A Victoria Made in China

May 9, 2007
in Category: Articles, Economics
23 1666 0

China has become a major local issue. This hit me when shopping for running shoes. I checked store after store, brand after brand, model after model. In stores with dozens of types, I typically found-maybe-one model made outside China.

It’s enlightening the responses you’ll get when you politely request a product that was not manufactured under a fascist regime.

“What’s a fashion reg… What?” responded one young woman.

Ask for Bin Laden toilet paper or glow-in-the-dark gum, and they’ll consult computerized catalogues and promise it within days. But ask for something guaranteed not to have been made by child slaves, and you’ll get a blank, annoyed stare or helpless shrug.

Worse, you’ll get a sympathetic moan-from the head purchaser. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is these days.”

Canada’s importing ten times more from China than just over a decade ago, surpassing $29 billion yearly and making China our second biggest trading partner. In many Victoria stores, Chinese products make up 100% of most lines of sporting goods, electronics, clothes and more.

Managers blame you and me. “Our hands are tied,” explained one. “Our customers want things cheap.”

So if I’d walked in 70 years earlier distributing gold fillings from Holocaust victims, would they have simply said, “Gee… Are they cheap?”

“And there’ll be plenty more!”

Nobody’s suggesting China is exterminating millions, but let’s get something straight: modern regimes don’t come much worse. Most human rights groups rank it somewhere between the catastrophe that is Sudan, evil enemy du jour Iran, and Burma.

Even the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” doesn’t equivocate. China, clarifies the report, is an “authoritarian state” with a “poor” human rights record, where imprisonment of journalists, activists and their defence lawyers is standard. Censorship is extensive, court proceedings secret, executions and “extrajudicial killings” frequent. There’s “widespread” torture in “harsh and degrading” prisons. There’s no minimum wage, and independent unions and strikes are illegal. Forced labour is common. And never mind health, safety and environmental standards, where lethal pet foods are just the leading edge of a gathering storm.

Of course, this isn’t news. Heck, this is the government who resolved an internationally publicized non-violent protest in 1989 by massacring some two thousand people.

However, as our politicians politely chide Chinese leaders before cameras, they simultaneously pave trade deals. Our respect for human life doesn’t outweigh our desire for cheap socks and iPods.

But even though we know this, we’re unwilling to truly admit it to ourselves. BC chain Mountain Equipment Co-op’s explanations for why they buy from China are a perfect case in point.

MEC admits China has been controversial for their organization and inform us that they “select factories that aspire to fair labour practices.”

Operative word: “aspire”. Once you get past pages of self-praising promo about “ethical sourcing”, a 2005 report recounts how auditing 11 of their Chinese suppliers (of 697 total suppliers) exposed 115 contraventions of basic standards, including forced labour, child labour, and restrictions on freedom of association.

MEC admits these findings were “sobering”, yet remains “optimistic” that there’ll be “incremental improvements”. But we shouldn’t be too hopeful. For example, they caution, while MEC “in principle” supports a “living wage”, in reality this is “not easily implemented”. After all, they clarify, living wages could lead to “serious down-stream implications” like-gasp!-”higher prices”. So instead, MEC is merely “working on… getting factories to pay workers the wages they are legally entitled to.”

Guess where that leads, with no legal minimum wage in China… (Incidentally, MEC’s been winning corporate responsibility awards and making record profits.)

MEC calls theirs a “buycott” method of supporting human rights. By giving money to fascists, thugs and rights abusers, their logic goes, MEC is well-positioned to encourage “positive change”.

Well, that’s hypothetically possible. But to anyone who’s done human rights work, it’s a worn-out whitewash. Corporations never admit they’re “exploiting” anyone; they’re always “helping”. For schlepps accustomed to scavenging dumps, they argue, working in a factory at 50 cents an hour for 14-hour days is a DREAM COME TRUE. Conversely, closing factories would hurt those workers. (Of course, opting instead to pay those workers what they’d be paid in Canada is out of the question.)

This identical party line propped up South Africa’s racist apartheid for decades. Finally, the world began to listen to serious human rights organizations, and crippling international boycotts helped abolish apartheid.

Plainly and simply, what MEC and other corporations are doing in China is exploiting vulnerable people. As the U.S. report states, China’s human rights situation has actually “deteriorated” in recent years, and child labour is “prevalent in certain industries” and “on the rise”. October’s New York Times reported on western corporations’ vehement discouragements of China’s draft labour standards.

So MEC’s self-justifying rationalizations are dangerous. They lull us into complacency, into accepting severe oppression as a fact of modern life that can only be improved by playing along with fascists for decades. And we’re attracted to that idea because it’s obviously becoming very difficult NOT to purchase Chinese goods.

Turning this ship requires action at all levels, personally and politically.

And if China soon edges toward domination of the rest of the world economically, politically and militarily, something many analysts predict, we’ll have ourselves to blame. When we could have hinged our economic support on serious improvements in human rights, we instead saw only dollar signs. We’ve helped strengthen the grip of a brutal, totalitarian government over its people, and ultimately over the future of the planet.
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Unfortunately, it seems Focus magazine printed a letter this month about this article without contacting me for a response. The letter states that had I “analyzed the [MEC] reports correctly”, that I would have seen that some of their Canadian suppliers had more infractions than their Chinese suppliers.

This assertion is false and misleading.

MEC’s report lists a wide range of “infractions” from relatively minor health concerns to forced child labour. There were 43 infractions in 6 Canadian factories, and 146 in 13 Chinese factories — even averaging, there are more infractions in the Chinese factories. But much more importantly, the Canadian suppliers had infractions mostly health and safety related (27 — to 49 in China), and had no infractions at all in the human rights categories where Chinese suppliers had numerous infractions: child labour, juvenile labour, discrimination, forced labour and restrictions on freedom of association.

