There’s been a great brouhaha in the press over Mattel’s apology to China — particularly over the allegations that Mattel apologized directly to its Chinese manufacturing partners.
It’s not a surprising reaction. This supposedly “Golden” year of the Pig is turning out to be more porcine than prosperous, thanks to the slew of recalls — especially for toys. It hasn’t been great PR for China, as evidenced by this “man-on-the-street” piece with interviews of Clevelanders. Just about everyone in the video has sworn off Chinese products. (Whether they’ll be able to stick to that is another story…)
The subject of embarrassing recalls surfaced over a lunchtime conversation with my brother-in-law’s colleague, Mr. Wu, in China, back in July. My arguments hit the usual suspects — such as the manufacturers’ shirked responsibilities.
Mr. Wu didn’t disagree. But he did make a rather compelling point — what about the US companies? They also have a responsibility for quality assurance. Plus, China is a developing country. While the US has been doing due diligence in business for at least 50 years, if not more, China has only seriously cleaned up its act within the last 10 years or so. Has the US forgotten that it too has a tarnished history of manufacturing substandard and dangerous goods — one that it overcame only through experience and robust law enforcement (two resources that China desperately lacks)?
We easily forget the snake-oil sellers of the 1800’s, or the deplorable conditions of meat-packing workers described in the Jungle or the current muckracking classic Fast Food Nation. We have amnesia about our vulnerable food supply, evidenced by the E. coli Spinach scandal of 2006. Many of China’s mistakes were made here in the US long ago, and some continue to surface every now and then — a reminder that even we, a superpower, can’t always remain in control. Yet it is so easy to push the blame on a developing country — and neglect our true involvement in the making of a scandal.
When US companies manufacture in China, they have a responsibility to ensure quality — just as their manufacturing partner does. Of course, they want to find reliable partners who are less likely to have quality transgressions, and thus require less supervision. Yet, perhaps some US companies turned too much of a blind eye. They clearly didn’t have a handle on what was really going on in their factories. In some respects, they did not provide enough oversight on the ground — something that many of the “rising stars” in the China manufacturing world, trustworthy though they may seem, might require. Compared to their US counterparts, these manufacturers haven’t been in the game that long. They have a hard time keeping a long-term perspective about anything — because their successes have been fast and intense. China’s law enforcement is also notoriously unreliable, which trickles down into the manufacturing environment.
I am not absolving the Chinese manufacturers of their wrongdoing. Breaching contractual agreements — especially when it can endanger the health of the end-user — is just not good business.
But perhaps Mattel does owe their Chinese manufacturers an apology too. If Mattel failed in their supervision, in setting a standard and tenor for their Chinese partners, they hold equal responsibility for the recalls.