Barbara Sumner Burstyn: Buy Kiwi-Made
By Barbara Sumner Burstyn
“It’s about our relationship to nature, and to each other. And it’s about new ideas and doing things differently; being an authentic natural choice in an age of synthetics, and seeing how far we can develop this simple idea.”
- Jeremy Moon, Founder and CEO, Icebreaker
We recently returned from six weeks in China. Our work required traveling to many different parts of that vast country. In every corner, at every bend, from obscure villages to major cities we saw pollution. Not the kind of grey smoke, accidental or even intentional toxic discharge that mostly characterizes pollution in New Zealand. But profound, overwhelming, breath taking pollution. Factories pumping noxious gas twenty-four seven, incinerators disposing of eye-watering, lung-clenching waste, dyes of every hue flowing freely into rivers, turgid sludge where once there were streams. We traveled into mountainous regions to find that they too have air so thick that blue sky is a faint memory. We drove into the autonomous region once known as Inner Mongolia to find factories as large as cities, oil refineries that make Marsden Point look like a kids toy, whole towns coated with the black grime of unrestricted coal burning, toxic tailings and lime green sediment pits covering endless swaths of poisoned land.
So extreme is the pollution, China’s water supply is only capable of supporting half of its current population. In June the AsiaNews/Agencies reported that while China has become “the factory of the world”, it exports only “products of low industrial level” to more developed nations and “consumes its own resources”, both material and environmental. An atmospheric scientist at the University of California at Davis says pollution from China is being picked up in the mountains of eastern California. Satellite data has also tracked China's air pollution heading towards Korea and towards Europe.
Mind you, reading the state sanctioned reports of pollution in China you’d think the problem was not so bad, but occasionally the truth slips out. Like the recent report on the state of the Yangtze River, that runs through Shanghai. “Amid growing concern that economic development is inflicting an unsustainable toll on China's ecology, the Xinhua news agency quoted hydrologists as saying that the water is "cancerous" and a threat to marine life and drinking supplies in 186 cities along the banks… of the 3,964-mile-long river that supports 400 million people - one in every 15 people on the planet.
China is an environmental train wreck - of catastrophic proportions - waiting to happen. It is in this polluted country that a number of New Zealand companies increasingly choose to make their natural, authentic 'New Zealand made' garments. One of those companies at the forefront of lobbying the government to allow them to affix Kiwi made labels boldly asserts that they are ‘ethical manufacturers’. Undoubtedly their factory is checked to ensure the ultra cheap labor force is not abused in the ways that are standard practice in China. It is even possible their factory qualifies as environmentally sound. However, the fact remains; when you manufacture in China you are outsourcing and off-shoring pollution and therefore the true cost of production. It’s a major part of the reason China offers such an unbeatable business equation.
While pollution is an unavoidable part of manufacturing almost every little thing that surrounds us, that pollution should be generated and cleaned up at home, in line with local regulations. That way the true cost of being environmentally sound can be passed on to those who benefit most from the wonders of modern manufacturing; us, the consumers. Instead New Zealand companies, especially those promoting themselves as clean and green are practicing an unethical game of tabletop magic, where the reality of their profit driven practices can disappear into the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ box, leaving their waste behind them for the Chinese to drown in.
Perhaps what is so distasteful about those companies working to affix Kiwi-made labels to their China-made goods is not that they put their bottom line at the top of the page. It is the way they are using public relations and the media to carefully steer the public argument surrounding ‘Buy Kiwi-Made’ into the semantics of where the materials are grown and where the garments are designed. It is their lobbying of the New Zealand government to retain their New Zealand made status, while manufacturing their ‘pure and authentic’ products in one of the most polluted places on earth.
The reality of ‘made in China’ is beyond anything we, cocooned in our relatively pristine country, can imagine. It is as far from the ‘relationship with nature’ that is the trademark of one of those companies as you can get. That is why labeling is so important? Because it embodies not just the employment of New Zealanders but all the values that being made in New Zealand is really about; integrity, honesty, ethics, and social responsibility.
As consumers we must insist on honest labeling so we know what we are buying. And let companies that would obscure the reality of their manufacturing know that good business practice is not just about the bottom line, a fancy website and liberal use of words like ‘ethical’ and natural.’