Though it’s true that in a few cases specific Canadian suppliers had a greater number of health and safety infractions than specific Chinese suppliers, MEC acknowledges there’s generally a qualitative difference in the nature of the health and safety infractions in the two countries, too. In their report, they state, “Canadian contract factories have similar infractions to the developing world. The marked difference is the severity. For example, local factories often have more minor issues such as poorly posted evacuation plans or partially blocked exits. Their overseas peers have more serious infractions like non-functioning extinguishers or the absence of fire exits.”


Rob Wipond

Thank you for reading.

View my other posts

23 comments

  1. Harvey Chan

    Let’s be frank before I comment on some of the proceeding interesting points. First, it needs to be known that MEC “pays my mortgage” and that within my capacity as Director of Ethical Sourcing, I blog on this subject. My blogging represents my opinion and not MEC’s but of course I’m not going to say something stupid about my employer. And finally, my parents were war refugees dislocated by the Japanese occupation of China. They suffered considerably in terms of deaths, poverty and social misery. However, the Allies and especially the Americans got off their arses and liberated China. In other words they were interventionists. If they sat by the sidelines boycotting the Axis and preached lofty sermons from the Mount, I would not likely be here today. So these are my obvious biases. Now on to the comments.

    China is a dictatorship and just about everything the prior blog claims. However, factories in China are owned by business people and are run by managers and workers who are just like you and me. They don’t drive tanks down Tiananmen Square on the weekends. They don’t do pilgrimages to some Mao mausoleum. They work long hours, send money home to their aged parents or are trying to put their kids through university. Basically, they want a better life. Everything we do is with factories and our goal is to make this sphere of the world somewhat better. Getting a factory to not fire a pregnant worker or changing the behaviour of managers to not behave stupidly is really not “playing with facists”. It’s human rights in action.

    There are many valid views of the world. Boycotting or intervening are just two of them. Having lived in Johannesburg during the end of Apartheid, I’ve seen the value of boycotting. However, in the 15 years since Botha and his wagging finger, the world has changed considerably. Apartheid South Africa had minor economic significance. Blipping them economically caused barely a hiccup in our global markets. Boycotting China would likely make all our economies burp up something horrible. It would impact every store aisle and major financial market (China is the biggest holder of US
    T-bills with $1 trillion US about to enter the financial markets). This means my job, mortgage rates and RSP holdings. The world is much different now than what Mandela faced. On the other hand the human rights abuses he was so pissed about remain the same.

    Holding a different view doesn’t mean self rationalization and ought not lead to complacency. Having no convictions or offering those who suffer only moral platitudes is way more troublesome.

    H Chan

  2. Rob Wipond

    Thanks for your comments, Harvey. I appreciate that you, personally or as a representative of MEC, are willing to enter into a dialogue on this important topic.

    Firstly, though, I’m not sure what you mean about people “having no convictions”, or who are offering “only moral platitudes” or “sermons”. Who or what are you talking about here? If somehow you came away from *my* article feeling as if I was a person with no convictions merely sermonizing about moral platitudes, then I’d say that’s a very peculiar perspective you’ve developed there. I don’t know where to begin in a response. Do you want to elaborate?

    You make many valid points. Western corporations usually aren’t working on a day to day basis with the Chinese government. They’re usually working with ordinary business people and workers, and sometimes they can have a beneficial influence on the lives of individual workers. China (much thanks to western involvement there in the past two decades) has become a much bigger economic power than South Africa ever was. Changing our relationships with China could well affect your job, mortgage rates and RSP holdings.

    All of which is to say, so long as corporations like MEC play ball in China, don’t seriously protest against its fascist government, don’t agitate there for profound change, and provide information, taxes and other money and support to the Chinese government where and when required, then they don’t deal much on a day to day basis with the Chinese government. And when people are terribly oppressed, we in the west are happy to congratulate ourselves for “helping” a few people, even if, in a very real way, we actually also helped create the conditions that made them so oppressed in the first place, and even when we’re demonstrably helping reinforce the overall conditions of social oppression for the majority. And it’s very important to remind ourselves that radically and suddenly changing the situation in China might have negative impacts on our own jobs, mortgage rates and RSPs because that, in the end, may be even more important to us than other people’s basic human rights.

    You seriously suggest that MEC is involved in China because “our goal is to make this sphere of the world somewhat better”. MEC’s activities, you suggest, are “human rights in action”. Sorry to sound harsh, Harvey, but it’s precisely that kind of deceptive spin that makes me sick to my stomach. MEC’s primary goal in China is to make make more money off cheap Chinese workers than from workers in many other countries, pure and simple. Right? That’s MEC’s main, motivating reason, right? Buried in there in a few places, MEC does even admit this fact on its website. So all of the rest is just the rationalization, the attempt to make it sound like your profit motive will in the end be for everyone’s good, isn’t it?

    Yes, there are a lot of different perspectives on and approaches to social change. But giving elaborate arguments, while evading simple, basic concerns, is one of the worst. Why doesn’t MEC tell the Chinese government to change radically or it will pull its money out of China? If staying in China, why doesn’t MEC unconditionally support a living wage? Why doesn’t MEC pay Chinese workers exactly the same amount of money it would pay Canadian, U.S. or European workers? Why doesn’t MEC insist that all its suppliers anywhere in the world meet (at least) Canadian legal minimum health, safety, environmental and human rights standards, immediately and consistently?

    I know absolute moral perfection is an elusive goal, and none of us can lay claim to it in our lives or in our economic relations with those around us. What I object to here, though, is moralistic justifications for human exploitation and other extremely destructive behaviours.

    Once upon a time, I thought MEC was designed to be a way for ethically concerned consumers to have a real means to speak with their pocketbooks through a company. MEC admits some of its members have quit over the China issue. So why *is* MEC now placing more emphasis than it did before on cheap sourcing than on ethical sourcing?

    Rob

  3. H Chan

    Everyone must act, whether that action is to boycott or engage. Think it through! Be frank and honest! And follow your convictions! There are many right answers and different routes to social justice.

