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Have you ever considered the journey of a tennis racket, golf club, or other piece of sporting equipment from little pieces of metal and plastic to you holding it in your hands? Neither did I, before I visited this factory…

A friend who teaches sports at a local university introduced me to Bryan and Mike, two recent university graduates who run a sporting goods company. The company manufactures specialty sporting goods[1] under their own brand and for other retailers[2].

I met Bryan and Mike at their city in Zhejiang province, near their small downtown office. We had lunch first. As usual they asked me lots of questions about US versus China stuff (see Factory 1 ). Afterwards Mike drove me out to their manufacturing facility.

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The tour

The factory was located in a government-designated industrial park, far out in the suburbs of their city[3]. As we drove into the factory entrance, I was struck by its small size: one small warehouse building flanked by two even smaller warehouses. Mike and Bryan’s company sold products in over 30 countries, yet this was the small factory where they manufactured their products?

The manufacturing facility was shared by one of Mike’s relatives, who owned a company that manufactured bathroom accessories. The main warehouse building contained an injection molding setup I had seen before in other factories: a few sets of injection molding machines lined up in the warehouse, raw plastic materials in one corner, output inventory in another corner, and some waste plastic strewn around. As simple as that: Plastic pellets. Some machines. And more plastic widgets. And of course, it smelled like melted plastic. So much plastic.

The inputs to the manufacturing process consisted of plastic pellets, metal molds (which they milled in an adjacent warehouse), electricity (all of their equipment was electric-powered) and lubricant oil, while the major waste streams they generated consisted of cardboard boxes and waste plastic.

There was more than met the eye, however. Mike told me that the mold design and plastic formula each took several years and experimenting with tens of iterations to get “right”. Getting the product “right”, Mike explained, meant making a product that appeared and felt the same as their American-based competitors’ products. Given their specialty sporting goods market where customers could tell the slightest difference, this was especially important.

I asked Mike about the pile of used products sitting at the corner of the warehouse. He told me about their company’s takeback program: customers could mail back used products, and Mike’s company would take out the plastic parts, grind up the plastic parts and use it as raw material for injection molding special “environmentally friendly” (EF) versions of their products made up of partially recycled materials[4].

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The discussion

After the tour, I sat down with Mike at a conference room in the company offices to ask him a wide range of questions[5] about his views towards environmentalism and how that affected his company practices.

Mike’s background was quite interesting. When he was little, he wanted to be an artist, because he felt that drawing was “an opportunity to record beautiful objects.” That dream died off as job market realities set in during university. He studied business at university, knowing that he wanted to start his own company some day (his dad owns a manufacturing company, so perhaps that was an influence). Afterwards, he worked at a bank for two years before getting antsy to start his own company (“Things were too boring,” he mentioned). He knew he wanted to start a sporting goods company, so he researched different sporting goods markets. He picked this particular sport because it was not too popular in China, which meant there were not too many Chinese competitors in the industry. He and Bryan started the company, and only then did Mike start playing the sport.

With regards to his personal views on environmental protection, Mike told me that it was sufficient to have “enough consumption to satisfy your own needs.” Further economic development at the cost of harming the environment was not worth it, he said. Although this answer might indicate a changing Chinese consciousness towards the environment among youth, I suspect other factors such as Mike’s upper-middle class upbringing and studying abroad in Europe during university were more important contributing factors to his personal views. Mike seemed to confirm this when he told me that he thought his viewpoint was quite unique compared to other Chinese of his age.

From my tour of the factory, I saw Mike’s words being put into action for the most part. The factory wasn’t the cleanest factory I’ve seen, but then again, injection molding isn’t terribly impactful on the environment either[6]. Their takeback program, and the fact that they saw selling recycled products as a good marketing opportunity were signs of good intentions, if not results[7].

