There are a number of serious benefits to local manufacturing of clothing. Benefits that include supporting local industry, businesses and people, greater control over the finished product and communication that flows like a babbling brook in the sunshine. However, at muka kids one of our central missions is to support women (and men) in the cotton growing and garment making industry in developing countries and give them the opportunity to do work that does not trap them into a cycle of working poverty. So local manufacturing was never really part of the story we want to tell about kids clothing production, though we love others that do, and hope they too see that overseas manufacture in developing countries can be a positive thing if it is done with improving people’s lives at the heart of it.
Most large scale clothing manufacturers in NZ have their garments made overseas, but for a totally different reason: low cost. It is A LOT cheaper, and while this blog is not about of the ethics of that, it is pretty clear why that is, cost of production and wages are seriously lower over there. If a business model & brand is built around a certain margin, return to investors and that can no longer be achieved by manufacture in higher wage economies then for most companies they head off shore. Certified sustainable (I am talking fair trade and organic cotton) garments are actually still cheaper when made in developing countries, but are more expensive that non certified clothing by anywhere from a factor of 4 to 10 (depending on the number of garments you are having made – the more you order the cheaper things get generally). However, what remains the same is some of the challenges of communicating technical requirements…
So the thing about me is I am an amateur sewer and I have in my time whipped up a few skirts and dresses and pants for the kids (which always get the total kiss of death from the recipients). I can read a pattern, know some technical terms, know about different seams and fabrics etc etc. Where this has been helpful in this manufacturing process I have found is um not at all. It is a whole world of jargon, assumptions and technical details. Learning a whole new set of new terms and how things work while having no face to face interaction with the people on the ground has proved, well lets just say challenging (and requiring of a few more vodka based cocktails than I would normally partake in).
Some of the challenges I have run into include:
▪ Dealing with one production manager for a few months then getting total radio silence for 6 weeks and after sending a series of increasingly more desperate and less polite (to be honest a little rude) emails find out said person has left the company. This has happened twice in fact and probably reflects both cultural differences and the transient and seasonal nature of the clothing production industry.
▪ Having to have a back and forth email conversation across time zones which lasted not less than a week , to figure out the meaning of one manufacturing abbreviation (and to be honest I am still not entirely sure what it means so I just fake it now). Thought to be honest this is not that different from academia when I think about it.
▪ Having my emails bounce back or simply go unanswered because everyone uses gmail (even large scale manufacturing operations) as their work based email, which can seem unprofessional and a little odd to us here. India, I found when I was there, has a really kind of survivalist attitude to everyday technology – you use what you can, where you can, for as long as it works and then you adapt.
So nothing really major, as I have heard of some serious production malfunctions happening with overseas suppliers, but as it is only at costing and sampling stage, I anticipate that communication may in fact get more not less complicated. Many clothing companies have production managers that spend a significant amount of time at the production facilities during each production run to ensure that communication is at its optimum best (for me right now though it is not an option).
But if anything, what this says to me is that learning perseverance, learning how different cultures approach work and industry, and how to stay calm in the face of difficult miscommunications and always building in a LARGE buffer, is just part of the fun and games of working with overseas suppliers. Reminding myself that there are real people at the end of this chain who will benefit from more businesses like mine engaging with certified fair trade and organic cotton production facilities also helps ease the pain. Next steps will be for me to visit and get a real handle on what everyday work life actually looks like and see first hand the stories of the people involved.
So I cross my fingers, hope for the best, expect a series of monty python type communications and events (and perhaps even do a few seriously silly walks myself when it all gets too much) and try not to move the vodka bottle any closer to the home desk….