if an employee works less than a certain time before leaving, for example a week or even a month, they will receive no wages at all. In a lot of cases if you attempt to resign before you have done a couple of years work at the factory, you will be fined a substantial amount of money. Workers tend to work for twelve hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes even more during peak season. Payment is below minimum wage and sometimes does not cover the cost of living. In fact, garment factories in particular are apparently amongst the lowest paying in China. Also, more often than not, workers are not provided with paid sick or maternity leave.

The harsh conditions at some garment factories also pose a major health risk to workers. For example, factories are often very hot, with little or no ventilation, this can be a huge health hazard when employees are forced to work in these spaces using various dyes and chemicals, with no gloves, masks, etc, to protect them from fumes and hazardous materials. Workers using concentrated dyes in these conditions on a regular basis can end up with breathing problems and other serious health issues.

I wonder how many people here in the UK take this into account when buying their clothes? Clothes that may have been produced in factories just like this…

I did a bit of asking around, and the general response I received was that people don’t tend to check out where a garment has been made before purchasing it, where and how clothes are made isn’t something that most people usually think about unless it’s brought to their attention. I asked if people would prefer to buy clothing that had been made in the UK rather than in China, and the majority said yes for various different reasons, whether that be supporting the British economy/clothing industry, better quality garments or so they’re not supporting factories that mistreat workers. However, I then asked them if they would still do so if the British made piece were more expensive, and the response changed. People said they would pay more ‘within reason’ or ‘to an extent’.

I’m embarrassed to admit, that until now, I can’t say I paid a great deal of attention to where my clothes were made either. I had a quick look through my wardrobe the other night, and found that quite a few things in there had been made in China. I asked myself the same questions I asked others, and firstly I thought to myself, yes, I’d do my best to buy the good quality, ethically produced British product, but on reflection I suppose I’m rather conflicted. On the one hand I don’t feel comfortable supporting factories in China that take advantage of vulnerable, young workers, but then again, if I don’t, will I be putting an already poor person out of a job and forcing them back into a way of life they tried so hard to leave behind? Also, with almost every big high street clothing retailer opting to produce their stock in China and elsewhere in Asia, I wonder how easy it is to buy clothes that you can be assured have been made in the UK? As a textile student and general consumer, I find this entire topic fairly worrying and can’t help but feel guilty. It is certainly something that I wish to research further and perhaps consider when thinking about my own work.

From East to West

When I look around at the contents of my room, I’ve come to realize that I’ve never wondered where they were made.  I have not been conscious of the fact that most of what I own comes from a different country other then the one I’m residing in. My laptop, my phone, the sweater in my closet, all say they were made in the East. While living in Dundee, the two stores I frequent most are H&M, a Swedish owned company and Primark, a British company. I considered the fact that even though these companies are owned by Western brands it is likely that their products are manufactured in the East. Indeed, H&M and Primark’s goods are produced in Asia.

Primark Ad
H&M Ad

I asked other Dundee residents if they were aware of where most of what they own comes from. Some were very aware of where their products came from while others were hesitant in answering. Becca Clow was well aware that most of what she owns is exported from Asia. She stated how she has always had an interest in technology and a curiosity regarding where it originated. Catherine Sutherland said that she simply looks at the labels on her clothing; she generally likes to know where the things she owns come from.  However, like me, Katelyn Burns had never really put much thought in to the labels on her clothing and electronics. She’d had basic knowledge that the East played a role in product distribution. She went on to say, “I know many labels do say ‘Made in China’ but I thought a high-end American product such as Apple would be manufactured in the States. I assumed if I was buying these products in America they should be made in America. I had no idea so much is made in the East.” The “Made in China” label has become the most identifiable brands in the world today. “Made in Taiwan” and “Made in Indonesia” are close seconds. These labels signify a booming manufacturing industry in Asia where the exportation of goods has become their primary form of profit.

Products made in China have the reputation of being poor in quality. An explanation for the affordability of brands such as H&M and Primark is due to the fact that these products are produced at little cost at a rapid pace. When goods are produced at lows costs, low quality in what i is to be expected. Consumers can tell when a product is made strictly for profit with no consideration for those who will be buying the merchandise. Becca Clow went on to say, “things made in Scotland are of good quality because they are made for those who live in Scotland. There is no reason to expend money on products that are not for you. “ When products are made domestically with domestic materials the quality increases but so does the price. People are willing to sacrifice quality for lower prices yet we still blame China for producing goods not up to par.