    MEC is first and foremost a co-op retailer. Our mandate is to get gear to members so they can pursue a life outdoors. In fulfilling this mandate we are to promote social and environmental justice. We’re not Oxfam or Amnesty International! We’re a non profit retailer selling merchandise and we happen to hold a deep conviction for justice.

    As a co-op retailer operating in a market economy, we’re governed by the same commercial principles that constrain for profit peers. For example: a majority of our members have told us that they want products of a certain quality, styling and price. Typically, this is equal to or better than what is out there in the market place. When we deviate from this we see it in our daily sales and letters from disgruntled members.

    Over 50% of our MEC branded products is made in Canada (we favor local suppliers). This is shrinking annually because local factories can’t find workers and technical support from their own suppliers. Furthermore, their customers (retailers including MEC) want better unit prices because consumers want better prices at the cash register.

    Once upon a time there was an ideal that ethically concerned consumers would speak with their pocketbooks. Well they do but not consistently. For example, if we were to pay overseas workers the BC minimum wage of $8 it would mean a 1600% increase in our unit costs. So a turtle light costs $3.50 now. Hmm, who would pay $25? An organic t-shirt goes for about $12 would anyone pay $85? Imagine applying the same formula to every product. Not only would we freak out the majority of our members, we would be committing financial suicide.

    The reason why MEC sources in countries that have dictatorships (China, Vietnam), military rule (Thailand), endemic child labour and violence against women (India), violent civil conflict (Sri Lanka), occupied territories and related violence (Israel), occupational ghettos (Canada) and toppling sovereign states (US) is because we operate in the real world and this world is unjust. The reason why we source from factories with questionable pay practices and heath and safety standards (every factory in the world) or from factories that perpetuate occupational ghettoes based on gender and race (immigrant Asian women in every Canadian factory) is because we need product.

    Our world is dark and our global economic system deepens this darkness. Every country has human rights issues. Every factory thrives on a large underclass of cheap workers. Every retailer depends on a pool of cheap factories. And every consumer, despite his ideals, will conduct the vast majority of his purchases with an eye on getting the cheapest or best deal.

    In light of the above vicious cycle, MEC has done a considerable number of things to empower workers or to promote alternative economic models. It’s tough and the horizon is not in view. If anyone wants to find out more about what we do check out mec.ca or contact me.

    As much as our conduct and views may “sicken a few to their stomachs”, it’s most regrettable. Our frankness (not buried deep beneath HTML pages or obscured in some mumbo jumbo rationale) is a first step in inviting an informed dialogue. Step two is acting wisely with conviction and purpose.

    We should all share your objection with “moralistic justifications for human exploitation and other extremely destructive behaviors”. Unfortunately, no one can because we all have blood on our hands. Just like our very physical presence on this planet is toppling our ecosystem; our unavoidable participation in a tightly knit global economy sustains inequity and unjust rule. Imagine every electronic gadget in our homes has been touched by an Asian factory or every financial transaction we undertake has been aided by a back office operation in India or the Chinese propping of the US$. It is this way not because we are hapless but because we seek material gain at the cash register, from stock portfolios, in careers and throughout our lives.

    There are many roads to Damascus. And if some find any of this just deceptive spin – so be it. We see the consequence of our being and it’s both sobering and saddening. Regardless, we have hope grounded by conviction and action. Do you?

    H Chan

  4. Rob Wipond

    Thanks again for your comments, Harvey. I just want to highlight a few important points.

    I never said I was sickened by all of your and MEC’s conduct and views, as you imply. I said I was sickened by the “deceptive spin”–the specific tendency to portray, in the website and at times in your letter, MEC’s role as some kind of aid agency engaged in human rights work.

    In your second letter, you’re a little more frank in that area… (But hmm, do you really mean to suggest that being in one of the most exploited labour groups in Canada is economically, politically and socially roughly equatable to being in one of the most exploited labour groups in China?) And you’re right, MEC is not Oxfam or Amnesty International. Neither is it even a fair trade-based company. That was the very point I was driving at. Even as a “non-profit” company, MEC is primarily and essentially driven by profit motives in China, and its commitment to human rights there is secondary– relatively incidental to its main activity.

    You’re also right that we all have blood on our hands, and that the fascistic exploitation of masses of people permeates many aspects of our modern human society and indeed now largely sustains the affluent lifestyles many in the west lead. That has also been my point from the very beginning.

    But at one key point, we diverge. When all is said and done, if we read your letter carefully, your final argument is that our individual and collective greed is endemic and cannot truly be overcome. Therefore, your conviction is that as serious, compassionate people, we must simply ‘do our best’ to be at least a little ethical within the framework of a profoundly corrupt, exploitative, complex, worldwide system which our greed for cheaper prices, better jobs, improved stock prices etc has constructed. This is your argument, isn’t it?

    So now I ask you, how is that argument hopeful and grounded? Is that “conviction” not in fact the height of cynicism and resignation? Indeed, how is that position any different than the position of Wal-Mart executives or Chinese government officials or anyone else?

    You see, all of this we are discussing is far from just sobering and saddening. It’s horrifying, disgusting, and so destructive it threatens the future of all humanity and the entire planet! And it therefore absolutely demands radical and revolutionary change immediately. It’s utterly regressive to mislead ourselves even one iota for even one second about that.

  5. Rob Wipond

    Unfortunately, it seems Focus magazine printed a letter this month about this article without contacting me for a response. The letter states that had I “analyzed the [MEC] reports correctly”, that I would have seen that some of their Canadian suppliers had more infractions than their Chinese suppliers.

    This assertion is false and misleading.

    MEC’s report lists a wide range of “infractions” from relatively minor health concerns to forced child labour. There were 43 infractions in 6 Canadian factories, and 146 in 13 Chinese factories — even averaging, there are more infractions in the Chinese factories. But much more importantly, the Canadian suppliers had infractions mostly health and safety related (27 — to 49 in China), and had no infractions at all in the human rights categories where Chinese suppliers had numerous infractions: child labour, juvenile labour, discrimination, forced labour and restrictions on freedom of association.

