Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Made in Italy by Chinese"

Recently, I noticed that some of my t-shirts have "Made-in" labels that go above and beyond the usual information. These garments were, it seems, Designed in France, then Made in Morocco. It doesn't require a grad seminar on Edward Said to figure out why this might be spelled out. What the label is doing is saying, yes, you'd imagine these shirts to be French (ahem, Petit Bateau), but in all honesty, they were assembled elsewhere. But! Fear not! French workers were involved! Not only were they involved, but they participated at the highest level! When I noticed the label, I imagined a creative-professionals office, something like an architecture firm, where only the most Gallo-Celtic assemble to decide just how far apart stripes must be placed to be authentically Breton.

Clothing brands often send the same message, if less explicitly. H&M evokes Sweden, but this is not (sorry to disappoint) where the clothes are produced. Uniqlo is all about Japan, but very much Made in China. Then there are the Americana brands - if you're under the illusion that GAP, Levis or J.Crew are hand-crafted by rustic Real Americans or recent-college-grad Brooklynites channelling that spirit in a warehouse somewhere, you're in for a shock. There's the country whose aura you're purchasing, which is rarely the same as the the one the clothes are actually from.

But what if the countries of image and origin are one and the same? Problem solved (assuming one sees the image-origin mismatch as a problem), one might think. But no! What if there are ferners involved? And what if what's at stake isn't skankorifically-advertised American leggings, but Quality European Goods?

The perils of Italian production coming from those without Italian blood in their veins has shifted from food to textiles. The comments to the Times story are, I think even to someone less enthralled by newspaper comments than I am (and I'm so enthralled that my dissertation is about, in part, the 19th C equivalent - angry letters to parochial newspapers), kind of amazing.

Three different commenters are excited to learn that this is why their shoes fell apart so quickly. The Chinese! Another has this charming suggestion: "They should label the garments "'Made in Italy by Chinese,'" a sentiment shared by others as well (A moment, please, while I label this blog post, "Made in the U.S.A. by a Jew.") A recommended comment compares Chinese and Japanese workers to ants, and deems them incapable of producing quality goods.

However, the comment that struck me most was this one:

I remember so lovingly the beauty and quality of "Made in Italy" when I studied in Florence in the late 60'sand 70's: the fine materials, the extraordinary workmanship, the pride with which shopkeepers showed off their wares.When one returns to Florence today it is a very different city and almost heartachingly painful: the leather shops, the embroidery, the housewares are all sold by shopkeepers who don't even speak Italian, much less understand, or appreciate, what they have displaced.What a shame that some of the city's greatest traditional handiwork, not to mention their elegant taste, is fast disappearing and going the way of cheap globalization.
Where to begin? Do the shopkeepers "not speak Italian" as in, one is unable to make a purchase from them in Italian, or is it that they're chatting amongst themselves in a language other than the one the guidebook promised, until you enter and ask to be helped? Is this an issue of communication or aural aesthetics? Must a kerchiefed matriarch stirring the local cuisine emerge from the back of the workshop at mealtimes?

Next, if you're visiting a place as a tourist, even a tourist who went on study abroad in the place way back when and so might have a particular interest in the region, how on earth do you know if store clerks "understand, or appreciate, what they have displaced"? Is this something people even wonder in their own hometowns?

Finally, when are concerns about craftsmanship, quality materials, and labor conditions just a proxy for racism? If there's racism, it's of a particular sort - the quest for authenticity is about consistency, not whiteness. The idea being, Italian stuff had best be made by Italians, not Chinese immigrants or Swedish ones. And the let-down at Uniqlo, in this line of thought, wouldn't be that East Asians made the stuff, but that it's made in China rather than Japan. Regardless, I suppose part of what I'm missing here is that I find it tough to wrap my head around the mindset that would find it "almost heartachingly painful" that clothes and accessories aren't made like they used to be.

11 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

I think that may be stretching the definition of racism to include any thought that incorporates a national element. What would we make of china made in China, but specifically in some giant china factory and then sold cheap? Authentic or not? Would it be racist to lament the decline of Chinese china in this case? (I actually have no idea if china ever really was Chinese, so this may be a terrible example.)

The lament seems to be for things hand-crafted vs. mass-produced, where Chinese generally stands for the latter. Italians--and specifically Tuscans--clearly must make better leather products because leatherworking is a craft handed down over generations in this region, blahblahblah. So with Swedish teak furniture (although the teak itself certainly didn't come from Sweden). Etc. Of course, the boundaries of "hand-crafted" are pretty vague in reality and involve a lot of mechanization and mass labor, but as you've surely noticed, NYT commenters don't specialize in nuance.

On the other hand, I bought a leather bag from the market in Florence and it is still in perfect shape. Go Chinese laborers!

