Insights :: Made In…

by , February 15, 2013
Note: There have been slight ammendments to this post to incorporate some great feedback from the comments…
Picture a really hardworking guy, sewing awesome backpacks as he tries to support his family. He works long hours, takes loads of care with his work, and tries to do an excellent all-round job so that he can put food on the family table, send his kids to school, and generally be a good human.
Does it matter what country this guy lives in?
If he does great work, should we decide whether or not to support him just because of his race, birthplace, or what his government (that he probably didn’t vote for) does?
Meanwhile if I have a neighbour who is a lazy slob, who disses his kids, boozes each night, and slaps together shoddy backpacks that he doesn’t respect, is he more deserving of my business just because he’s my neighbor?
Global communities
We run a global blog, trying to unearth the best carry goods, made in responsible ways, no matter where they are made in the world. We see bag candy from Japan, tech craziness from Europe, a craft renaissance from the US, and some great innovations from the UK, Singapore, Indonesia and China. In every country, there are good people doing good things. We try to recognise and share the best of those things, hoping to bring them to global attention.
In recent years though, we have seen a massive shift back to supposed ‘patriotic’ buying behavior, and that feels like regression rather than progression. We think the goal should be to buy awesome product that is responsibly produced, rather than ignoring awesomeness because it comes from people less like you.

So what’s at the core of good product?

Generally, the best carry gear has been influenced by consumers, designers, brands, pattern-makers, sewers and component makers, all brought together with understanding and cohesion. If any one area is lacking, the product is usually not as good.
Some brands tackle one or two of the stages in this chain, and outsource the rest. Some tackle most of the stages. A very few tackle almost all the stages. The more stages you tackle, the less specialist you can be in each of the stages.
This is why many of the best carry brands draw from the expertise of a global industry. If you can find a way to unite the best expertise from around the globe, your product can reach levels that few others have.
Extra benefits to a global approach
This global approach has more benefits than just better carry product. If you have 4 minutes, check out this short video from Hans Rosling and his team at Gapminder, as they help show that a globalizing world is helping increase wealth and health like never before.
As our parents were buying their backpacks from China, they were unwittingly helping save millions of babies from abject poverty, while also being able to afford a backpack they might not have previously been able to. The net result is a journey like Japan took after WWII, from a reasonably poor nation producing cheap but often variable goods, to the global quality powerhouse they are today. There are lots of nations starting similar journeys, working their butts off to win a share of our hearts and pockets. Some make crap, some make incredible stuff.
So what are the downsides?
When we move further away for sourcing, it is both harder to manage communication between all the contributors, and harder to know what ‘baggage’ comes with the goods we buy. These are not easy challenges, but lots manage them well.
We learn to develop systems to monitor and share information, just as we have learned to do that in our own countries, identifying and eliminating unsafe work conditions or polluting practices. The monitoring that Nike and Walmart now do is often much more thorough in Asia that it is in the USA or western countries. Of course we need to stay on top of this, but we still need to stay on top of it in our own countries as well.
Some also talk about skill levels in different countries. If you believe that Asia is somehow lacking here, I urge you to really look closely at high-end, Asian-made carry brands (The North Face, Osprey, etc). You’ll find that the panel work, construction and detailing is incredibly high, being more sophisticated in patterning than almost any others. When you realise these guys have patterned and built millions of backpacks, compared to many western brands who have only recently started (sometimes with little more than their mom’s sewing machine and a YouTube tutorial), you realise why many top brands prefer to source from Asia.

And a final downside that many talk about is their ‘economy’. The thing here is that if you speak to the large majority of economists they’ll tell you that open borders help us in the long term. When we close down borders, we all become generalists rather than specialists – which is a fancy way of saying we become crap because we’re trying to do everything. As we become crap, things get more expensive, stop getting better, and life ain’t as fun.

I’d recommend EconTalk if you’d like to find out more about this.

