When I was in elementary school we went on a field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I recall vividly one composition artwork, done in the style of a Degas reclining nude female. From a distance you saw the woman, her face, her torso, her curves. But as you got closer you saw the hundreds and hundreds of pieces that were glued together to make the portrait. Each was small, plastic, disposable and made in Japan. The artwork was titled “Made in Japan.” (Note to readers – anyone with better Google skills might be able to locate an image. The results I got were bizarre and unintended.)
The tour guide told us kids that ‘Made in Japan’ used to mean bad. It was shorthand for cheap and disposable. This was in the early days of Japan’s post-war recovery. Anyone growing up in the 1950s and 1960s probably has the same strong association.
In later years the nation invested heavily in quality improvements for process innovation (where you find cheaper and better ways of making the same thing). Japan also led in research and development to bring true innovation – from CDs to Walkmen to all things electronic. Sadly that innovation waned int he last decade and former electronic powerhouses Pioneer, Sharp and Sony have all become loss leaders.
Today, even without a visit to an art museum, children will have life-long associations of ‘Made in China’ as cheap and disposable.
China has made never-before-witnessed progress in developing its economy and enriching its population. Low-cost labour and unheralded process innovation means global consumers have much greater purchasing power. What used to cost $10 now costs $3. Thanks, China!
At the same time the drive to suck costs out of every part of the manufacture has led to serious quality problems and unacceptable conditions for workers. Eric Clark wrote The Real Toy Story, an in-depth book on the toy industry in China – an extract is here.
Now we are seeing illegal shortcuts that mean faulty or fake products. Just this month a national network of fake pharmaceuticals was uncovered, with police arresting 2,000 people (More on ABC Online). And while we may stomach a doctored Viagra tablet, in this case even chemotherapy products were falsified, containing one time only salt water. Pfizer said the counterfeits can cause massive health problems:
“We’ve seen where there’s been medicines produced that have no active ingredient whatsoever or way over the prescribed amount of active ingredient,” said Scott Davis, Senior regional director in the global security division of Pfizer.
Clearly China needs to reinvent itself. The drive for profitability has led to cost-cutting beyond what is rational. American buyers need to partner better to ensure acceptable living standards for workers. And that means higher prices for consumers.
In the end it will be up to China to invest in innovation, research, development, quality control and more. Japan saw its competitive disadvantage as the world demanded higher quality. And many, many major Chinese companies are doing just that. They are challenged by the lowest common denominator.
Every time we read of fakes or purchase low quality products, the brand ‘Made in China’ sinks lower in our esteem.