What the heck does handmade mean?... and other questions from our China factory trip
If you follow us on Facebook and Instagram, you'll know that I (Claire here) just got back from China, where Unbelts were born and are still made.
We've got a really close relationship with our tailors, but really, they're one small part of the team behind every belt. I was on a mission to see — and show — a little deeper into our supply chain by visiting the factories that make the small parts that make up an Unbelt. The trip, which took me to Hong Kong, Dongguan (south mainland China) and Shanghai, left me with a lot to think about... and four new perspectives that I wanted to share, because they're in contrast to what a lot of people think of when they hear "Made in China."
(Side note: This is the start of a longer conversation about how and where we manufacture our products, and to kick it off, I want to hear from YOU. Tell us what "Made in China" or, for that matter, "Made in" anywhere means to you. What is sustainable fashion? Ethical fashion? Your opinions don't have to be perfectly formed, nor do you need to have "the answer." We don't. This is a work in progress.)
- FACTORY, WORKSHOP, OR STUDIO?
It's easy to hear "factory" and think "aircraft hangar-sized temple to industrialization,” but many of them are actually really small. I visited seven factories, the largest of which employed 72. Most had closer to 40 people on payroll, and the smallest had 18. What we saw were teams working in spaces more like school gyms than football fields. Many of the work being done was extremely specialized, requiring years of experience. This made me think — how do we define a "factory," and what value do we put on the jobs and the products inside compared to those at, say, a studio?
- YES, THAT'S A POOL TABLE.
Most employees travel to industrial cities (like Dongguan, where I was) to work, never intending to establish a long-term home base there. As a result, most factories offer housing to their employees. And factory owners who want a stable workforce have it in their best interests to create comfortable, livable spaces where employees will want to hang out. I saw basketball courts, pool tables, ping-pong tables and even a rooftop garden.
- LET'S TALK ABOUT "HANDMADE."
Maybe you’re different, but I always imagined Unbelts buckles popping out of a Buckle-o-Matic 2000, perhaps with a machine supervisor standing by to conduct quality checks.
Nope. In the case of the factory I visited, the process is called rack plating — so named because each component is hand-hung on tall, round racks resembling giant Conair hair rollers. The full racks go station to station hung from a ceiling-mounted track. The process goes something like: Dip! Dip! Dip! Baaaaaaaake. Quality check. Lay on trays to cure. Package. Send to next factory, where they’ll be sewn on to garments.
There were eight steps in total, and at least two pairs of hands helping with each step. What I’d imagined was an automatic, mechanized process actually required at least 16 people.
The questions I left this factory with:
- When we say that a garment is “Made in X,” we’re talking about cutting and sewing — the last step in a long, long supply chain. How do we give credit to the many pairs of hands around the world who bring our clothing to life?
- Where do we draw the line between “handmade” and “mass-produced” when mass production requires a lot of skilled hands?
- "MADE IN CHINA" AIN'T CHEAP. SO... WHAT IS IT?
I was struck by how many factories had empty floors, or even buildings. Hourly manufacturing wages in China have increased by an average of 12% a year since 2001. That means that to make fifty-cent T-shirts, companies are turning to poorer, less developed countries like Bangladesh. China is left with really highly skilled workers who are nearing retirement age, and a new generation that is choosing hospitality and service jobs over their parents’ factory work. (Lesley T. Chang’s Factory Girls is an interesting read for more on this demographic shift)
The result? China's not the cheapest garment producer in the world anymore. Now, its factories are trying to figure out what they'll be "est" at. Here's what I saw:
- They’re no longer getting huge orders of easily made garments, so small factories are accepting smaller orders that require more specialization. I saw intricate finishing work for a HUGE knitwear company, and fancy hardware for high-end handbags that I myself have lusted after. China is becoming the place for high-skill garment work.
- Workers who possess really specialized skills — for example, the women I met who join luxurious cashmere sweater bodices to sleeves — can command higher salaries and schedule flexibility than ever before in China's garment industry. In the elastic factory, three middle-aged workers have been supervising and fine-tuning the same Italian knitting machines for two decades. The factory owner confided, “These are the ladies we have to keep happy.” This ain't your Nike sweatshop story... those jobs are in poorer countries now.
My single biggest question, and the one I thought about the whole 12-hour plane ride home: What responsibility do we have as a brand to demand and create better garment jobs in the countries that need them most? And if China's not the most in need anymore... where do we go?
That’s all for now, but trust me, I’ll be thinking about this trip for a long time. Join us on our explorations on Facebook and Instagram, and definitely add your two, five, or hundred cents. We're in this together.
Here are some of the sights I took in.
1. Part of our sewing team in Shanghai
2. Xiao Mei sewing our upcoming release
3. "Handsome Guy," as nicknamed by his colleagues, finishing up a 3D rendering of an FMB buckle at our hardware factory
4. A pool table at the label factory
5. Hand silk-screening labels at the label factory
6. The lunchroom at the elastic factory
7. Hand-hanging hardware for plating at the rack-plating factory
8. Our buckle, pre- and post-plating with a new brushed silver finish
9. 3,000 metres of our grey elastic coming out of the machine
10. Adjusters with our new brushed gold finish being packaged for transfer to our cut-and-sew factory