This is not a new discussion, but it is important
There have already been some excellent posts discussing these issues. If you have time, check out KTC’s local Chinese perspective or The Bag Collector’s insightful post.
We wanted to add our voice to these, as it feels like the roar of ‘patriotic buying’ is starting to drown out the desire for good product. And when we see the product suffering, that sucks.
If you’ve read all that and still think that foreign stuff can’t be as good as your own country’s stuff, maybe George Bernard Shaw can plant a tiny seed of questioning:
“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.”
*All images from Ando on my travels…
  • John Canfield

    Great article.

    While we do live in a global community, the conception that patriotism is tantamount to xenophobia isn’t accurate. In reality, people chose to buy locally or domestically for many more reasons than that. Some, however, do! These are the people who complain that the ATM offers options other than english, and they should be slapped in the face. I cannot deny this, and the US is particularly guilty of beating our chests without recognizing the advancements of international technology. I must defend the supporters of local/domestic products, because while some peoples’ enthusiam is misguided, there are great reasons to buy close to home.

    The line “The top Asian suppliers have patterned and built millions of backpacks, compared to many western brands who have only recently found their mom’s sewing machine and are trying to work it all out from YouTube” is a perspective spin not recognizing contributions made by the latter or having overall pertinence to the argument and here is why:

    1. I, as a person who prototypes bags for these companies, see how the demands by designers precipitated this change internationally.
    2. Why compare suppliers with brands? They are not the same business structure. One produces goods, the other designs it, typically.
    3. That being said, there are designs we in the US are not currently capable of building in a cost effective way- rolling luggage for example. Not yet anyway.

    The rise of “me too” bag companies in the US is only telling, really, of a return to domestic sewing in the US. When the flash in the pan is over, the committed will continue to sew, cut and sew facilities pop up… It will not be because someone wants an “Made in the USA” tag inside their backpack or they are at all concerned about the color of their skin. It’ll be because we need jobs, and found/trained people to fill them.

    Everyone wants to be a designer, but no one wants to sew. Go figure.
    Why? Money.

    • ando

      Some great points JC. I was a little sloppy in parts.

      I’ve really struggled to write this post, as it’s hard to get the balance feeling right. My basic point is “recognise awesomeness, no matter where it’s from.” And I’ve probably over-swung in the balance, as we’re just seeing more and more vocal aversion to ‘foreign made’ gear, even when it’s incredibly awesome.

      Generally, the best carry gear has been influenced by designers, brands, pattern-makers, sewers and component makers from all over the world, all contributing to the progress of our industry. I feel that the more we realise this, and break down borders (real and imagined) to facilitate it, the faster we’ll all progress.

      Please do keep up the great work you do, helping translate 2D ideas to 3D realities. And please do continue to find inspiration from around the globe, wherever awesomeness is :)

  • Rafael

    If I can I’ll buy local products, not because I love my country but because I love the people that live in it, in Portugal we have amazing handcrafted goods, so amazing that some European companies buy it here, take it to their countries and re-brand the stamp “made” in to their own country .
    Don’t get me wrong but the price for cheap gear is the people, doesn’t matter the quality of it.
    Foreign made isn’t at all bad, but I like to know that people have decent wages and decent working conditions.
    I respect people that buy goods from their own country, they help the communities and keep some crafts alive, because if its all outsourced the country will lose future amazing professionals.
    Best wishes to all the team in

    • ando

      Thank you Rafael. That is a great point.

      There are times when a purchase should be more about the emotions than just utility. Keeping diversity alive in these situations can help preserve and develop stories we might otherwise miss out on.

      I just hope we can do as you say, and support it for the craft, approach and stories, rather than just the flag it’s made under.

    • Raf

      Some of the best all-leather boots me and the missus wore had Made in Portugal stamps. I suppose there is a really solid tradition of leather crafts there.

      Most recent: All Saints Panel Delta Boots, amazing quality.

      • Rafael

        Yes, you are right Raf, there is a really long and solid tradition of leather crafts in my country, especially in footwear and cloths in the north part of Portugal.

