This is a topic I’ve been meaning to blog on for so long, that it’s almost evolved itself out of my excuse to rant about it. Almost.
I receive several catalogues from retailers by mail; having ended up on their mailing list by default when I shopped at their stores. These are usually for clothing or housewares, aimed at a mid-to-upscale market. I’d skim through them; as part of the description of each item, they’d say: “Imported” or “Made in the USA” . . . Fair enough: the 80’s weren’t that long ago, when there was a campaign to ‘Buy American’, a backlash against the skyrocketing sales of Japanese cars (and manufacturing jobs being shipped overseas.) Among the transit agencies where I’ve worked, the federal subsidies for buying new buses is usually geared towards buying American-made vehicles. Fair enough (Only AC Transit made the leap to buying Belgian-made Van Hools.)
After a while I noticed something. Sometimes the item would be described as “Imported”, and occasionally, it would say “Made in Italy”, “Made in France,” etc. But in the US, something made in Italy or France is just as ‘imported’ as something made in China or Mexico, no?
It seemed to me as if there was some selective marketing snobbery afoot. That items made in Western European countries had a higher cachet: implied perhaps that they were better made, better designed, made with higher quality materials, turned out by dedicated, professionally trained craftsmen . . . who might even be middle-class, reassuringly just like you or me, the customer of the good. (Such a phenomenon is becoming extinct: read Andi Watson’s graphic novel “Breakfast After Noon” about an out-of-worker pottery worker in England.)
“Imported” seems to be a mask where the pedigree of manufacture was to be downplayed, like made in China, India, etc, because it wasn’t as ‘high-class’. To actually label it as ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in India’ would give customers the impression that it had simply been churned out in some crowded factory in some under-developed country by workers who barely had a 6th-grade education who were forced to work 10 hours days with only a 30 minute break for lunch, where the daily wage was half the retail cost of the item . . . (OK, I’m getting carried away by my exaggerated imagination here, but don’t you ever wonder how things can be marked down to 75% and still the retailer is able to eek out a profit margin on that item?) Such a connotation would be at odds with the carefully styled presentation of the item in the catalogue or store. The retail brand is selling a dream realm where inhabitants are happy, beautiful and carefree.
[In Thailand, this type of difference is recognized. There’s the ‘garment’ industry, where workers in factories assemble clothes for export to foreign retailers, based on client specifications. The identical T-shirt can be found in every Wal-Mart for $7.99. Then there’s the ‘cottage’ industry where rural housewives weave tie-dye silk or cotton scarves in traditional mudmee designs on looms at home, etc, all painstaking created by hand based on patterns handed down through generations. Each piece is unique. These items are valued higher in Thailand, because of the fee-meu (handicraft skill) involved. Although perhaps both the garment worker and the rural housewife had no more than a 6th grade education.]
In light of the recent safety concerns of goods that are “Made in China,” country of origin labeling will become more significant. It’s not just about sweat-shop guilt-trips vs. ‘Fair-Trade’ feel-good factors influencing consumer purchases. Consumers are becoming educated in reading labels for countries of manufacture, the same way they learnt to read nutrition labels for trans-fatty acids. Soon, simply labeling items as ‘imported’ in the catalogue may not cut it anymore.
Maybe it’s just me thinking too much. Maybe consumers don’t really think about or care about where something is made, i.e. they just buy things based on function or attractive appearance; how many people bother to read copy in catalogues anyway?
Having a bit of time on my hands, I went into Crate and Barrel the other week, to check to see what the countries of origin of items that were listed as “imported” were, since they are listed on the physical items. (I’m not picking on Crate and Barrel; I think most retailers practice the same policy in their copy-writing: that ‘cool’ countries are listed by name, and ‘uncool’ countries are listed under the ‘Imported’ blind in catalogues. This just happened to be the most convenient for me.) I checked a range of items to check (this was by no means as scientific/statistically valid survey: I don’t have that much time!)
Catalog Label: “Imported”
– Rugs: Most of these were described as “100% New Zealand wool”, but were made in India. (So the raw material for these rugs was shipped from New Zealand to be made in India, where carpet-making labor is cheaper.)
– Pillows and cushions: India. “100% silk”, “100% cotton”, “100% linen”
– Dish towels: India
Catalog Label: [Made in] “Europe”
– Wineglasses: Czech Republic
– Compote and hurricane: Poland “Hand blown glass . . . handpainted copper . . .”
– Other glass items
(Those poor former Soviet-bloc countries: they’re on the right continent, but individually they don’t have enough cachet to merit the listing of their own name!)
Catalog Label: [Made in] “Portugal”
– Cotton blankets and sheets
– Earthenware bowls and plates
(A couple of years ago, I think something made in Portugal would have been masked as “Made in Europe.” Portugal is gaining enough cachet to merit labeling under its own name now.)
