Made Local

This essay was published in the Manila Standard Today on 19 November 2011

In recent years, there has been a growing trend in local manufacturing in the United States, Japan and much of Western Europe. This “slow movement” is distinguished by the production of goods in small batches, whose raw materials are locally sourced and are either handmade or fabricated using more traditional, time-consuming methods. As a result of their limited quantity, artisanal quality and a sustainable approach to sourcing and production, these products retail at a high margin, even competing with luxury brands in terms of price.

This “less is more” approach to local manufacturing can be viewed as a reaction to increasing globalization, the outsourcing of factors of production, the consequent dominance of China and India and the reality that the West (with the exception perhaps of Germany) no longer makes things. Accordingly, slow manufacturing is close to home. Small, independent businesses employ an indigenous workforce who labors in domestic workshops (as opposed to mega factories) while procuring inputs native to the region. Unsurprisingly, brands that champion these methods of production have gained a cult following with customers wiling to pay a premium for their products.

Take, for example, The Hill-side – a New York-based men’s accessories brand that specializes in scarves, pocket squares and ties. Although most of the fabric is sourced from the best Japanese mills, its products, more specifically the label of its products, are 100% made in the USA. Contrary to contemporary sales methods, the firm has opted out of an online channel, making a limited amount of its wares available only at select retailers.

The same goes for Billykirk – a leather goods company founded in 1999 by two brothers in their Los Angeles garage. Renowned for its timeless designs, premium American hides and fine craftsmanship, the firm insists on using low-tech, traditional manufacturing techniques to produce well made, long lasting, heirloom pieces. Ten years on, the brand is now in high demand among global fashionistas and has since moved its slow production to a New Jersey studio.

At the same time, Europe fanatically endorses its vibrant local traditions and a similar outlook can be said for its products. Despite heralding the free market and birthing the Industrial Revolution, small and medium enterprises remain dotted across the European landscape. From bespoke tailors and couturières in and around European fashion capitals to made-to-measure gloves and espadrilles at the heart of Barcelona, it is evident that slow manufacturing is still alive in Europe – albeit the current health of its guilds remains questionable in these uncertain economic times.

Given the fact that consumers are willing to spend more on handcrafted, locally sourced, artisanal products from the United States, Europe and Japan, how then is this any different from purchasing identically manufactured products from the developing world?

Lest we forget, Asia, Africa and the Middle East are kaleidoscopes of rich local cultures, deeply rooted in craftsmanship. Khorat silk, Yogyakarta batik, Cebuano furniture, Delhi leather sandals, Mongolian moccasins, Phoenician pottery and Fes tiles are but a few examples. Characterized by the lack of heavy industry, particularly among least-developed countries, manufacturing is literally done at home as opposed to being close to home. Strikingly similar to slow manufacturing in the West, much of the backyard production in the developing world is done in small batches, using materials endemic to the region and are almost always handmade.

How is it then that local products from developing nations that are of equal if not finer quality, produced in the exact same manner are considered incomparable to their Western counterparts?

The unequal treatment of these types of goods can be attributed to their perceived value. Consumers are willing to pay more if the benefits of a specific product are perceived to be greater than the cost of ownership of that product. Supposedly, the customer gets more than what is bargained for. This is the logic behind shoppers preferring the slightly more expensive Brand X laundry detergent to Brand Y, even though the goods are exactly alike. This is also the founding principle of luxury brands, of which exclusivity and social status are the value-added, granted at an exuberant cost. In effect, companies are spending billions on advertising campaigns to increase the perceived value of their products in order to stimulate demand and justify the price.

In this case, however, it seems that consumer perceptions go beyond the overall value of a product’s attributes and take into consideration its country of origin. That being said, developing nations have always been unjustly labeled as cheap. This can be credited to their poverty, lagging industrialization and flawed human rights records. As a result, products made in the developing world carry a negative connotation and are consequently undervalued, despite being of equal or greater quality than Western handmade goods.

Let it be clear that slow manufacturing among developed nations is indeed a positive undertaking. The movement promotes the establishment of small and medium enterprises, which in turn provide employment opportunities to local communities and enforce sustainable methods of sourcing and production. In this respect, local manufacturing stimulates national economies – a much needed remedy to the perennial economic crisis.

The issue, therefore, is not that locally manufactured, artisanal products from the United States, Europe and Japan retail at a higher margin. The quality of these goods is undeniably superior and the time and effort invested in their craftsmanship does, perceptively at least, justify the price. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that corresponding products in the developing world, crafted with even finer class, are not treated with the same sophistication. Rather, these effects are consistently underrated and cast out as cheap.

Simply put, it is a matter of perception. ✌

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