  • John Canfield

    “Generally, the best carry gear has been influenced by designers, brands, pattern-makers, sewers and component makers from all over the world, all contributing to the progress of our industry. I feel that the more we realise this, and break down borders (real and imagined) to facilitate it, the faster we’ll all progress.”

    THAT is dead on, my friend. A point that needs to be driven home to all parties.

    Designers need a concept of physics and engineering. Not just “art with dimensions”
    Pattern makers need a concept of design and aesthetic, I struggle to further my abilities so I may never stifle innovation.
    Sewers need to understand all of it. Why something is sewn the way it is, and how their contribution is vital to a successful product. Facilities and sewers who doesn’t care, no matter where they live, is evident in the end product coming from the factory.

    This question will define my career, and I will always hope to more fully understand the implications of this, our global economy.


    • ando

      Thank you JC.

      I’ve gone back in and amended the post a little, trying to get more to the crux. Let us know if it’s sounding more on the money.

      Oh, and that sounds like a damn good mission to be chasing. Better cohesion in the product chain, from vision through to consumer stoke, is always a worthwhile pursuit.

      Keep chasing!

  • Raf

    I am preaching the obvious here but there is common sense pragmatism behind “shopping patriotism”: if you don’t buy local, you can’t be surprised to wake up in a slowly impoverishing country with growing unemployment and dwindling salaries. Every time you buy from abroad you are technically exporting a job.

    One should not feel guilty for wanting to support their community (neighbourhood, city, country) they live in. Deliberately choosing to buy from your local farmer (or saddler, cobbler, tailor) is not automatically xenophobia. Of course, you should not cut them any slack and tolerate their product if it lacks in quality or design but if the work is solid, it makes good sense to support craftsmen where you live.

    This said, I love the access we have these days to products from small manufacturer’s workshops from around the globe we would never have heard of otherwise if it weren’t for the internet. The exchange of ideas, the variety… The easy access to a global market lets even the smallest shops to thrive in the long tail economy. Exciting times.

    • ando

      Raf, while that view can feel like common sense, it is actually a common misconception. Countless countries throughout history have proved that view wrong.

      I urge you to listen to some of the EconTalk podcasts about economics, or any economic writing, theory or video around comparative advantage, free trade and specialisation. Milton Friedman wrote well about this stuff, with essays like:

      This stuff is not obvious, but it is really important.

      For a society to flourish and grow, it needs to do jobs that it is good at. If you live in a desert with little water, you should not grow cotton. If you have a work population that only wants to work 4 hours a day, you should not try and become a Silicon Valley startup hub.

      The reason wealth is increasing in the world (it’s not fixed, it’s increasing) is because we learn to do things more productively. Rather than trying to farm a whole field with a small spade, we can now farm it with a big tractor. That grows more crops, which creates more wealth. We learn better ways of doing things, and we keep learning by specialising more, and then trading for the other things we need.

      When we try and ‘protect’ jobs, we’re actually letting people stay shit at things, rather than having to improve and get world class. That means they don’t become more productive, relative prices increase, and everyone suffers in the long run.

      If people don’t like this approach, they can step off the grid the way the Amish and many other do. But those who like things to keep getting better, contribute by getting more specialist, and trading for the other things they want with other specialists.

      Does that make any sense?

      • Raf

        We’re on the same page I think, only see it a bit differently.

        I think the reason we don’t produce in the West is not that we learned to do it more efficiently. It’s because with a combination of anti-free-market measures — be it taxes, minimum wage and other regulations — we made local production prohibitively expensive. It’s not that we’re not good at making things and should be doing something else.

        The “patriotism” I have in mind is 100% free market kosher: I do it because I choose to, not because there is a law that forces me to or subsidizes local products. It’s not “job protection”, I surely wouldn’t call it that.

        In reality, I only apply this “patriotism” to groceries and only when the price is similar. I won’t buy a more expensive cucumber because it’s locally grown. If I have a choice of two similar, very similarly priced products, then I will likely buy local, let’s say it has “added sentimental value” to me.