Phoebe said...

Racialism, then? Nation-of-origin-based discrimination? It's certainly not always racism, but not never, either. The problem is that it's a fine line between discriminating against the goods of certain countries and the inhabitants. It's hard to see, one after the next, demands for labels, "Made in Italy by Chinese," and not suspect that more's at stake than a need to know just where a pair of shoes fall on the hand-crafted to mass-produced spectrum. Maybe some making that comment are truly depressed at the thought that shoes they paid $700 for might not withstand the test of time. But for others, I suspect the let-down is that they'd had an image of who makes Made-in-Italy, and it's just not the same if someone who doesn't fit that image made the stuff.

PG said...

While some people's concerns are doubtless at least racialist, and possibly downright racist, I think there's a meaningful concern being expressed in the NYT article.

Things made in China, and certain other countries with poorly-educated, low-paid workforces and questionable quality standards, genuinely are less good than things made in most developed nations. Would you really feel equally good about having a baby in your care drink China-made formula as having her drink American or Italian?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Japan made a tremendous leap in its export of manufactured goods once people stopped having an automatic prejudice against Asian brands and started examining them on their own merits. South Korea has had a similar success. In contrast, China has not yet succeeded in getting its native brands accepted as the equals of Japanese, Korean and Western brands, despite all the efforts its government has put into creating "national champions" like Japan's and South Korea's. Instead, China's dominance in manufacturing sales has come from those developed-nation brands sending their manufacturing to China.

In having manufacturing done in Italy, particularly by illegal immigrants, solely for the purpose of being able to slap a "Made in Italy" label on the clothing, a similar failure of quality progress is likely to be occurring. Instead of having to get products up to developed-nation standards such that they will be able to compete honestly, the manufacturers are instead trying to hide the Chinese origin.

Now, if the Chinese working in Italy have adopted the quality standards of their current residence (or at least what those standards have been fabled to be), there's no reason for them not to use the "Made in Italy" label, and they really can tell the Italians to kiss off: as with the Japanese in manufacturing electronics and cars, someone has figured out how to do it just as well but at a lower price.

But I think it's far more likely that these manufacturers have simply brought China's standards of manufacturing to Italy, in which case the outrage has some basis. Honestly, there's no reason to be doing this work in Italy -- you have to uproot and relocate Chinese workers who'd probably prefer NOT to be dodging the police and getting spat on by the locals -- unless you know that "Made in China" announces your product as mediocre, whereas "Made in Italy" gives it a cachet... a cachet that, again, if you're doing your manufacturing the same way you did it in China, you haven't earned.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I remember us having a back-and-forth about this earlier. Basically, I don't think there's necessarily something wrong, racist, racialist, etc. with using an item's nation-of-origin as a proxy for durability, quality, labor conditions, etc. Things get iffy, however, once the identity of the workers is at stake. I don't think there's a way to demand labels, "Made in Italy by Chinese" without this setting off alarms. (I don't normally get in a postcolonial-studies mindset when doing laundry, but the designed-in-France-made-in-Morocco label sure got my attention.)

I mean, maybe, for the sake of argument, the bulk of undocumented Chinese workers in Italy are making junk and working in terrible conditions. But are all legal-citizen Italians making quality hand-constructed goods? Surely the label "Made in Italy" gets put -legitimately - on items far removed from the leather shoes and handbags one might imagine. Outside of family-run high-end accessories and apparel workshops, do we have reason to believe labor conditions in Italy are on the up and up? What I got from the NYT article was that things are overall so-so, but the Chinese workers are overall better than the Italian ones at working that system.

I suppose what I have in mind is relative dangers. Yes, one now runs the risk that one's Made-in-Italy goods aren't what one imagined they'd be. But the risk of race-based discrimination if workers are singled out ethnically on made-in labels strikes me as greater.

PG said...

"Outside of family-run high-end accessories and apparel workshops, do we have reason to believe labor conditions in Italy are on the up and up?"

To the extent that these are labor conditions in a country regulated by EU law... yeah. I mean, China does not even pretend to have the same labor standards as the West. That is how American and European unions can work their shtick that China presents "unfair competition."

The Chinese government does not try to push employers to make workplaces better; on the contrary, as Hong Kong has gradually come under greater control by Beijing, its workers have been protesting the Chinese government`s *getting rid of* the labor laws that had been instituted years earlier by the British.

"What I got from the NYT article was that things are overall so-so, but the Chinese workers are overall better than the Italian ones at working that system."

Which part of the NYT article gave you the impression that Italians work in poor labor conditions? The stuff about manipulating the system better than Italians do was specified to be in regard to tax evasion and police bribery.