Catalog Label: [Made in] “Spain”
– Glass cruets
Catalog: [Made in] “Japan”
– Kitchen knives: “ . . . created in Seki-City, Japan’s 700-year old center for samurai swords.”
– Dinnerware: “ . . . dimpling draws inspiration from traditional Japanese Tetsubin teapots . . .” (cast iron teapots)
Crate & Barrel does sell actual cast iron teapots: “This authentic teapot combines the tradition of Japanese tetsubin teaware with modern convenience . . .” Country was unlisted in the catalog; it’s made in China. On the same page is dinnerware of ‘traditional Japanese shapes.” Country was unlisted in the catalog; also made in China. It’ll be the day when Crate and Barrel or Williams Sonoma carries “Man-Sao-Mow-Gerng” traditional Chinese dinnerware (usually red background with four Chinese characters.)
Catalog: [Made in] “Great Britain”
(God forbid, maybe it’s made in industrial Scotland)
Catalog: [Made in] “England”
Catalog: [Made in] “France”
Catalog Label: [Made in] USA”
– Quite a bit of furniture: sofas, nightstands, dressers: this is reassuring that there’s still quite a bit furniture made domestically.
– A walnut wood cheeseboard
– Panels: “Japanese-inspired four-panel . . . depicts flowering cherry blossom” I was surprised this wasn’t made in China, but in the US!
Catalog Label: [Made in] “Italy”
– Dinnerware (in the catalog photo also were matching brown chargers, for which no country of manufacture was listed. However, they are described as “handweave of rattan and buri . . . hapao pattern”, so they are probably made in the Philippines. See more below)
– Glass bowls
– Chair/bench: “ . . handicrafted by Italian artisans . . .”
– Leaf-shaped platters: “ . . created by Italian artisans . . .” (On the same page, a glass dome on a wood tray for serving cheese, with a “hammered bronze-finish handle”, no country of origin listed. I looked; it was made in India. I bet Indian artisans hand-hammered those handles.)
– Copper charger/platter “Each unique piece is hand-finished by Italian artisans . . .”
Not labeled in Catalog (neither listed as ‘Imported’ nor ‘Made in X’)
– Two-tier rattan server: “ . . . basket is tightly handwoven of solid buri and rattan by skilled artisans using a “hapao” technique . . .” The Philippines. Why can’t credit be given where it’s due: “. . . basket is tightly handwoven of solid buri and rattan by skilled Filipino artisans using a “hapao” technique . . .”
I don’t think Filipino artisans can be any less skilled than Italian artisans.
(Hapao is in the Ifugao province in the Philippines, and is notable for the rice terraces. And its handicrafts?)
– Glass vase and votive: “ . . . amber glass take shape with deep hand-cut vertical channels . . .” India
– Wooden vases: “handcarved . . . eco-friendly mango wood . . .” Thailand.
– Olivewood bowls: “Mediterranean olivewood reveals its distinctive character . . .” Germany! What a surprise! I would have imagined Germany as a country that had enough cachet to merit mention by name “Made in Germany”. Then again, most people associate olives with the Mediterranean. So olive tree logs shipped to Germany to be carved into bowls. But why? Labor costs in Germany are pretty high.
– Tasting set (4 porcelain dishes resting on a wood tray): Dishes from China. Tray from Thailand.
Most stores carry a lot more than what’s featured in their catalogs. There was a nice dinnerware set with a Japanese motif in the store (but not the catalog). It was made in Thailand!
On the whole for today’s retailers: I think relatively few items are made in the top tier: Italy, France, Japan. The bulk are made in China, India, Philippines, Thailand, etc.
I mentioned at the top of the article, that this labeling trend has evolved: I received a small Banana Republic mailer recently. There were eleven items of clothing featured, and every single one listed the exact country of origin:
China – seven items
USA – two items
Turkey – two items.
I think what would help countries to improve their ‘cachet’ is to have a lifestyle book or two written by expatriates for countries like China or India; along the lines of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” or Frances Mayes’ “Bella Tuscany” plugging France and Italy respectively. (Not that those two countries lacked cachet before those books came out.) But how about “A Year in Yunnan” or “Cosy Kerala”?
With globalization, there’s a lot of mixing and matching going on (1) Items manufactured in different countries can be bundled and sold together (Thai tray with Chinese plates). (2) Raw materials from one country (New Zealand wool) are shipped to another country for assembly (Indian carpet-weaving) and then shipped to a third country to sell (USA). (3) Design and branding of items are done in one country and manufactured in another. Items are then shipped back for sale in the country of design. With telecommunications today, this is the norm, not the exception.
I have a friend whose brother was a designer in New York. Items he developed are sold at Crate and Barrel. He currently lives in Shanghai, to be closer to the manufacturing/ production. So you pick up the item: it’s Made in China physically, but designed by an American.
“Where’s it from?” may soon become a pointless phrase.