        Likewise, many people will buy a bag because it says “made in Italy” on them. It’s all part of the free market.

        • Ando

          Nice :)

      • Jeremy

        While I respect the position that adding more minds to the equation can produce greater innovation, the economic benefits of globalization can only be realized while resources are plentiful. The idea of perpetual progress within any industry (except government) will eventually run into a wall when resource availability dries up–a scenariothat approaches at greater speeds the more broadly a supply chain expands. It will be a great ride until then, but ultimately it is unsustainable, and production will inevitably return home (where ever that is).

        • ando

          Jeremy, I really encourage you to read up on Scarcity vs Abundance mindsets. The terms were coined by Stephen Covey, which he summarises as:

          “Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else.

          The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life. People with a Scarcity Mentality have a very difficult time sharing recognition and credit, power or profit – even with those who help in the production. The also have a a very hard time being genuinely happy for the success of other people.

          The Abundance Mentality, on the other hand, flow out of a deep inner sense of personal worth and security. It is the paradigm that there is plenty out there and enough to spare for everybody. It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity.”

          The great thing is that generally life agrees with the Abundance approach. For instance, resources almost never run out. Instead, they become harder to get, which makes them more expensive, which means people start reducing their use or substituting other things (think about everyone buying hybrid cars when the price of petrol went up), and everyone can continue to grow.

          Abundance mindsets don’t mean we can screw the planet over. Rather they mean that if we take a Cradle to Cradle approach to close the loop, then we can all have increasing amounts of everything, without damage or waste. C2C uses the example of a Cherry Blossom giving an extravagant display for a week, before blossoms falling to the ground and rotting, but it’s not wasteful because the system connects the loop.

          We can all grow. We can all have more. We just have to be better at how we go about it.

  • David Bloom

    I have been a designer in the bag industry before everything was imported. I’ve seen the cut and sew industries begin the march to lower income countries and for the most part I have nothing bad to say about importers and exporters from those countries. Neither do I see an inherent greatness from oversimplified US made products but for those of us who have the skills,know how and desire to make good design produced in the US I see a silver lining in the them versus us debate. Ultimately, to me, it is how we can compete on an international basis by utilizing technology in production (reducing inventories on hand and designing for US production).
    I have been involved in creating products that will be made in Asia and those that will be made in the States. The process of getting from a sketch to a final design seems to take much longer when utilizing Chinese factories, perhaps it may be because vendors in China are allocating their time toward the customers that will provide the biggest return. Domestic makers will never be able to compete purely on price but conversely the products that I am seeing coming out of China of late are representative of the price pressures that are being put on the importers (e.g. lower denier counts on components). I don’t have clairvoyance but it does seem that the country of origin is not as important as the quality of the design and production.

    • Ando

      “I don’t have clairvoyance but it does seem that the country of origin is not as important as the quality of the design and production.”

      We absolutely agree :)

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  • Eliott

    What about the environmental impact of international shipping? sometimes the fabric for one bag will come from different ends of the planet and then the finished product is shipped again.

    I agree that products will become more refined in the internationalism case but might products bought locally also seek refinement? The more refined a product is the more will be paid for it, this is an obvious incentive for any manufacture, designer, pattern maker etc. to seek a better product. Flag wavers may act as a catalyst for a better and possibly more eccentric product to be created. I think the drunk neighbor example was a bit dramatized to be honest. I think that people that start up companies can be just as hard working as any other and may just not be the more skilled crafts-person, they may need financial support in order to improve their skills.

  • Christopher J. Avallon

    “I don’t have clairvoyance but it does seem that the country of origin is not as important as the quality of the design and production.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this point of view. I own a leather goods company by the name of Avallone. We work with artisans in the USA and abroad. I am not concerned with the country in which our products are produced. I only work with artisans and manufacturers who best meet my quality standards, have fair pricing, great work environments, and the most reliable service no matter where they are located.

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