    Though it’s true that in a few cases specific Canadian suppliers had a greater number of health and safety infractions than specific Chinese suppliers, MEC acknowledges there’s generally a qualitative difference in the nature of the health and safety infractions in the two countries, too. In their report, they state, “Canadian contract factories have similar infractions to the developing world. The marked difference is the severity. For example, local factories often have more minor issues such as poorly posted evacuation plans or partially blocked exits. Their overseas peers have more serious infractions like non-functioning extinguishers or the absence of fire exits.”

  6. Harvey

    As you state, we do need radical and revolutionary change to save ourselves and our planet. Regrettably, it isn’t going to happen. The last time we had such an immense change was when it rained 40 days and nights and some big boat floated away leaving behind a broken world. The human race can’t agree on much and thus, I seriously doubt we’ll make those big and tough decisions.

    In the interim, we strive for incremental change. And perhaps if enough of us do so, we can tip major positive change. Idling by the roadside for that one big bang to rescue the world is a considerable loss opportunity.

    In terms of the violations in Canadian and overseas factories, our main point is that Canadian factories should not be regarded as the new Shangri-la. Local factories are not as harsh as ones in the developing world. What we want to highlight is that domestic garment factories perpetuate an occupational ghetto based on gender and race – namely Asian Immigrant women. Yes, they’re better paid and treated than their overseas counterparts but nonetheless, they hold one of the lowest rungs in Canadian society in terms of pay, status and opportunity. It’s a job that the vast majority of Canadians shun and it perpetuates the underclass of immigrant Asian women.

    Canada has a long and sad history of exploiting non white immigrant groups to meet its economic needs (railway, farming, forestry and etc.,). Let’s not repeat these habits even under the subtle guise of economic patriotism (e.g., more Canadian jobs) or enlightened liberalism (e.g., “they’re better off here in a lVancouver factory than one in Ho Chi Minh”).

    Human rights is about universality and equality. Let’s call a spade a spade and then begin to honestly discuss why it’s so important or “good” to have clothes made locally. Perhaps then we can advocate the “Made in Canada” with an informed conscious.

    Check out mec.ca for more on our view of factories and sourcing or blog me at blog.mec.ca

    Harvey

  7. Rob Wipond

    Again, Harvey, you’ll get no disagreement from me on much of what you’re saying here.

    But one thing does leap out at me and begs clarification once and for all because you seem to be playing both sides: I’ve heard no one, least of all me, suggest Canada is “Shangri-la” and that we should make such decisions based on patriotism. But you’re saying that, in fact, as far as Mountain Equipment Co-op’s suppliers are concerned, there are no fundamental differences between the factories and workers lives in Canada and those in China??? If that’s what you’re saying, okay, that’s worth discussing. Or, if that’s not what you’re really saying, then what does your saying Canadian factories are “not as harsh” actually mean??? And considering either your or my frame of reference, isn’t that difference bloody IMPORTANT?!

    Overall, it seems you and MEC know full well that human rights conditions are much worse (or shall we say “really, really, really incrementally worse”?) in these Chinese factories, and for the most part, in your arguments you’re trying to optimistically justify using them anyway — even going so far as to imply we simply couldn’t afford to live any other way. Which was really the main point I was making in the article to begin with, so I guess we have no disagreement there, either?

    As for tiny, incremental change, I suggest to you that is no change at all. That’s what Wal-Mart, politicians, and indeed most of us are doing every day, anyway. That is maintaining the status quo, punctuated with a hefty helping of cynicism about the possibility of more radical change. So let’s bring it down to a more practical dimension: It’s one thing to talk about us all trying to slowly over many years make small improvements to the decor of a house, and another altogether to talk about us all trying to slowly over many years make small improvements to the living conditions of a prisoner caught in a torturous hellhole. Do you see the difference? And which are we talking about? And is it really so impossibly, inconceivably, Biblically radical to simply, immediately open the door?

    Rob

  8. Shannon

    Yea Rob. I agree completely with what you say. I don’t think businessmen anywhere are evil and want to harm people or the environment, but they rationalize their actions which in the end, do just that. I do follow my convictions with action–I don’t shop at MEC or WalMart or in fact do much shopping at all. And I do suffer for that choice, and not from the lack of consumer goods–I am seen as a weirdo by the people around me who shop for pleasure and can’t bear not to get a cheap deal regardless of where it comes from and how it is produced. I don’t think having less cheap goods is suffering anyway. If the Harveys and the shoppers out there made a bit better effort and made some lifestyle changes, which MEC claims to support, then they COULD make a difference. But the basic lifestyle change is a complete shock to the north american system: buying less. Support garage sales, I say, recycle and reuse and invent your own camping doodads. Remember that Mt. Everest was climbed without MEC gear and make a real effort in the woods to not ruin another part of the world just so we can go hiking here in the still picturesque part of the world. We don’t need most of what we have and we don’t need to buy crap from China to be popular. We just don’t need it. So kudos to you for calling Harvey on his rationalizations. Great job, keep it up. Also loved the Focus article on our heavy society.

  9. Rob Wipond

    Thanks for your thoughts, Shannon. Have you seen this latest international mainstream coverage of the forced child labour camps in China? Notably, all the articles I’ve seen so far have been describing it as some short of “shocking anomaly” in one small area of the country that’s being vigorously corrected — as if!

    What’s sticking with me about Harvey’s comments was his suggestion that we’re getting to the point where we ‘have no choice’ but to exploit the Chinese. That really disturbs me, because I think we’re going to be hearing more and more of that. Pretty soon, it’ll be presented as if Canadians never had shoes, never could afford shoes, prior to extreme exploitation. And then they’ll say to people like me, “So what, Rob, you want Canadian children to go without shoes??”

  10. Bart

    First of all Rob, I wanted to say I enjoy reading your articles, as well as the insights from other readers.

