With ethical production techniques all the rage and consumers demanding to know exactly how and where their best-loved products are manufactured, the time has come for big brands to become a whole lot more transparent.
Are you familiar the Proximity Consumption Index or PCI? There’s no reason you should be (it was manufactured on our editorial floor) but in broad terms the index maintains the more intimate your relationship with a given product (items that are worn constantly and close to the skin or things you eat), the more you want to know about its provenance – how it was made, where it was grown and who was involved in getting it to market.
In developed economies, the PCI reveals that increasingly consumers are concerned with the entire life story of the cod that’s about to be lightly grilled for an al fresco Sunday lunch or the journey the milk made from udder to the froth on top of a cappuccino. The rise in farmer’s markets in city centres and suburbs are in part a response to everything from wanting to support local growers to cutting down on the kilometres an apple might travel from tree to tart but also a real time, ‘live’ quality check with someone who might have had a hand in picking the tomatoes displayed before them. It’s for this reason that many of the world’s biggest food retailers have also embarked on elaborate marketing and PR efforts to demonstrate how their supply chains work and that they recognize consumers want greater transparency. The UK’s Waitrose and Switzerland’s Coop are good examples of brands that have become market leaders with this type of communication – as well as the logistics rethink that’s gone with it.
At the prepared end of the food spectrum, do you think all of those open kitchens that have become a core feature in many new restaurants are just a design feature? The PCI suggests that all those chefs frying, baking and whisking out in the open are part of the provenance chain and are on display to ensure freshness, cleanliness and, in many cases, an increased margin on a bill that will hit the table with a thud.
Timepieces are another category that rank high on the PCI and their manufacturers’ have become master storytellers about the steps involved in creating ‘grand complications’ and the years of training required to simply clean a tourbillon. Visit a watch factory up in the Jura Mountains, suburbs of Geneva or in rural Japan and the open kitchen concept is very much in evidence as men and women behind glass walls stare into magnifying devices to polish and place parts into timepieces both sturdy and delicate. In the pricier wedge of the market, the consumer wants to feel assured that the object strapped to their wrist that they refer to all day long was not just worth the money but also manufactured by skilled craftsmen who receive social benefits for sickness, proper holidays and work in an environment that meets all the proper health and safety codes.
Curiously, consumers don’t have quite the same relationship with their personal electronics. While the recent suicide scandal at Foxconn generated ample press coverage, it didn’t lead to a consumer revolt that saw people lining up at Apple stores to return various devices. The PCI would suggest that consumers aren’t particularly bothered about products that deliver digital media because their relationships with phones, mp3 players and laptops are more transient and, while essential for staying in touch and informed, are not necessarily intimate in nature. Nevertheless, the Foxconn incident did highlight a potential flashpoint for another sector that features prominently on the PCI – the fashion industry. For many observers the suicides of factory workers were not nearly as shocking as the sheer scale of China’s manufacturing facilities with staff numbers in excess of 250,000 at a single plant. For this 37th edition of Monocle we assigned our correspondent Sophie Grove to look at the complex issue of ethical manufacturing and how the fashion/luxury sector is trying (or not) to get its house in order.
For fashion labels both mass and more premium, there are no shortage of Foxconn style facilities across Asia churning out knitwear in city-size factories where workers live and labour in conditions that would not pass for anything close to acceptable in the US or EU. Talk to many analysts watching the fashion retail sector and they’ll tell you that this is the wave that’s about to hit everyone but no one wants to confront it. If the PCI is an appropriate gauge then fashion will soon be no different to food with consumers demanding to know (and see) every step of the production process. It’s not surprising that so few fashion companies operate ‘open kitchen’ manufacturing facilities however – as it would make for depressing rather than alluring viewing.
At the premium end of the market, there are already signs that the walls are coming down and CEOs are realizing that those high margins for bags and shoes need more than just a logo and reassuringly expensive advertising campaign to justify the ticket price. In Paris John Lobb has recently invested in a bigger and better facility for its bespoke atelier. In Tokyo more craft based manufacturing is moving back into the city rather than out with the ‘open kitchen’ approach alive and well at companies like Yoshida and Ateliers Penelope that boast in-shop manufacturing. And in London there’s greater discussion about the need to bring the manufacturing process back to the shop floor and for local councils to relax their rigid (backward) zoning laws to allow it to happen. It’s only a matter of time before ‘open kitchen’ manufacturing trickles down from the top end of the market and consumers will expect the mass fashion retailers (H&M, Gap and Uniqlo) to take a similar approach. Will this translate into better conditions (higher wages) in China and Bangladesh or a migration of manufacturing back to developed economies? If consumers want to wear their t-shirts, underwear and jeans with a clear conscience and pay a little more, then our money’s on the latter.