Mike told me that at the end of the day, what motivated his factory to be more or less environmentally friendly was largely a financial decision. To him, the product takeback program was the most apparent indicator that his company cared about protecting the environment, plus it was good for marketing, especially on the foreign market. However, during my tour, I saw very few takeback products (indeed, I saw many more mal-manufactured products lying around the warehouse floor), indicating that the takeback program wasn’t that big in terms of the number of old products sent in. Despite this, it was the thought that counted for marketing; better marketing meant more revenue.

Another piece of the financial pie came from recycling plastic. Besides the aforementioned takeback program, plastic was recycled or reused from two other sources: leftover plastic from the injection molding process and bad products from the assembly line. These were ground up into pellets and then sold to recyclers. The revenue generated from selling to the recyclers was insignificant. Mike said that it was better from a financial perspective to view the recyclers as “free waste management”.

In summary:

● Plastic from the takeback program was recycled into special “environmentally friendly” products.

● Defective products from the assembly line were ground up into pellets. Some were recycled into the “environmentally friendly” products, but most were sold to recyclers.

● Leftover plastic from the injection molding process was ground up and sold to recyclers.

As for their company’s customers, Mike said that customers (mainly large retailers based in Europe/North America) would only care that the product was third-party certified non-toxic (tested by mailing in a product to a third party testing lab), but that they have never come to audit the factory[8].

Interestingly, one of his OEM customers, a large North American retail chain, specifically bought their “environmentally friendly” product. Mike said that one of the main reasons the customer picked their company over other OEMs was because of the branding the retail chain would enjoy with an “environmentally friendly” product made from recycled materials. In my opinion, although this is a good start on the part of the retail chain customers, they would be better off doing a real environmental assessment of the factory and products’ environmental impact. Otherwise this is just good intentioned greenwashing that doesn’t really have much benefit (see footnote 7).

On more detailed technical aspects, such as how often the local environmental protection bureau (EPB) came and audited the factory and what the recyclers did with the waste plastic, Mike did not know too much. On the latter, Mike joked to me, “I don’t know exactly what the recycled plastic we sell to the recyclers is recycled into, but somewhere down the line they’re probably turned into cheap Made-In-China Christmas products.”

Given all this, I was not surprised by Mike’s answer when I asked my last question of the interview, “How do you think your factory is doing with respect to environmental protection?” Mike answered “比较好,特别是回收项目,但是还可以进步. Relatively well. Especially the product takeback program. But we can still improve.”

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Packaging makes a big difference

After touring their factory, Bryan took me to a local print shop where they get product packaging manufactured and printed.

The entrance was strewn with pallets and bales of cardboard ready to be picked up by recyclers:

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The shop itself was a dingy, dimly lit warehouse full of printing equipment and bales of paper and cardboard. In the offices, I was surprised at the abundance of well-known Western brands the shop was making packaging for:

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Packaging for a Minnie Mouse toy that will be sold for a major North American retailer.

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Safety card for a child car seat/booster seat, probably for the North American market.

Bryan showed me the packaging for one of his company’s sports products. It looked surprisingly well done and professional, in contrast to how rather informal and somewhat dirty his factory was.

Then I realized: The packaging was the gap between the not-so-clean product and factory to the shiny new toy sitting on a store shelf in the U.S. The packaging was one reason a customer can buy one of Mike and Bryan’s company’s products and not realize what a relatively small and unsophisticated factory that made it was.

The next time I go to a mall in the U.S., I won’t view plastic things the same way again.

As a side note, I saw a few paraplegics working in the print shop as well. Apparently the print shop receives government subsidies for employing paraplegic workers. Many factories I would later visit received government subsidies to encourage environmentally sound practices, but subsidies encouraging progressive labor practices were a rarer sight. Several of the other factories I would later visit hired handicapped workers as well. One factory was half employed by mute people, a fact I suspect also had to do with the company receiving government subsidies.

