Q: How do you go about researching mid-size factories willing to product low orders of educated experiments (aka prototypes)? Once you have your product, do you keep stock? How do you go about building relationships with companies that produce and distribute if you haven’t already made the investment to show at a design fair?
To answer this question properly I feel I need to start by first addressing the complicated ethical and environmental issues surrounding manufacturing within a globalized supply and distribution chain.
In an ideal world, everything we produce would be sourced, manufactured and distributed within a certain kilometre radius of its distribution point. I commend anybody who is trying to approach production from this standpoint.➀ Unfortunately the point that we find ourselves with modernization has produced consumer products that are not scalable with this model and this is where the true problem lies. This was very pointedly expressed by Thomas Thwaites well publicized Toaster Project➁ where he tried to make a toaster ‘beginning by mining the raw materials and ending with a product that Argos sells for only £3.99’.
Perhaps in the near future with advances in 3D printing, freedom of information and digital fabrication we will be able to see a world where a de-centralized supply chain is operated by more traditional design production companies but localized to a certain kilometre radius of the distribution channel. If this was possible we could also see Industrial Design adapt more innovative models, such as licensing, subscription, blockchain integration➂, pay what you can etc. It is perhaps a good time to look towards Enzo Mari’s seminal Autoprogettazione➃ as a possible mainstream model for our industry.
Decentralized production does already exist in some areas in our field, such as sofas,➄ where manufacturing is set up in both Europe and North America as the freight cost supersedes the economic benefits of centralized production. Historically companies would share licenses to manufacture and distribute the same products in Europe and North America. Ever wonder why Vitra and Herman Miller both sell authentic Eames Chais?➅ I was surprised to discover that this type of partnership had been used in the past between Canadian company Umbra and German company Authentics➆ while i worked there. This is to say economics will almost always be the driving factor when it comes to the future ofsustainability in Industrial Design.
When we discuss production we usually start with discussions such as ‘Local’ vs ‘Off Shore’, ‘Small Batch’ vs ‘Mass Production’, but we must also dig a bit deeper to understand what this really means. If our goal is to solve the environmental issues within the production of stuff we should understand what we are making, and what the alternative to what we are making would be if we did not make it. What i mean by this is if the problem with the production of stuff is driven by the cheap disposable stylized products of late-capitalism➇, are we really fixing this by selling very expensive locally produced furniture to a privileged few? I am not here to criticize this model but I think we should understand that there is no easy answer to environmentalism in the production of stuff, and we should not shy away from improving the practices of mass production as a way to address these problems.
Instead of only asking if a product was made in China, Europe, or North America we should also ask where the raw materials come from, where the products are being distributed what are the conditions of production (regardless of its country of origin). If we are selling a product in five different continents it does not really matter where we are centralizing manufacturing, as long as the conditions of production have been ethically sourced the materials an productions processes have been well designed and the freight has been well considered.
Our complicated relationship with products, their origins and the different values we apply to western and eastern manufacturing is perhaps best summarized by the Higher Brothers on their track ‘Made in China’.➈
‘My chains, new gold watch, made in China
We play ping pong ball, made in China
给b*tch买点⼉奢侈品 made in China
Yeah Higher Brothers' black cab, made in China
She said she didn't love me X
She lied, she lied
She all made in China X
She lied, she lied’
The irony of a rap group from Chengdu, China appropriating African American mumble rap to disseminate a message about things originating in China is not lost on me, but this perhaps best exemplifies the point i’m trying to emphasize. The world we live in is more complicated and connected than ever and we must not retreat into a romantic pre-globalized past if we want to tackle the most urgent contemporary issues we are facing when it comes to the production and consumption of stuff.