Made in China Done Right: Sustainability Reforms in Chinese Manufacturing

ADINA-LAURA ACHIM analyzes China’s efforts to rebrand Made in China and pivot to more environmentally sustainable production.

Made in China
Lu Zheng | Staff

Throughout the centuries, the Made in China label denoted high quality, impeccable craftsmanship, artistry, and skillfully curated products. “European traders and power brokers traveled the Silk Road to purchase silks, stone-carved decorative pieces, cashmere, unique calligraphy, and first-rate ceramics,” said Jing Daily. However, on its quest to become the largest trading nation in the world, China began embracing the chabuduo (close enough) approach. Essentially, instead of artisan luxury goods that require labor-intensive operations and unique skills, China started producing low-grade, unsafe, and cheaply-manufactured products. 

Consequently, China became synonymous with mass production and immoral manufacturing practices. The government disregarded sustainable and ethical practices in favor of securing GDP growth, while labor and human rights abuses were, and still are, all too common. The textile industry had come to illustrate everything that is corrupt in China with 32 percent of textile companies reporting that they have paid bribes to officials to operate. Moreover, the same industry was responsible for extreme environmental pollution and high cancer rates among workers.

Modern China lifted 700 million people out of poverty and millions entered the middle-class, creating “the world’s largest middle-income class,” according to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. However, rapid industrialization has also led to environmental disasters and humanitarian crises, and a long string of consumer scandals have closely followed the rapid economic growth. But today, the government is expediting its efforts to fully transform the country and move it towards a consumption-driven economy. Along these lines, the more ingenious companies have begun to realize that the change implies a more ethical and sustainable model, and they have thus become pioneers in corporate social responsibility, ensuring their employees are fulfilling their moral and social obligations. 

Thankfully, the Made in China label is being resurrected under the corrective actions of a number of  government agencies and businesses that are focused on environmental sustainability. The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs in China and the US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have launched The Green Supply Chain Map connecting foreign brands to the environmental performance of their Chinese suppliers. On a larger scale, the government has changed its long-term strategic view on sustainability, likely due to new corporate environmental rhetoric and international pressure, and in 2014, Premier Li Keqiang announced that China is declaring a “war on pollution.” Moreover, Chinese legislators reinforced the environmental protection law for the first time in 25 years, drafting tougher sanctions for companies that contribute high levels of pollution.

Evidently, the new environmental protection legislation is taking aim at the textile industry, and despite the push-back from some fast fashion brands, the vast majority of the textile community has embraced the change, in an effort to distance themselves from potential controversies. Furthermore, working conditions have also improved, which have manifested in shortened hours, higher wages for factory workers, and a spirit of craftsmanship that has replaced the low-end production that tarnished the reputation of the Made in China label. Now, China is rejuvenating both the artisan spirit and the principles of the circular economy. This gives a new meaning to the Made in China products, honoring a country that is clearing the path “in manufacturing, technology and the new economy.” 

If a decade ago, Chinese companies believed that their “responsibility towards society [was] nothing but their economic performance,” today, CSR concepts are an engine of change. In fact, in 2012, Premier Wen Jiabao said, “China needs to learn to grow slower, and grow better.” Hence, investments in technology and automation have improved productivity. One report by the International Federation of Robotics showed that in 2017, China had a 58% increase in demand for industrial robots (compared to the US’s 6% and Germany’s 8%). The formidable growth in the technology scene gave birth to globally competitive cities that enjoyed geographic and policy advantages. 

The factories built in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities symbolized the conversion from Maoism to “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and their success represented not only the Great Rebirth of China but also a victory over Western-style capitalism. By creating a more favorable environment, China opened the country to young, innovative Western brands (e.g. Ellie Kai and Everlane) that prioritize sustainability and ethical sourcing. Fortunately, these foreign companies understand that their audience is increasingly motivated to be more sustainable and socially conscious. And Chinese brands and domestic couturiers have followed suit. Loop Swim creates swimwear from recycled plastic bottles, Neemic promotes the use of organic, sustainable apparel, and Atelier Rouge Pékin pursues the slow fashion movement, favoring the return to ethical consumerism and craftsmanship. 

Today, emerging Chinese designers transform the landscape and change the perception of Made in China through ambitious endeavors and collaborations. For instance, The Redness Design Award is the world’s biggest sustainable fashion design competition. Hosted by Redness, a Hong Kong-based NGO, it focuses on up-and-coming design talents passionate about conscious consumerism and sustainable goals. These kinds of initiatives are in line with the “Made in China 2025” government plan and China’s quest to improve manufacturing through technological innovation.

During an interview with Jing Daily, Valentina Xu, CEO of Future Tech Lab China emphasized that Chinese luxury buyers account for over RMB 500 billion (around $74 billion) in annual spending, representing roughly a third of the global luxury market. Consequently, “when Chinese consumers wake up to embrace sustainability as the new way of living, luxury groups will follow suit […] We not only view China as a market with great potential for sustainable products, but also as one of the biggest contributors to global environmental protection,” says Xu. China is vitalizing the retail world even as the West debates the “paradox” of how China, a country that defined sweatshops and environmental degradation, is now transforming the global fashion ecosystem by empowering high-tech, sustainable solutions.

Despite favorable results, the country still has a long way to go until the government and society revolutionize the entire manufacturing process. And yet, one has to wonder whether even a high-tech, automated, modern, and sustainable China will be embraced by the existing international order. The “new era of great power competition” mentality has reshaped and calcified Western perceptions of China, fueled by the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric and policies. Strategic competition threatens to overshadow China’s progress away from sweatshops and low-skilled, polluting manufacturing processes and embrace of ambitious, green projects. While it is still premature to conclude whether China’s reforms will be successful in driving sustainable socio-economic development, we should still acknowledge that China’s new, green mindset has catapulted it to the forefront of global environmental management.

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