As part of our commitment to ensuring the highest quality production and building and maintaining strong supplier relationships, Gavin Wood, our Purchasing Director, has just returned from a regular trip to meet with our Far East manufacturers. The trip also gave him the opportunity to meet some potential new suppliers and to discuss future product innovations, taking samples and prototypes with him for discussion and planning.
Following what was a rather gruelling schedule over 8 days, Gavin met 11 of our trusted suppliers. He spent time touring their factories, seeing some of our range in production, meeting the teams and learning more about the culture and working environments.
Many of our suppliers are family enterprises and the trip took in both ends of the spectrum – small, relatively remote factories in very rural areas and some in more populated and traditional industrial areas. Gavin travelled across 10 cities and regions, taking in spectacular landscapes:
“I literally travelled from high, green mountainous regions to areas that are more stereotypical of Western perceptions of Chinese manufacturing. Although I was scheduled to travel more than 4,000km across China, from Beijing down to Guangzhou, I had to make changes to my trip due to travel disruptions caused by super typhoon Doksuri. I was able to see most of our suppliers in areas from Qingdao down to Xiamen, travelling by car, plane and train so I was able to take in everything this magnificent country has to offer – the scenery was remarkable”.
As well as catching up with some suppliers with whom we’ve worked for many years, Gavin was also able to meet potential new suppliers as we seek to expand our product range:
“This trip was important, particularly as it was the first face-to-face meet, I’ve had with many of our suppliers since Covid. Travel restrictions have been in place until very recently, but it was lovely to catch up with many friends. Of course, I speak to these teams regularly, weekly in some cases, and we’re always exchanging emails, but nothing beats meeting in person. There was a lot to discuss and see. It’s extremely important to us, and our customers, to know how and where our products are made, and you can only get a true understanding of that face-to- face it yourself. I’ve come back with a stack of pictures, and it was lovely to meet so many members of the teams during my visits”.
New product innovation was a significant part of the trip as well, and Gavin took time to explore possible options:
“I took samples and prototypes with me including some ideas we’ve been working on – to meet specific customer requests and explore some of our own ideas about where the market will go. Product development can take months or years to get right, but even in this hyper– connected world, sending designs and samples back and forth takes time. So, to sit around a table, look at the designs, consider fabric and materials and explain exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve, including how the product will function, as well as its durability and aesthetics can advance development by months in just a few hours. I’m really excited about what’s coming down the line and can’t wait to share it with the team and customers in due course”.
As if to underline the strength of our relationships with our suppliers and their knowledge of our business, Gavin was also able to bring some new ideas back with him:
“I found visiting the factories interesting as I was able to see what they are capable of producing, and this initiates a real journey of creativity for me. I’ve picked up some brilliant ideas. Some are the kernels of concepts that need our innovative flare added to them, and I’ve come back with a bag of samples which I will be presenting to the Board in the weeks and months ahead”.
CO2 Lifecycle Assessments
Another key ambition of this latest round of supplier visits was to capture the data that will enable us to accurately calculate lifecycle assessments for each and every one of our products. As we aim for carbon neutrality, understanding this information will be key in helping us develop a clear picture of our current carbon footprint – and yes it will include this trip!
Whilst acknowledging the irony of travelling to the Far East to gather the data, Gavin explains the complexities of developing this analysis:
“Obviously my trip had multiple objectives, but one thing that needed to be handled in person was the carbon calculations. I met with a range of different businesses; some are far more up to speed on this data and are already providing it to other customers, but some suppliers are of a size whereby this is an entirely new administrative function for them. By meeting in person, I was able to talk through what’s required and walk them through some handy tools that will help us to work together to gather the data. Being on site myself, also allowed me to get an understanding of their working processes, so I could quality assure some of the current calculations. It’s a significant piece of work that is going to take us some time to pull together, but kicking this off in person was an important first step as I was able to explain why it matters to us and our customers”.
Working Environments and Practices
A trip like this is multi-faceted – taking in product development, building and cementing relationships and identifying carbon footprint. But the origins of trips like these hark back to a time whereby customers sought reassurance about purchasing products that had been manufactured in the Far East. It remains important, but Gavin tells us more about the changing culture he’s witnessed, having now visited the Far East and exchanging experiences with Bushy and Adam, who have both made similar trips over the years.
“I’m of an age where I can remember some of the Far East manufacturing horror stories that engulfed major brands. There was a time where these were mainstream news and we stopped being surprised by it. But what we need to understand is time has moved on and there’s now growing social pressure across the Far East to echo Western ways and practices. The value of education is rising, rapidly, and it’s becoming expected that children will attend school rather than work – something that was not always the case in past decades. But we must also understand that there is a cultural aspect to this too. In some of the most rural areas, there can be limited access to schools and businesses are true family concerns, involving three or even four generations. So, whilst children may help out in these family businesses, this also forms their education and their future livelihoods. They are not being exploited; they’re contributing to the family as generations before them have done. They are learning about production methods, sales, shipping and customer relations – picking up skills and knowledge handed down to them from their elders. It’s certainly eye-opening visiting and learning about this aspect. We carry our Western beliefs with us and risk judging everyone by our own standards, with little or no understanding of local context. I’m not ignorant to the fact that there will be child exploitation and sweat shops operating across the Far East – and indeed the world – but during my trip I was reassured that there was nothing to give any concern”.
Gavin’s trip was a long time in the planning and we’re hopeful that there won’t be such a long gap before his next visit. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll continue to dive into the detail of some of the themes covered here and Gavin will share what we’ve learned from the trip, what we can expect to see changing and see how work is progressing on those carbon lifecycle assessments.
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