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Beware the Ides of March

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Verri store in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang

Everyone (at least those with an Irish connection – no matter how tenuous) knows that today, the 17th March, is Saint Patrick’s day.  I, for one, will be having a pint of Dublin’s own Liffey Water tonight to toast the Great Saint.  I wonder, though, how many people know what is significant about the 15th March?  The anniversary of the murder of Julius Caesar (44BC)… yes indeed. The anniversary of the opening of Selfridges in London (1909)… correct, but get a life.  Maine admitted as the 23rd state of the USA… impressive. Commemoration of the Holy Martyrs Agapius and his seven companions… score 50 bonus points (but only if you didn’t have to google or baidu it, as I did). 


  But how many people – hand on heart – know that the 15th March is also World Consumer Right’s Day?  President John F. Kennedy's speech, delivered on the 15th Match 1962, would inspire the movement.  He said: “Consumers by definition include us all. They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group… whose views are often not heard.”


  But if you think that, thanks to JFK, 15th March is the day that the eyes of the world’s media organisations focus on the issues affecting the consumer and, in so doing, expose the manufacturers and marketers whose standards fall short of what the consumer is entitled to, then think again because World Consumer Right’s Day has been largely ignored.  Except, that is, here in China, where in recent years it has been embraced with open arms and not to mention a gleeful rubbing of the hands.


  On hearing this, if you are thinking that “Consumer Day” was perhaps used as an opportunity to remind all manufacturers that consumer interests must always come first (with the public’s health and safety at the top of the list of a company’s responsibility), then think again.  Instead of using the day to urge companies to re-double their efforts to guard against the kind of systemic failings that were, for instance, exhibited by those found guilty of manufacturing and selling contaminated milk products, the big guns of the Chinese media took aim in a different direction. 


  The People’s Daily, CCTV, the China Daily, and numerous web portals all had a go at one section of the vast China marketplace: foreign brands.  The People’s Daily headline, “Tests reveal foreign brands’ quality flaws,” was intended, with a single brushstroke, to tar as many foreign brands as possible. 


  Their 'scoop' is that “International brand-name products, once hailed in China for their high standards, were under the spotlight Monday, World Consumer Rights Day”.

 

  The articles goes on to say that, “Results from a two-month long sample quality inspection by the Zhejiang Administration of Industry and Commerce (ZJAIC) showed imported clothes produced by 30 internationally recognized brands from 11 countries and regions, including Versace of Italy and Hermes of France, were below regulation standards.  A total of 48 out of 85 batches of clothes were faulty, with just 43.5 percent meeting the standard.


  The report highlights a litany of shortcomings, including “excessive formaldehyde” allegedly found in Verri jeans.  I would have thought that any level of formaldehyde would be a worry, but “excessive formaldehyde”, according to the local media, can cause skin irritation and even cancer.  So much for me thinking that the biggest danger faced by jeans-wearers is an increased susceptibility to groin strains.


  Interesting that the two-month long inspection process should be concluded just in time for the results to be announced on World Consumer Right’s Day.  Interesting that the ZJAIC has a track record of “exposing” the failings of foreign brands (“Through random inspection, we intend to warn consumers about blindly trusting foreign brands, which have many problems," said a spokesman of theirs). Interesting that Zhejiang is one of China’s most important manufacturing bases for garments destined for export.  Interesting, also, that Chinese-manufactured clothing has been under the spotlight of late because of receiving countries’ quality concerns.


  Chinese academics were wheeled out from all points of the compass to voice their shock, horror, and indignation at the arrogance of "foreign brands".  For instance, Yu Minggang, professor of Brand Marketing at Shanghai Jiaotong University seethed: “It is high time foreign brands stepped out of their shrines of worship” (presumably so they could be stoned by an angry mob of outraged consumers).


  Marco Brugognone, partner at Verri, was having none of it.  He told The Wall Street Journal that he was "very surprised" to hear of the findings, suggesting that the pair of jeans that the Zhejiang authorities had claimed contained “excess formaldehyde” might well have been a fake pair.  If that turns out to be the case, then Zhejiang – which is one of the centres for the counterfeiting of foreign luxury clothing – would have a generous amount of egg on its face.


  Prior to the Zhejiang incident, the China Daily, in a separate (?) attack, published a glossy “name and shame” colour page, with the headline: “World Consumer Rights Day special: Focus on int'l brands in China.”  Sprite was one of several brands in the dock.  The headline next to the bottle of Sprite reads: “Second victim to claim Sprite poisoning in Beijing”. The story opens with: “A middle-school student has become the second person in Beijing to get mercury poisoning after drinking a can of Sprite in less than three months.”  This is far more serious than the charge that Verri jeans contain “excessive levels” of formaldehyde, or at least it would be if it were true.  I clicked through to the story of the first alleged mercury poisoning incident, which had been widely reported as the fault of the manufacturer, only to find that the man had, according to the Beijing News, admitted to injecting the mercury in to the bottle himself – rendering the China Daily’s story misleading at best.   

  That’s why it’s hard to take these “There’s a wolf!” reports at face value. For whatever reason or reasons, the media here seem to have declared open season on foreign-owned brands, whose shortcomings (imagined and real) are regularly and unfairly positioned as an affront to China and Chinese people.  Whatever the agenda, the stoking up of the “us” versus “them” age-old fears and prejudices does no one any favours, least of all the Chinese consumer whose rights they purport to be protecting.    

  If you are managing a foreign-owned brand in China, this is a time for extra vigilance and to redouble your quality-checking, review your suppliers' operations, and re-examine your distribution chain. In other words, beware the Ides of March.

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Verri in China