    I do take exception to one of the points you made about retailers and vendors playing the blame card on shoppers who expect cheap product. It dug at me especially because you made the classic comparison to the Nazis when you made the point.

    I have worked as a buyer for a small locally owned outdoor retailer for a few years, and have personally witnessed the exact opposite of what you infer time and time again. As an example, one of the things we try to do is promote Canadian made products whenever possible. I would say that roughly 9 times out of 10, a customer will give some sheepish lame excuse for why they would like to buy the Canadian product, but simply cannot afford it. They will walk out with the Chinese made product knowing exactly where it was made (because I have pointed this difference out to them) because it is the cheaper product.

    In my very humble opinion, everyone talks about these issues as if they were Ghandi, but very few people actually have the conviction to follow what they are preaching. I would add that I am leaving the retail industry soon, and have absolutely nothing to gain from whether people buy anything from me (I’m paid by the hour anyway). It does however frustrate me to watch this process repeat itself daily. At least half the blame should lay on the consumer here.

    One final point for the record. However much I might despise MEC for projecting a false image of what they really are, we do share many of the same problems regarding ethical sourcing of product. One of the things we are most proud of at the store I work for is that we have been selling Patagonia for 16 years, and I believe that hope for the future will lay with companies like them. On that note, I would be interested to hear some views on Patagonia’s business ethics.

  11. rob

    Thanks for your thoughts, Bart. I certainly appreciate the challenges of the situation we’ve all gotten ourselves into. I say in the article, for example, “it’s becoming very difficult NOT to buy Chinese goods”.

    And I apologize for the Nazi comparison — I know what you mean about it being way overused — but in this case I tried to make it clear I was using it not as a literal comparison but as mainly just a metaphor to highlight the ethical question at the heart of all this. And you are of course mainly telling me what I said in the article most retailers say — they blame it on the customers. So part of the point of my article was to highlight the responsibility of stores, because often all of the blame is put on consumers. I do recognize that we all share the blame, and customers tend to blame stores, and stores tend to blame customers.

    Yet one thing that bothers me in all this is people coming back, as you’ll notice the MEC rep who dialogued with me above did, and like you did, accusing critics of acting all “ghandi-like” etc. But that’s nonsense. Who’s Ghandi? — What I’m complaining about is practically finding it hard to be able to extract myself from it, even when I’d in principle like to be Ghandi. And all I’ve been trying to say is, dammit, this is a really serious problem and we really shouldn’t be making any excuses for it, and we should always be doing everything we can to try to solve it. Instead, what I see, is people all over the place making excuses for it and trying to make it sound like it’s not as bad as it is. MEC shouldn’t say, ‘hey, we’re doing okay’, but rather ‘this is an abject mess, we’re failing at our goals’, because that’s exactly what’s happening. As a culture, we need to get real.

    I don’t know much about Patagonia, but I’ll look into it some more! But here’s an idea: Could we organize outdoor retailers in Victoria to stop buying Chinese, and to post in their stores and discuss with their customers PRECISE instances of the kind of brutality and horrible working conditions going on that they don’t want to support? And when some stores have bought into this, that initiative gets publicity and those stores who refuse to participate are also publicized? Or how many stores in Victoria might begin lobbying various levels of government to influence trade conditions in such a way as to make Chinese goods less “cheap”? I mean, we’ve had both Liberals and Conservatives in power federally going out of their way to worsen this problem, and so, if we’re not so much as voting to get both of them out of power, then we obviously don’t care at all about this problem. And that’s the real problem. Most of us are just finding or creating elaborate explanations for not caring, don’t you think?

  12. rob s

    i think this discussion could easily be summarized by referring to economic theory. that is, the “market” expresses a preference for cheaper and/or better goods, the “market” being shorthand for the cumulative effect of individual preference.

    what harvey is trying to tell us is that MEC is aware of this principle and, since it must compete with other retailers, it has to play the game the same way. MEC isn’t interested in changing the game and their customers – largely urban yuppies who like to look outdoorsy – aren’t interested in taking up any kind of crusade.

    i don’t blame MEC for not swimming against the current. they want to stay in business and they overestimate the moral concern of their customers in their marketing material because they know that making people feel good about themselves – even if it’s an illusion – is the very key to maintaining share.

    hummer markets to men who want to feel manly, clairol markets to women who want to feel desirable, MEC markets to people who want to feel moral.

    but what MEC has to own up to is the fact that they could make a difference, if they were prepared to lose share and shrink significantly. they could insist that their suppliers pay their employees at lest the equivalent of the canadian minimum wage, and insist that canadian human rights standards apply. of course, under those circumstances, it would be easier to manufacture in canada.

    and MEC’s user base, having suddenly discovered that they really do care more about cheap outdoor toys than human rights, will abandon their favourite retailer in the droves. MEC would disappear, and all those chinese wage-slaves would simply be repurposed to serve the niche opened up by MEC’s absence from the market.

    is that a bad thing? well, the goods would be supplied by somebody. and they’d definitely be made in china. i propose that it wouldn’t really make a heck of a lot of difference.

  13. rob

    I think there’s also an information and willful self-delusion aspect of this which may be even more important than the market elements.

    Say I walk into a store tomorrow and say, “Hey, would you like to buy 200 of my ultra-cheap shoes? Oh, incidentally, they were made by chained-up eight year old children I abducted from the streets of Victoria — one of whom I guess is actually YOUR missing child Mr. Manager, ha ha, how’s that for an ironic coincidence? — anyway, back to the real, important issue here, how many of these cheap shoes would you like?”

    Now, after getting that speech, is any manager, any manager at all going to buy any of these shoes at any price, regardless of “the market” and what the customers supposedly want?