Though China has this bad reputation, I do not think that the products coming out of China are exclusively poor in quality. I believe there is bad as well as good.  When we buy cheaply, we loose the right to comment on the poor quality. I think if we were willing to pay more, China could offer us improved merchandise. I think the companies employing these factories in China are to blame. They play a major role in the output of poor quality goods. There needs to be a level of responsibility on the part of the Western companies utilizing the Chinese factories.

We all seem to be generally aware of the fact that what we own does not originate where we have bought it. Most of what we own has been fabricated in Asia. Even though we claim to be aware, we ignore these facts because we live in a society in which affordability outweighs lack of quality.  Being aware doesn’t always mean being accountable for what we purchase.

Attitudes to Manufacturing in China

“Made in China” – I’d bet that phrase appears at least once in every house in the country, but how do people feel about China monopolizing the manufacturing market?

 

To answer that question I thought I‘d ask my Scottish flat mates a few questions and then ask the same questions to my flat mate who was born and raised in Scotland, but whose parents and ancestors are all Chinese, and then compare the answers. This blog post was going to address the question “Does a Chinese perspective differ from a Scottish perspective with regards to manufacturing in China”. But it turned out my Chinese flat mates opinions were identical to everybody else’s. The main consensus was that we as a generation just don’t really care about where our clothes come from; it’s the last thing we would check.

 

One question was “Can you tell me where anything you’re wearing was made”. Nobody knew for sure, they could only make educated guesses. My Chinese flat mate mentioned that the hoodie he was wearing was actually bought in Hong Kong, but when we went to look where it was made, it didn’t say. This raised the question do our clothes here state the country of manufacture because we actually care about where they came from or just purely because it is a legal requirement.

 

I stumbled across this section in a website recently: “1000 Toys NOT Made in China”. A whole list dedicated to focusing on where these toys where not made, rather than where they were. However at the end in brackets it stated “Note: Some manufacturers have part of their products made in China”, so appears it’s near impossible to purchase goods these days that are completely detached from China. This list featured toys that where made in Thailand and Israel amongst many other non-American or European countries, so why was China singled out and picked on? One person’s comment on the list cited the “safety risks” associated with Chinese manufacturing and mentioned the toy recalls of 2007. In the June of 2007 China had manufactured every one of the 24 kinds of toys recalled for safety reasons in the United States that year.

 

But this anti China attitude continues past toy purchases, there are several articles and blog dedicated to the challenge of living free from any Chinese manufacturing, and they varied from just trying it for the day, to long term lifestyles.

NotMadeInChinaLife : http://www.notmadeinchinalife.com/

 

A surprising statistic is that only 2.7 percent of US consumer purchases have the “Made in China” label, and that 88.5 percent of American’s consumer spending is on things made in the US. With this in mind it seems strange that people should be wary of Chinese products and there “domination” over the global market. Perhaps it’s because America is a much larger country and economy so it can sustain itself better.

In a conversation with a flat mate he starts talking about how he would like to buy more things that are made in the U.K and would probably be prepared to pay slightly more for that, but raises the point that it’s not an easy thing to do, almost everything is outsourced. He then mentions Jack Wills, and the fact that their clothes are “Fabulously British” is a major part of their branding technique. A quick Google search reveals that Jack Wills do indeed manufacture some clothes in China, as well as Turkey and Portugal, along with many posts from people ranting about this. There is even a facebook group entitled: “Jack Wills, fabulously British…yet made in china?…failll” to which somebody has replied “no? because the clothes represent Britain”. I think this is a fair statement, just because something wasn’t manufactured in Britain doesn’t mean that it isn’t a British product.

 

 

 

 

Public awareness of the production process

Chinese factories and labor are seen as such a taboo in the British media with large companies being outed for using them. Are there two sides to these stories? Many Chinese see these factories as a way out of poverty and although most British shoppers is that this form of labor is wrong and would perhaps shop else where if they knew the shops they were buying from were using Chinese factories they would perhaps choose not to shop there.

The gap between the rich and poor people in China is still increasing even with the government’s initiatives to try and prevent this. Rural children and young adults are very ambitious there is a big cultural difference between China and the UK for many young Chinese family is very important to them and they want to support them and make them proud. They see the factories as a way of doing this; many of them are provided with an education. The income they gain from working in these factories keeps them out of poverty.

