Dispelling the myths – our work with partners in the Far East

Four images of a factory. On the far left, a man and a woman are sitting in a metal workshop working on making small wooden boxes. The centre left is of two women with their backs to the camera working on making small wooden boxes. The centre right shows stack of woven coffins in a warehouse. Far Right shows a shirtless man from the far east working outside with strands of wood.

We’ve worked with our suppliers in the Far East for many years and recognise the strong values and supply chains which the region upholds. Yet media scare stories about some aspects of foreign production have come to define the sector. Gavin Wood, our Products and Purchasing Director, recently returned from a visit to our trusted suppliers in Asia and shares his thoughts on dispelling the myths around our experience of overseas manufacturing.  

We’ve all heard shock stories of conditions in foreign factories, which are a long way from standards we’d expect here in the UK. Whilst its worth remembering that these examples are few and far between, it’s useful to accept that there are matters of culture and scale to bear in mind. 

The manufacturing sector in China is reported to support 112 million people – a figure almost double the entire population of the UK. So, when we hear of and see these tabloid exposés, we must take them in context and not jump to judge an entire country or region by the same standards. In cultural terms, it’s not unusual to find artisan businesses in the Far East made up of multiple generations of the same family. Whether as a result of their rural location or simply the handing down of skills from one generation to the next, the sense of families all working together in support of the family unit is fairly typical – especially within our supplier base. In fact, family involvement is much like we see in our own family business, with younger generations coming in to help at weekends, learning the trade and gaining valuable life experience.  

Whilst we remember the shocking stories of children stitching World Cup footballs for major brands, finding younger generations working in rural areas alongside their family is more typical of the traditions that have permeated centuries. Thankfully the difference today is that education is compulsory for all children aged 6-15. Attending an educational institution now makes up a greater portion of children’s day-to-day lives. 

Working conditions have also been a hot topic in recent decades. Again, in the West we may have different expectations, but I’m pleased to say that during my recent trip conditions in all the workshops I visited were extremely good. In fact, in many factories there was a great deal of modern and advanced equipment – some enjoying setups of staggering sizes and complexity. Minimum wages are now a much more widespread practice too, again helping shape up the sector.  

Over the years we’ve worked hard to establish and nurture relationships with our suppliers – many are family-owned businesses which provide a livelihood and income in rural areas right across China. All of the suppliers we work with are team focused organisations who value their staff and their families. So, whether it’s a family small holding in the countryside or a larger operation in one of the cities that same level of care and attention is clearly in place. It’s a reassuring thing to see and experience and gives us an enormous amount of confidence when we’re talking to our customers about our products.  

Ultimately one of the key reasons we work with suppliers in China is that it’s where many of our raw materials are grown. Bamboo – for example – is extremely well managed even in remote areas. It makes sense to support this important economy and it’s more efficient and sustainable to maintain production in the same region too. We then ship our complete products by sea to the UK – again a much more climate friendly approach than using air or rail. Together this adds up to us being able to continue to offer a very robust supply chain – built on strong foundations from some very good suppliers.  

Touching again on eco-friendly practices (and just like here in the UK) sustainability and the environment is now a big focus in China. Whilst nationally it remains in something of a second industrial revolution, reminiscent of the UK in the 20th century, many areas are taking steps to improve the quality of life for their citizens and reduce their climate impact. During my visit, I witnessed massive renewable energy projects and agreed on measures to reduce packaging whilst also removing plastic from our products. I also discussed what our suppliers were doing to support their staff and eradicate poverty.  

One of the most surprising aspects seen on this most recent trip was how advanced manufacturing is in the Far East and the rate of progress being made to achieve environmental goals and other projects. Their infrastructure is so much more advanced than ours allowing for significant benefits in global production methods too.  

My key takeaway from the trip is the importance of strong relationship management. Thanks to the conversations we have had with our suppliers over the years we are able to entrust they will match our standards and can rely on them to meet our supply demands. This is one of the key areas I will continue to work on over the next few months to ensure that our relationship is maintained. 

Suggested reading

Visiting our Far East suppliers
Developing Close Supplier Relationships 

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