  14. rob s

    probably not, but china is a long way away. i’m not a freidmanite by any stretch of the imagination, but you can go a long way towards understanding the mind of an MBA and the behaviour of a company like MEC by considering the inevitable market based rationale, one of whose purposes is to place the blame on (often) unsuspecting customers. however, i do think that every ideology, no matter the number of atrocities it excuses, intersects with reality at some point and market forces do figure here.

    but so does that diminishing circle of concern – what you’re calling self-delusion. people try to have empathy for the poor and downtrodden, but unless that shackled child is close enough to one’s bosom to keep the fires of outrage stoked, well… it’s natural to some extent that people can’t feel the same level of empathy for everyone, and we make distinctions based on proximity.

    this is what my girlfriend describes as a “failure of imagination”: our failure to fully comprehend and experience the suffering that some chinese factory workers have to endure. the less “like us” they are, and the farther away, the less important they become relative to, say, a good bargain on a cute pair of approach shoes.

  15. rob

    yes, an excellent analysis! (and of course, we know that some people in fact DO sell their own children into slavery, sometimes in desperate circumstances, sometimes not)

    But I agree, it all intersects with market forces to some degree, and ultimately we seem to have a fundamental self-centredness which permeates our consciousness and skews all sense of reality and proportion and morality and markets in the direction of something like ‘whatever i feel like believing and thinking today is true enough for me’.

    and apparently, we don’t see the foolishness, and the dangers of this type of self-centred seeing and behaviour. we don’t see where it all leads, and how it will come back on us. why do you think that is? what is blocking us?

  16. rob s

    one of the many lessons i’ve learned over the years is that there’s an attitude among activists that, “if they only knew the truth, they’d come over to our side.” well, i know now that people do know the truth and simply don’t care. that is perhaps the most demoralizing aspect of activism: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

    most of us at least go through the motions of caring but, when really pressed, have to admit that we don’t. why are charitable programs so difficult to promote if there’s no payoff? why was the GAP’s red shirt campaign so successful? why are charitable donations tax deductible? would anyone do good if not for the promise of the “eternal reward?”

    clearly, it’s not enough that working towards the safety and comfort of our fellow humans is the right thing to do, or that it pays long-term dividends in the form of peace and environmental security. there must be a short-term benefit, often one that people can wear to advertise their altruism.

    and that is where MEC comes in.

    i don’t like to be too much of a downer, but i like to be realistic about what the true obstacles are.

  17. rob

    My website seems to have stopped notifying me when there are new comments.

    But sooo true, rob s. We seem to believe that more information, the right information gotten to more people, or to the right people, will help. And maybe on some practical level it can. But beyond that, it seems information does not really ‘help’. Basically, people already KNOW the key things about the world we need to KNOW. There’s something more important missing.

  18. Harvey

    Hi Rob,

    Interesting comments and suppositions about MEC. Two points need clarity.

    First – MEC clearly acknowledges its role in climate change and social disparity. Throughout my entire ethical sourcing blog, I name the parties responsible for harsh factory conditions or irreversible polluted lakes. The parties are government, business (including co-ops) and citizens/consumers. Rob S misrepresents MEC’s position on this matter.

    Second – MEC is a co-op retailer that exists to get gear into the hands of people so that they can enjoy the outdoors. To do this it buys low and sells high. The difference is used to cover operations and to be as environmentally and socially benign as possible within the “buy low/sell high and move merchandise” paradigm.

    MEC is neither an environmental NGO nor a free Tibet movement. As much as this is disappointing for some, it is reality and it ain’t changing – unless bloggers such as yourselves shop with your dollars elsewhere (to find a more suitable retailer) or get elected on the MEC Board and direct change.

    To do some of the valid things that you and all the other bloggers note requires rare creativity and courage.

    In fact if every blogger is as courageous as his words in regard to China he would immediately:

    1. Dump his cell phone, computer, TV, car, medication and etc., because they are all made or partially made in China
    2. Cash his RSP’s and investments because the interest earned is partially made possible by the Chinese government’s huge purchases of US debt which in turn drives the American and Canadian economies and equity markets.

    Humans and organizations (including co-ops) are disappointingly interesting. We all prefer the sermons on the mount over making substantive sacrifices to follow the Chosen One. After all, I have a mortgage to pay, MEC has merchandise to sell and you have a blog to write on your Made in China computer.

    Cheers

  19. rob

    Harvey: I’ll let Rob S, if he’s still reading this thread, respond to your comments on his comments.

    But as far as I can see, you, as a representative of Mountain Equipment Co-op, seem to be persistent in refusing to acknowledge the core of the issue. No one is claiming to be “the Chosen One”, absolutely pure of any connection to exploitation. (That is anyhow virtually impossible in modern society.) And no one is denying that our economy and lifestyles have become deeply, in some ways at times seemingly inextricably, intertwined with extreme exploitation of other people. On the contrary, THAT is precisely what I’ve been saying all along.

    But the question is: Are you defending and justifying this situation? Or are you openly acknowledging that this situation is extremely bad and desperately needs changing?

    I’m saying this is a five-alarm fire! I’m trying to say, for god’s sake, we have to do more, much, much more than we’re all doing to rectify this! On personal, economic and political levels, individually and collectively.

    And you keep bringing it around to saying, hey, no need to panic, it’s all just a part of making my mortgage and playing on blogs.

    That’s the difference between us. And even if we’re both wearing MEC shoes as we’re talking (we’re not, re-read my original article), that difference is a very significant first step.

    Besides, just think: Just over ten years ago, Canada barely imported anything from China, relatively speaking. It’s taken just ten years to go from not needing them at all, to Harvey of MEC arguing it’s ridiculous to suggest we could be living any other way. And correct me if I’m wrong, but as for getting on the MEC board, it seems to me MEC had a power struggle over purchasing from China some years ago and many people ended up renouncing their memberships over the issue, did they not?