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Conclusion

All in all, Mike and Bryan’s company factory was similar in size and environmental practices to the three other injection molding factories I would later visit. As I discussed above in footnote 6, one more small-scale injection molding factory in China is not that impactful in the grand scheme of things, but when there are 80,000 new injection molding machines being put into commission in China every year[9], every new environmentally-beneficial behavior that is propagated to other injection molders helps. In this light, Mike and Bryan’s product takeback program is a step in the positive direction, even if it has more of an impact on environmental consciousness than the environment itself.

The thing that struck me the most, however, was unrelated to the environment. Mike and Bryan actually liked their job. They told me as much, and I could see it in the way they talked about their company. I know that their situation is the exception in China: they chose what industry to go into, they interact with customers very often (they even go to competitions for their sport sometimes), and Mike and Bryan are good friends. Still, I haven’t found this level of job affinity among any other factory managers or owners I’ve interviewed. That is something truly special.


[1] By specialty sporting goods, I mean sporting goods specific to a specific sport, more specialized than retail. For privacy reasons, I do not mention the specific sport in this essay.

[2] Manufacturing goods that are then retailed under a purchasing company’s name, which makes this manufacturing company an original equipment manufacturer (OEM)

[3] Observant readers will notice a trend of manufacturing facilities located far from the city center. A reason for this trend is, ostensibly, that polluting factories can be clustered together in industrial parks with pollution control facilities. For example, see this Xinhua News article that discusses the porcelain manufacturing city of Jingdezhen: “Porcelain factories have been moved out of the city’s downtown area to suburban industrial parks with pollution control facilities, Zhu said.”

However, in my research, I’ve found the aforementioned pollution control facilities to be non-existent in industrial parks with small to medium sized enterprises. The real reason for locating factories far from city centers probably has more to do with just moving pollution away from city centers than the availability of pollution control facilities. For example, many of Hangzhou’s factories used to be located in the city center, but in the past 10-20 years, they have all been mostly moved out to the suburban areas of Xiasha and Xiaoshan.

[4] In practice, most injection molding factories practice a similar mode of recycling anyway. That is, they take leftover plastic from the manufacturing process (such as mal-manufactured products), grind it up into plastic pellets, and use it as a raw material in the injection molding process again. This is usually done in a ratio of 10-20% reused to 80-90% new material. Mike’s factory is slightly different since they recycle used as opposed to leftover plastic (leftover plastic is sold to third party recyclers). Since Mike’s factory was producing a high-quality good, his normal products used 100% raw material, while only his “environmentally friendly” recycled product version used some mix of leftover plastic.

[5] For the list of questions I asked in this and subsequent interviews: see here

[6] See Thieriez and Gutowski’s (both from MIT) 2006 paper, An Environmental Analysis of Injection Molding, available online here. The injection molding process itself is a relatively benign process with respect to the environment due to its low direct emission levels and low energy consumption. The actual production of the plastic raw materials is an order of magnitude more impactful than the injection molding, as measured by energy consumption. Finally I suspect shipping, especially overseas, has significant environmental impact. Shipping is something Thieriez’s paper does not consider.

[7] I doubt the overall environmental impact (for example, measured by CO2 emission equivalents) over the lifetime of the “environmentally friendly” product is much less than the overall impact of the normal product (see footnote 6). Besides, as mentioned in footnote 4, most plastic injection molding factories recycle leftover plastic anyway.

[8] I’ve generally found that to be the case, even in large companies. When customers do come to audit factories, they perform an overall audit of factors such as labor conditions, equipment condition, employee safety, etc. Environmental impact of the factory is only a small part of the process.

[9] See this injection molding machine market survey report: http://www.prweb.com/releases/china-injection-molding/machine-industry-report/prweb10189702.htm

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One thought on “Factory 2: sporting goods

  1. I definitely hear you on the comment you made about packaging. Designers have an incredible impact on how we perceive products. I think about that with websites a lot. At first glance it is possible to pick out a website that has had good design work go into it, but that doesn’t always correlate with having solid functionality or purpose. But a good first visual impression can really make your brain think there’s something worthwhile there :).

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