This morning when I took my coffee mug down off the shelf, I held it for a bit longer. I felt the arc of the handle, the slight widening of the lip and the roughness of the unglazed edge along the bottom. My stepmom made this mug. My fingers trace the trail hers took, where she used her thumb to place the handle. The grooves around the body are left from her hands turning together on the wheel. The glaze drips show the mug was hand-dipped into a custom blend of colors.
My familiarity with the process of making ceramics comes from decades of exposure to having craftspeople as parents – and led to my desire, years later, to try and source locally produced mugs for the multi-national company I was working for. My position, among many other responsibilities, had me sourcing, designing and producing the hardline goods (anything that was not apparel, although we, and I, did that too).
After weeks of research, it became clear that there were no studios in Canada or the U.S. that would be able to complete our order. At a thousand mugs per design, multiplied by approximately 12 designs, our request was roughly equal to an entire year’s output for a small studio. Most of the potters here are artisans producing a few dozen pieces at a time in a studio of less than 10 employees. They work in a unique design and style they’ve carefully developed over years. There are some larger production studios as well, but price was an issue even then: If they had agreed, the wholesale cost of about $15 was already higher than our retail target of $10. We would have had to charge about $30 to cover labor, shipping and packaging costs – not to mention make a small margin of profit.
To make those mugs, I travelled to Thailand then China, where the glut of labor lowered the cost of the mug significantly, despite being made essentially the same way as in North America. My search landed me a couple hours west of Shanghai, in an industrial zone near Wuxi, a part of the country known for its porcelain. Driving along the dusty road of the town (small only by Chinese standards, with about a million inhabitants), I could see bowls, plates and cups piled up alongside the buildings, waiting to be packed. The town is surrounded by limestone foothills and filled with factories making all kinds of ceramics. If your dish ware was made in China, chances are it came from around here. As with India, where certain regions are well known for a specific type of dyeing, weaving or fabric, towns in China specialize in a particular product. In a way, this makes it very easy – a kind of one-stop shopping on the scale of a city. If you’re stuck without a vendor, it’s possible to just start going door-to-door.
Once I arrived at the factory, I was struck by how similar the process was compared to at home – on a much larger scale. There are the molds for poured items like vases, and a kiln just like the one in the shop I grew up in. But instead of four by three feet, this one was the entire length of the factory. An assembly line of shaping, handle attaching, glazing, painting and decal adhering followed the kiln, allowing pieces to be completed in record time, but still by hand. In a factory like the one I was visiting, labor is plentiful and cheap, and a more viable option than acquiring expensive machinery. In some cases, production can’t be done without a human touch. A decal is carefully laid around the curved edge of a plate, for example, and pasted down with a paintbrush.
Enabling this reality is the sheer amount of human population that exists in both China and India. The U.S. is the third most populated country in the world at about 300 million inhabitants. China and India take up the first and second position, respectively, both hovering on either side of 1.3 billion. That’s the entire population of the States, plus another one billion people plonked on top. Imagine trying to service those numbers. They are the only two countries in the world with this monumental challenge. I have great sympathy for their administrations, and it comes as no surprise that factory work has turned into such a huge industry there.
All these bodies need jobs, and supply and demand further drives down prices. Even with China’s employee shortage of the past few years, factory work still creates tens of millions of jobs. Standing in the clean and well-run factory we’d hired, I knew the workers were earning in a week what my welcome home dinner in North America would cost. Still, after getting to know the managers, and inspecting the building and production line, I was satisfied with the conditions of this small business. In several occasions, we had left or fired factories we weren’t comfortable with, following an in-person visit. The low cost of labor is the reason consumer goods are affordable – but this doesn’t have to be at the cost of worker safety as well.
Those mugs I was buying cost under a dollar. On top of the factory price, costs had to be added for packaging, labeling, container shipping, duties, tariffs, insurance, warehousing, stocking, marketing, customer shipping and employees. There is a market for that locally made $40 mug. But not everyone can spend that amount on something to hold their morning coffee. It’s a tricky line to straddle. We live in a part of the world that has already gone through its industrial revolution, sold off the machines and mostly moved on to desk jobs. It’s easy to forget the human and environmental cost of a product’s “affordability” when we’re not confronted with it everyday.
The reality is that we don’t pay the actual price of goods. We pay a falsely depressed amount on the backs of these far-away workers and with more relaxed environmental standards. If we abruptly switched to buying everything local, millions would be out of work and we would have a shortage of product. We’ve all participated in the reality of this, one day decrying the state of affairs, the next day buying a plastic colander to save $15. This is a system that has arisen after decades of development, and changing course is like turning the proverbial giant ship. Luckily, our choices do not end with a $5 discount store special, made under the worst conditions, versus a $150 handmade mug by craftsmen who harvest their own clay and crush wild berries to make an organic, natural paint.
The truth is that there will always be a compromise, because we’re dealing with consumerism, which consumes by nature. You can certainly buy a $20 organic cotton shirt made in China. You can also buy a $320 viscose shirt sewn in L.A. You can buy a $60 t-shirt woven in Kentucky from locally raised peace-silk, or a $40 version sewn in Mexico with 50% cotton and 50% polyester from foreign sources. Price is not always a good indication of quality; it can simply be an indication of brand popularity. Label reading is the only way to know what you’re getting. At that point, we as consumers decide what aspects are most important to our purchasing decisions. Maybe today you buy a cheap tea towel, but bread from the local bakery. Most important is giving consideration to your choices and not buying blindly. It’s up to us on an individual basis to steer that ship into the direction we want to see it go.
My treasured hand-shaped, limited edition teal mug is in the cupboard next to a couple of pretty painted ones from a trendy retailer. They were cheap-ish, maybe $20, and made in China. But I’ve looked into this company and they have a pretty decent track record when it comes to hiring factories that are safe, and a good reputation for avoiding toxic chemicals. There’s also an “I Love NY” mug bought a decade ago that was most likely produced so quickly and cheaply it was still warm going into the box. Change is a constantly shifting evolution. What we can do is to make small but better choices every day.
All photos courtesy and copyright Emma Segal. See more of Emma’s work here.
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This is the second article in a three-part series on the life of a product from the ground up. (Read Part I and Part III.) Coming up in the last installment: How can we as consumers make more informed decisions and better choices?