In an effort to make its products sustainable and ecologically friendly, German-based toymaker Hape has been manufacturing toys made largely from bamboo. Additionally, the company claims to avoid plastic in its packaging, utilize organic inks, and so on. There’s really no way to tell to what extent such measures are based on an earnest sense of duty among corporate executives. But Hape and any other company that undertakes similar green initiatives are certain to do so on the basis of some mixture of genuine concern for the environment and simply for their profit margins. It’s only natural.
Anyone who reads this site regularly will already understand the environmental benefits to be had from the promotion of bamboo as a base for manufactured products. That applies to Hape as to any other topic that has been covered here. But what is of particular interest in this case is the potential socio-economic benefit of utilizing bamboo in overseas manufacturing operations.
As an example of the usual straightforward interest in what’s best for the profitability of the business, Hape, like many Western manufacturers, has its production done in China, where labor is often shockingly cheap. Over the course of years, there have been numerous reports on terrible working conditions in Chinese factories, and quite recently workers at the Foxconn electronics manufacturer threatened mass suicide in reaction to pay disputes amidst such conditions.
Any company responsible for outsourcing to a place where they risk contributing to that sort of climate is morally suspect. But an investment in local bamboo, like that of Hape, might help to undercut some of the concerns that might be raised about a company’s influence on the local workforce. While Western exploitation of foreign employees is a fact of the global economy, it is not a strictly necessary outcome of doing business overseas. Forging relationships with local suppliers and supporting the more profitable aspects of the region’s economy can demonstrate an unusual interest in safeguarding the welfare of a population that could otherwise be viewed as nothing but cheap labor.
A fifth of the world’s bamboo grows in China, and for those Chinese farmers who wish to grow it for sale and processing it generally proves to be quite profitable. Consequently, it is a crucial part of certain rural economies within the nation, being responsible for as much as a third of the total revenue in certain counties.
In Anji county, which relies enormously on bamboo growing, the per capita income even as far back as 1995 was over thirty percent more than that of the national average for rural households. There were meaningful gains in the socio-economic position of locals as bamboo output exploded over the course of the preceding decade. Apart from generally increased income, processing of the commercial bamboo provides rare jobs for rural women.
If companies that outsource to China also provide a new market for continued increase in the output of Chinese bamboo, the result could well be a win-win situation. Western companies get cheap labor, but Chinese agricultural workers receive heightened revenues in turn. Over time, better lives on the farms will necessitate better lives in the factories.
It is one thing to take advantage of low wages, but it’s absolutely unconscionable to sidestep raw materials and local skill sets in order to keep an outsourced workforce locked into a diminished socio-economic position. I hope that by using Chinese bamboo at the same time that it uses Chinese workers Hape is doing right by the country that hosts its operations at the same time that it is doing right by its shareholders. There is an essential compromise to be had there. It is the same between business and labor as it is between economics and environmentalism. In one way or another, bamboo supports all of these.