Blogs & Comment

Cleaning up China's act

Nobody wants to see unsafe toys getting into the hands of their children. Lead in SpongeBob Squarepants? Is nothing sacred?
Well, recent toy recalls from companies like Mattel, over the use of lead paint in toys produced in China, have contributed to what were already long-standing suspicions about the safety and quality of products produced in the Middle Kingdom. No doubt, such findings haven’t done much to repudiate the fearmongerering of those here in Canada and the United States who would like to see trade with China shut down, for their own reasons.
In response to all this, the Chinese government has vowed to clean up the offending factories and, well, get the lead out by Christmas. It has also urged greater co-operation with western governments to normalize product safety standards.
This is all good, of course. But I wonder how much of the burden the world should place on China in all this.
After all, is it really any surprise to anybody that such mishaps occur in a country where manufacturing costs are so low, where plants and workforces are so flexible, and where domestic environmental standards in general are so poor?
More to the point, should it be any surprise to the Western companies that manufacture over there? Surely, those companies have a duty to their customers to spend the extra dough and ensure their Chinese plants, and Chinese-made products, meet the safety standards of the countries in which their customers live. It is, in short, their ultimate responsibility. To expect government in China to do this legwork for them is simply naive.
And Western-based companies outsourcing to China have an added reason to enforce product standards there: instilling, among the businesses and business people they work with, a concern for product safety and a respect for environmental considerations. As lawsuits pile up and customers question product integrity, this is purely a matter of self-interest.
Granted, the Chinese government in typical high-profile fashion is cracking down on companies that pollute. But this is the heavy hand. A better long-term solution is for western companies is to see to it that their Chinese partners recognize the need for best practices–and start to use them.