  20. rob s

    harvey: yes, absolutely. to be “pure” there are a lot of things i’d have to eliminate from my life, including, well… my life. we didn’t make the “system” as it is, but we participate in it – we can’t but participate in it – and there’s no harm in acknowledging the harm it does.

    i’m not one who thinks you have to remove yourself entirely from society in order to change it for the better, but neither am i the type to say, “well X is worse, so my karma’s all right.” whitewashing the reality of the situation to make it look like you’re not a cog in the machine doesn’t fool anyone – well, it does, which is the point i’ve been making all along – and the notion that i should give up the material goods i rely on in order to earn the right to criticize the manufacturers of those goods is a straw man, pure and simple. i buy locally made goods where possible, and if i own something made outside of north america, it’s because there are no alternatives.

    MEC is a co-op, to be sure, but it is an economic actor, subject to the same laws (such as they are) of economics as every other business. if MEC was a black box, it would appear to an observer that it behaves exactly as any corporation does: minimize costs and maximize revenue. the only real differences are that a) there’s no bloated, over-paid corporate elite at the top (which i applaud), and; b) MEC doesn’t pay the same kinds of taxes that the businesses they compete with must (i have spoken to business owners who loathe MEC for this reason – it’s an unfair competetive advantage – but i’m prepared to be corrected on that point).

    now, i acknowledge MEC’s efforts to do the right thing, and it’s not for me to criticise you or any other of the management, but the reality is that MEC’s efforts, such as they are, are doing virtually nothing to change the labour or environmental situation anywhere. the single biggest payoff of your altruistic efforts is in terms of marketing impact. i could never discount the value of fair pay to a single chinese factory worker, but in terms of real seismic change? drop in the bucket.

    now, let’s be clear. i don’t actually believe that boycotting chinese-made products is the way to bring about change in trade. the only thing that will do that is an end to lax trading rules that permit companies to exploit cheap labour and low standards in other countries. i read recently that fully 50% of imports to the US were from US companies operating branch plants in foreign countries.

    countries like india, jamaica, saipan (which is a US protectorate, and permitted to affix “made in USA” labels on its goods) use “economic free zones” – essentially regions of lawlessness – to attract north american companies to do business there. when workers pass through the gates into these zones, they cease, in any real sense, to be human beings.

    the only way we, as a country, can extract ourselves from the travesty of trade with those countries is through political change. it must be illegal to import goods that do not conform to a minimum labour/environmental standard, and there must be tariffs on imported goods that at least bring prices up to a point that a) canadian producers can compete, and; b) the true cost of the production of the goods is reflected in the price tag. “free trade” is a cute idea, but its only long-term effect establish a global lowest common denominator.

    the problem with my proposal is that consumers’ expectations are so far out of line as far as true cost, and our economy is so deeply mired in the current trade situation, that it would be doubtful whether any government with the courage to make those changes would survive. in any case, the ensuing embargoes and trade suits would destroy us.

    harvey, i think you know that while MEC makes small steps in the right direction, the impact is negligible in the global sense and that the only solution is political. you know that the current trade situation is destroying the world, but rather than rocking the boat, MEC is going to take the “think globally, act locally” tack. you need to think globally AND act globally.

    so do i. so does everyone. let’s stop pretending.

  21. HC

    Rob S
    I almost agree with all of your comments. The current trade situation underpinned by our economic system is destroying our world. It has given Canadians an incredible life style and has moved many once impoverished states (e.g., Japan, HK, Singapore, Ireland, Taiwan, S Korea) to developed world standards. Global capitalism is a necessary evil. Regrettably, it’s not sustainable environmentally and socially.

    You are right. MEC needs to think and act globally. It’s starting to move in this direction. This blog, my position and the handful of overseas iniativies it sponsors are a start. Almost half of its senior management team is from abroad.

    The small steps MEC take are, as you say, negligible in the global sense. But then so are all the little things I do as an individual to reduce my carbon footprint. But this doesn’t matter because it’s the aggregate impact of each action of every individual that counts. This is how we can stop global warming and achieve social justice. And this partly explains why MEC is engaged in the developing world.

    One reason why MEC generates a level of hostility in the outdoor industry is because MEC to some degree has a big box effect on local economies. MEC is aware of this. MEC is planning to move more comprehensively into the bike trade. Again there are pros and cons to this and MEC is open to discussing them.

    Rob W

    I don’t believe MEC is ignoring the “core” of the issue. Again, check out blog.mec.ca. I disclose in detail the positive and negative impact of MEC’s retailing model on the environment and society.

    Our world is at a critical juncture. The UN believes we have a ten year window of opportunity to make substantive changes to our personal lives and business habits otherwise the world is going to tip. And when it does, the developing world will suffer the brunt of the fall.

    How can anyone defend or justify this? It demands action. This is where you and I differ. I believe change and hope lies with integration and not isolation and boycotts. Global trade has allowed Canada to provide a very fine lifestyle to Canadians. It has also provided food, security, health care and shelter to hundreds and millions in HK, S Korea and etc., International trade is a necessity. It needs to be regulated by governments, businesses and consumers.

    I can’t speak to the past history of the Board as I have no knowledge. Sourcing in China is a concern for some members (precise number is unknown. It’s small). Regardless, if you believe you hold the right answer to solving some of MEC’s problems get yourself elected to the Board. Because in these troubled times, people are drawn to wisdom grounded in reason, principle, hope and the real world.

    Cheers

  22. canbike100

    Interesting to see how MEC straddles the fence on the China issue. Worse, is the effect they have at home.

    Mountain Equipment Co-op continues to enjoy co-op status and is permitted unfettered growth while crushing smaller retailers and damaging, rather than helping, the economy.

    Below is a link to a story in the Vancouver Sun.The article poses some very serious questions.

    http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/business/story.html?id=6aa8a51e-dfe4-49a5-8af6-0e95d7d16e80&k=85246

    The Vancouver Sun (APRIL 28, 2007) story, rather than frame MEC as the warm and fuzzy environmentally friendly retailer that everyone loves to love, paints MEC in a much more realistic light. That of a retail behemoth that has used its tax free status to fuel tremendous growth and crush smaller, legitimate retailers.

    When Macleans last did a story on MEC in 2002, MEC sales were 154 million. They are on track for 250 million next year.