I see your point about the danger of racism, but when a large group of people immigrate to a country purely so they can produce goods under that country's reputational auspices, without actually subjecting themselves to that country's laws and standards that created the reputation in the first place, they're not really behaving like immigrants typically do in the U.S. These aren't factories that *just happen* to employ large numbers of Chinese immigrants (in contrast to businesses that operate in US Chinatowns). They appear to exist only because there are lots of mostly illegal immigrants to work there. The workers aren't Italian citizens who happen to be ethnically Chinese. They are Chinese people who have come to Italy in order to manipulate use of the "Made in" label.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I don't have any reason to believe labor conditions are bad (or worse than EU average) in Italy. But if - as is explained in the article - the law is skirted in Italy in some areas, why not in other areas? Meaning, is Chinese-illegal-immigrant-labor the only or primary source of poor labor practices in Italy, or merely one of special symbolic importance? Even if Chinese workers are overrepresented among bad situations, is it a good idea to pin the problem on their ethnicity or nationality as opposed to the practices themselves? And really, how much nice-stuff is being produced by the imagined producers, in the imagined conditions? (Think fancy restaurants in NY with barely-paid undocumented workers.) I'm asking, then, if this situation is really as exceptional as all that. Maybe it is.

Also, why do we think these workers are in Italy solely for the use of the "Made in Italy" label? This is a serious question - was it something in the article I missed, something you knew from elsewhere, or something one can infer?

Anyway, I don't think a crackdown at the level of made-in labels is the way to go. Better to be PC about it and even if literally every bad thing happening in the textile industry in Italy could be blamed on Chinese immigrants, the fact that they're Chinese shouldn't be the focus unless they are in fact acting at the behest of the Chinese government, which didn't seem to be the case.

PG said...

To clarify, I'm only defending some of the concerns raised in the article itself, not in the comments (which I haven't read). I agree that a "Made in Italy by Chinese" label would be appalling. In my opinion, the solution is for the Italians to crack down on illegal immigrant labor, not for them to get more detailed in their clothing labels.

Also, why do we think these workers are in Italy solely for the use of the "Made in Italy" label? This is a serious question - was it something in the article I missed, something you knew from elsewhere, or something one can infer?

I think it's reasonable to infer from the article, given that no other reason to manufacture these goods in Italy (rather than China, which along with South Asia is where they're apparently getting most of their fabric anyway) was mentioned. China has massive clothing manufacturing operations already, so there's not an obvious reason to move labor from a place that already has the tech, to a different place that will be using the same tech, unless that different place allows you to do something non-technical with the product... such as put a nation-of-origin label on it that will raise its value in the market without your having to do anything that's a genuine value-add to the product.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I accept that not everyone is as fascinated by newspaper comments as I am. But what the comments provide is a sense - a rough, biased sense - of how the information provided would be interpreted by a typical reader of that article. It strikes me as important that the response to the piece was so heavily tilted towards comments more hinging on xenophobia than what we both agree are legitimate concerns.

As for why these particular workers are in Italy... what you say makes sense from a strictly economic standpoint, but might there be other factors? As in, are these particular Chinese laborers political dissidents? Catholics? Unable to find work back home? It could be that this migration was only about the labels that go on clothes, but since people migrated, not just factories, there could be more to it. Again, or not, but I don't think the article provided the info to make that call.

PG said...

I don't think commenters to the NYTimes.com are typical of the whole set of NYT readers; I think they are disproportionately people who like to spout off without thinking through their ideas (if they were inclined to think harder, they'd be blogging instead). I rarely read the comments to MSM reporting precisely because it almost always lowers my opinion of my fellow human beings. I don't think this is the fault of the reporting.

It would be odd for the article to be reporting the reaction of the Chinese government to the Italians' concerns without any of the alternatives that you mention being noted. The Western media generally is quite happy to note how Chinese people are oppressed along the axes of politics or religion.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Re: xenophobia vs legitimate complaints, i.e. the original point of this post/thread, I'll have another post soon trying to figure it out better. Your comments have been helpful.

Re: NYT commenters - I think we're in agreement that they're not representative, but I see the difference between blogging and NYT-commenting less as about depth of analysis and more about general web-savviness. I see these commenters as people who've never quite figured out the Internet, beyond the online version of what they were already looking at before they got computers.

mellowyellow said...

What you need to do is contact the brand that you've purchased your 700 dollars shoes from. When you have a defect cup of coffee from McDonald you don't sue the worker that brewed your coffee, do you? You don't write an article about that immigrant worker unsuitable for grand America making minimum wage, do you? Anyone with a right form of mind go for the big boys, after all they are the ones to determine who's suitable to brew pots of coffee paid at lowest price possible. Welcome to the new world can't stuck your mind set back in the 60's it only creates negative feelings towards things like globalization. China will be the next super power time will tell you watch.