Obviously there are problems with some factories. The working conditions, the hours, child labor and the factories are never portrayed in a positive light. Every country that has become wealthy has had a period of laboring. An example in Britain is the coalmines and jute mills. So China is in a sense having its industrial revolution. As wages increase and people become wealthier and more prosperous in the country it is evolving into an ideas country and the laboring moves to a country wit cheaper labor, currently Vietnam.

Many shoppers are unaware of where the products they buy come from unless it is written on the label. Products made in Britain tend to be more expensive due to labor costs and people expect a better wage and also handmade products are considered good quality. Although when comparing the differences in wage between a British worker and Chinese worker may be vast there are also big differences in living costs and the price of food and where someone living in China could live comfortably off a certain wage someone trying to live on the same wage in the UK would struggle. So this is a consideration to make when thinking about these factories, but as things become more expensive expected wages will also rise.

Competition between big companies means they are striving to keep costs down. This is the main reason they use foreign factories with cheap labor costs. Many shoppers when asked saw big factories as a negative thing especially for the workers. They also mentioned that they generally didn’t know where what they were buying came from they also said when asked that when shopping the main thing they look at is the price. So to compete on the market companies must try to keep their costs low.

The convenience of buying in this country means people have become complacent. The journey the product has undertaken is not thought about. People care mainly about the price of the product. When asked whether they would buy a western product or a Chinese one they said the price would be the deciding factor. This may have been because most of the people interviewed in Dundee center were students who are low on disposable income. Although they did also comment that if something was of a higher quality they would consider paying more for it.

This raises questions about these big companies and whether new smaller, local businesses can set themselves up in the current market. With modern companies using cheap labor and creating production on a massive scale to provide these cheap products the market ask for is the more personal business losing out even if it is a better designed product?  Chinese factories provide opportunities to the people of China as an initial way out of poverty but are also in a way preventing growth of local business in other countries and preventing creative alternatives.

Companies are very wary of telling their customer where their products come from because it’s a taboo after big media cases such as Nike. Awareness of where something comes from should be more widely known around point of sale of the item or in the market place. This will take away the hidden elements of the production process so people know exactly what they are buying and whether it is the best option for them.

Made In China?

Image

Many Western nations import goods from China. From kitchen appliances to clothing, children’s toys to computer parts, chances are we all have many things in our homes branded with the familiar ‘Made in China’ label. Yet, do we as a consumer nation really understand the sheer enormity of all the products that are imported from China, or even how the product was manufactured? Furthermore, do we even care?  

During an investigation to discover whether or not typical Dundee residents knew where or how their electronic products and clothes were manufactured, the general consensus of the individuals, with regards to the question, was inconclusive. While some guessed China, others suggested Korea, India and Bangladesh, as well as a few people who couldn’t provide an answer. From the wide array of answers it is clear that the vast majority of people do not know for definite where their products originate from. 

In addition, the individuals interviewed were unable to differentiate between the quality of standards between locally made products and products imported from abroad. The few people that did provide an answer claimed that products from China are sometimes not always made to the best standards, whereas products that are specifically manufactured locally have connotations of a higher standard of quality. Is this a fair outlook to have?

In recent years, there has been some publicised instances in the media highlighting the issue of suspect Chinese imports being recalled for lack of quality or for failing to meet standard requirements. Children’s toys coated with lead-laced paint, car tires lacking an essential safety component and medicines and pet foods full of toxins are just some of the noted aberrations in a spate of poorly manufactured goods. 

However, not all of these instances are a true reflection on the standards of products manufactured in China. Of course there will be some products poorly made in China, just like anywhere else. There are some great products and services available, it’s just a shame that these highly publicised incidents can have a detrimental effect on people’s opinions, Western and Eastern alike.  

When asking individuals whether or not it mattered to them if the goods purchased were manufactured in good working conditions, the responses were mixed. Some people said that they simply didn’t care or think about it. Others said that while they do care, it is not always made clear to British and Western consumers the details of the source and conditions of their products and how their products are made. 

It’s evident that there is a lack of understanding from Western consumers with regards to the origins of their products, despite a familiarity with the ‘Made in China’ brand. Perhaps low prices plays a factor in this lack of caring or understanding, especially during this current global economic and financial crisis. After all, we are always looking for a way to save pennies. However, should our relentless pursuit of a bargain be more important than the poor working conditions of the people who make our goods?