Chinese Junk

SongJunkAs a little shaver, I thought the term Chinese Junk, which referenced a type of ancient ship design predominantly but not exclusively employed by the Chinese, referred to the quality of the ship. Yes, little shavers tend to be quite literal. Nuance comes later.

Actually, the term has more interesting etymology, and through a number of cycles of understanding, means a particular type of ship.

As with many other ancient Chinese things, these ships employed clever design features, very advanced for their time. In these designs the sails, masts, and hulls had exceptional seaworthy characteristics which took many years to make their way into Western shipbuilding.

1421A number of years ago my eldest son gave me a best selling book titled, “1421: The Year China Discovered The World” by Gavin Menzies, an “amateur” British historian. In it Mr. Menzies tells his story of how the Chinese sailed all over the globe, in very large Junks.

This runs counter to other theories that people of Asian origin crossed the Bering Straight between Asia and Alaska, which, at the time, 10,000 years ago, was a land mass.

The only reason I mention Menzies’ theory is that the book describes some pretty fabulous Chinese Junks. According to him, there were multiple fleets of them and each fleet literally put a city to sea. These fleets had the capability of sailing very long distances for very long times. Menzies describes the capabilities of these magnificent ships and creates wonderful visions for the reader, right or wrong. Remember the amateur moniker.

Today

Today, there is a very high probability that when you buy something from clothing to hardware, there will be a made in China label on the product. This brings up a wealth of topics: a decline in US manufacturing, offshoring as a viable corporate strategy, the US economy becoming services dominant, nationalistic feelings about Made in USA, effective use of the US labor pool, and on and on.

Personal Experience

It probably isn’t very smart to use a sample size of one to establish any kind of data perspective, but here goes anyway. For years I was drawn to Orvis clothing for high quality, cool looking (to me anyway) outdoor togs. A while back I contacted them because buttons kept falling off a new shirt purchased from them. They fell off the first time I wore the shirt and continued to do so during and after the first few washings. Other items I had, while older and more seasoned, were plagued with similar quality issues.

I contacted the company and with a great customer service approach, they agreed to take back any of their products with which I was unhappy no matter the product’s age. They would replace them or give me my money back.

This was impressive but my response was not exactly what they had hoped for, I suspect. I returned a number of items for a refund. I had become convinced that with these kinds of quality problems, I did not want replacements.

A letter written to the CEO of Orvis resulted in the call from the nice person who made the above offer. When I pressed her about their quality problems, she seemed to think that their great return policy would solve everything. She could not grasp that I was looking for some indication that they were cognizant of and fixing the underlying problem.

All of the items were Made in China.

Today’s Chinese Junk

Most of us can probably add to the following list. In the past few years I have purchased a number of products besides clothes for use around the home: dehumidifiers, a clothes iron, a small space heater, a coffee maker, etc. These products had three things in common. They were constructed mostly from plastic, they were made in China, and they had stopped working.

All of these gizmos failed well before any reasonable useful life had been attained.

To what is this a testament? Have the Chinese people become capable of only producing real junk? Has the clever innovation that produced those amazing ships disappeared in the collectivist political orientation of the country?

Are the companies who utilize the manufacturing capabilities of China not managing quality appropriately? Are the manufacturing capabilities too dependent on bad labor practices to keep their prices down in order to attract the western customers?

These are complex interrelated questions not easily answered.

Pride

Of one thing I am sure. Pride in a person’s work can produce extraordinary results.

Sea Mist Gansey, book coverWhen products are made locally, for example, a sweater knit in our little village using wool from local sheep and yarn spun in our local mill, the maker often stands across the table from the buyer and they often know each other.

Poor quality will immediately be evident or, if not, its later ascertainment will bring embarrassment to the creator of the product. There will also be a diminished desire for others to buy from this creator as word of mouth works its negative consequences.

This phenomenon is extensible to larger scale manufacturing. Well managed manufacturing facilities can create a sense of pride in their employees and a consequent high quality in their products.

One of my favorite auto racing team owners, Roger Penske, owns many companies involved in the transportation industry. In 1988 Roger bought a majority share in Detroit Diesel which had been created as a division of General Motors in 1938. The following story may just be one of Roger’s myths but it certainly represents his management style and helps to make my point.

Prior to Roger buying into Detroit Diesel, the unit was struggling. Morale in the workforce was low and product pride was not in their playbook.

Indy_Day_3_QF_084.135194040One of the first things Roger did after the purchase, was to invite the entire workforce to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch his race teams compete.

All were provided with branded clothing from Penske Racing.

There is a pretty good chance that Penske Racing won the race but even if they did not, imagine those previously downhearted folks in their Penske Racing gear loudly cheering for their new boss’ team. I suspect that this combined with other more business school like changes helped to bring the unit back from the brink and instilled pride in the workforce. Sure, it started as pride in Penske Racing, but Roger had shown them what it’s like to be winners and the intense dedication, hard work, and pride that is involved.

To do this when the company is located in the United States and the manufacturing is in China is considerably more difficult.

Lots of coordination is involved if instilling these kinds of values is even possible through intermediaries. Quality standards must be developed and somehow enforced over very long distances by some kind of organizational structure.

In addition, these Chinese manufacturing companies are most often contractors and not associated through employment with the product company.

Piles of Plastic Junk

Remember those failed products were made mostly from plastic.

A few years ago, I learned about the Pacific Gyre from a teaching colleague in the MBA in Managing for Sustainability program at Marlboro College.

A gyre is a system of ocean currents and wind patterns. There are five major gyres on the earth’s surface.

gyre1_550If there is something like plastic waste in the water, the gyre will tend to collect it and cause what some are calling the Pacific Garbage Patch, a portion of which is shown in the picture.

The problem is actually more insidious. Looking at satellite photos, anything as dense and massive as the garbage patch is claimed to be would be able to be seen. The photos don’t show the massive garbage patch that some claim is there. However, closer study shows much smaller plastic waste pieces all over the gyres.

Yes, there are concentrations like that shown in the picture but the huge expanse of garbage is far less visible and for that reason the folks trying to call our attention to it have probably tried to underscore their point with these pictures.

So we end up where we so often do, in a polarized place. It’s either there, as in the nasty pictures, or not, as in the satellite photos. Why so many of us who live on the surface of this great planet are so apt to not pay attention to a problem just because there is no awful picture to present amazes me.

What to Do?

Most of my age peers and even a few of the younger folks will remember the line from the 1967 film, “The Graduate”. Dustin Hoffman, playing Ben a recent college graduate who is a bit aimless and disillusioned, is told by one of the elders, “There’s a great future in plastics”.

We now have seen the future and the results are in. The products are junk and a great deal of that junk is swirling around in the five major gyres on our planet.

It’s time to stop buying anything that is made from or packaged in non recyclable or reusable materials. It will be extremely difficult but imagine the impact if we all started tomorrow.

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