    I am a bicycle retailer in Vancouver. MEC has now published a notice that they now intend to get into the business of servicing and selling bikes for 2008. There are some 60 bike shops in Vancouver, doing approximately 30 million in sales. With 60 shops there is certainly no lack of selection or competitive pressure.

    Contrast that reality with the Co-operative Secretariat of Canada(1) which describes; job creation, correcting market imbalances, serving community needs, filling market gaps (the reason MEC first came into existence) and empowering little guys, as the benefits and objectives of co-ops. Also, consider that all co-ops are supposed to act out of concern for the community. This can be found in MEC’s own mission and value statement (2) that states MEC will act with social leadership and community spirit.

    Yet MEC, that pays no business income tax and that is supposed to exist for all the reasons cited, is going after family businesses that more than serve the market. So rather than serving their community and empowering the little guy, MEC has grown to such arrogance of its principles that it would rather crush the little guy to steal ever more business out of the market economy. With no tax benefit to the community, one has to wonder why government would allow this to continue, as any reason for MEC to ever exist has long since passed. Yet, they continue unchecked in their quest for growth.

    MEC is not unaware of these problems. Yet their CEO attempts to sweep them away. Reading the transcript of their last AGM (3), in response to concerns MEC is getting too big, he says their expansion is in response to “member demand”. So when he opened a new store in Montreal that devastated local retailers, was that in response to member demand? It should be noted the MEC was formed to provide a small group of people with mountaineering gear that was not readily available in Vancouver. So, one has to ask why this has been allowed to grow into a cross Canada enterprise. Surely, the store in Halifax is not there to provide mountain gear for people in Vancouver. Yet, MEC has expanded into every major market, taking sales out of the market economy.

    Furthermore, at the same AGM, the MEC CEO attempts to paint MEC as a small retailer with only 2% of the market that has lower margins and higher expenses (because they pay people more, he says) than similar businesses in the regular market.Yet, his arguments are untrue. Take a look at the financial statements (4) of the Forzani Group, owners of Sport Chek, SportMart, Coast Mountain, Sports Experts and compare those with the numbers reported by the MEC CEO at his AGM. MEC margin was 33.7% and MEC expenses were 28.5%. Compare those with Forzani margin of 33.9% and Forzani expenses of 27.8%. The numbers are virtually the same.

    Now also consider that Forzani sales were 857 million compared with 200 million for MEC. But Forzani has 260 stores in that group under many different banners. MEC has only 11 stores all under the MEC brand. So, rather than a minor player, MEC is in fact, the largest sporting goods dealer in Canada under one banner AND their margin and expenses are no different than the other largest players. The only difference is that while Forzani struggles to deliver share value, MEC is debt free with over 100 million in the bank and intent on getting even bigger.

    As I have already pointed out, there are 60 bike shops in Vancouver and MEC has already done serious damage to our industry. While the number of stores may suggest a robust industry, the truth is that there are very few healthy dealers. The reason is MEC and their entrance into the cycling clothing and accessory market several years ago. According to the CEO of MEC, cycling is now MEC’s largest area of sales. This has come at the expense of independent bike dealers who now lack a critical portion of their business due to MEC’s aggressive and predatory pricing practices. MEC “grey markets” brand name products and prices them near or below our cost. MEC does this to drive sales of their private label product. In the process, Canadian authorized distributors lose sales, independent retailers lose sales and the tax base loses revenue.

    Recently, MEC has opened a store in Victoria. All the bike shops there report a loss in sales revenue for clothing. Consumers, persuaded by the low price of branded accessories (intended to be exclusive to bike dealers) obtained by MEC through grey market channels, are now buying their $200 Chinese made jackets at MEC.

    As a result, bike shops have lost a significant portion of a critical portion of their business. The effect being that revenue and profits are reduced at the same time that there is significant upward pressure on wages. Yet, with MEC creaming off the most profitable part of our business, retailers are unable to raise wages. And now they even want to sell bikes and are stealing our employees to do it.

    None of this makes sense. MEC is taking business away from businesses that pay income tax and contribute to the tax base. For this exchange, what benefit is there to the community? Their paltry donations to environmental causes are an advertising expense that do not balance the damage to the local economy, private businesses and the families they support. It seems that MEC is running counter to virtually every benefit that a co-op is supposed to provide. There is no market gap, MEC is not creating jobs, MEC is not helping local economies. On the contrary, MEC is going after markets that are well served, MEC is taking jobs away from existing businesses and in every market MEC enters, existing business are damaged.

    The MEC has become an 800 pound gorilla that has devastated the outdoor industry. Now they have set their sights on family owned bike shops in their quest for continued growth.

    I don’t know what you do for a living. Imagine for a moment that whatever business you work for or in, suddenly has a competitor move in next door that the government has given an indefinite tax holiday to. How would you feel? Do you think that would be unfair when that business is selling exactly what you already do and giving nothing back to support the social programs and tax base on which we all rely?

    Warm and fuzzy? Hardly. When they keep using words like “market share”, “expansion” and “wanting to be the numnber 1 outdoor retailer in Canada” they are more in the league of the Wal Marts of the world, than the friendly co-op they pretend to be.

    Consider that they have discussed plans to open satellite stores (like North Van) in suburban communities and even catalogue type stores (remember the Sears model) in outlying areas. They just don’t give a dam about the impact that will have on the local economy. Our government and co-op members themselves, need to say enough is enough.

  23. rob

    Wow, thanks for that informative perspective, canbike100. The article in the Sun was interesting, too.

    It’s particularly interesting to me because I’ve long been meaning to write about how the small, quality local bike shops so far seem to have survived better than other types of retailers against big box operators. Now, this story hints that may not last much longer. Which is really too bad. I’m a regular biker, and I’ve appreciated the feel in many of Victoria’s bike shops. I may investigate this story here.

    But thanks again. Have you posted anything on MEC’s own blog about this, buy the way? You should.

    rob

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