Monday, August 13, 2007


American corporations and consumers also to blame for recalled Chinese products

by Larry Geller

The next time someone lauds the benefits of the "free market" or "free trade," that is, how corporate greed is supposed to result in competition beneficial to the consumer, remind them of poison pet food, lead paint in children's toys and counterfeit toothpaste. All these things were made in China (though the problem isn't limited to China) but are sold to you by corporations who know that their quality control was not adequate to protect you. They also knew that consumers don't care any more and will buy anything if it's cheap.

Their profit is at the expense of your pet's health, your health and your children's health. They profit seemingly without risk, nor are we effectively regulating what they can do ("free trade," remember). If they compete, they compete for how cheaply they can make something. It's a competitive edge if they can find a cheaper sweatshop.

Consumers share the blame, in my view, because we have seldom held companies accountable. Boycotts are not effective in this country. So in our acquiescence we share the blame. We let them do this to us.

I understand that the heads of some Chinese companies caught exporting toxic goods committed suicide. Apparently it is a tradition there. There's no such tradition here, nor do corporate executives do jail time, so consequences are few. Sure, maybe a few will lose some of their bonuses. I don't think justice is being done here.

Surely, the death of quality control in the USA is a disappeared news story. While Google will teach you all about QA, TQA and ISO standards, I have my own little story.

My father was foreman in a button factory for a time. When he brought home some books to study, I also got to peek at them. He also brought home books on plastics and metals. I learned all about thermosetting and thermoplastic materials, what makes a button strong enough so that when it is sewn onto a garment by machine the center part doesn't break off, how the holes are chamfered. etc. I learned about surface treatment for metals, and lots more. Who knows why I found that interesting. I learned about materials and why one is better for a particular use than another, and how long they would last.

My first summer job before my junior year in college was at a tape recorder factory. You remember the old reel-to-reel monsters with neon recording indicators? You had to make the orange light flash as you talked, but not glow constantly or the sound was overloading. I became a quality control engineer even though I hadn't graduated yet. I designed testing jigs for the tape recorder electronics boards, among other things.

The neon bulbs were sampled. Every shipment. The bearings were tested. And so forth. It was much better to catch bad parts before they were installed in equipment which would then have to be taken off the line or worse--returned by customers for repair.

Exactly how many in each batch would be tested varied with our confidence in the manufacturer, but all incoming parts were sampled for QA.

This is what's gone by the wayside. Companies just import and distribute. The lead paint in toys should have been caught, but shareholder profit and obscene executive salaries meant that they weren't. In other words, greed has eliminated quality control. And companies are willing to take the heat when they are caught.

Now, consumers want the cheap $24 oscillating floor fan that they can buy at Longs. They want the cheap battery-operated vacuum cleaner for use in their cars. Never mind that the wrong plastic has been used in the casing of many of these fans, and that after a few years of operation, the plastic literally shatters when you touch it, exposing live electrical parts. Never mind that the batteries in the vacuum cleaners die prematurely, usually a short while after the warranty is up.

In other words, we want our cheap goods and we don't care about quality control either.

Corporate greed means that another source of cheap goods must be found if China continues to disappoint. It doesn't mean that the fired quality control engineers will be re-hired.

The only way to turn things around would be if consumers stood up to corporations and refused to buy from them unless they change their ways. And that's probably extremely unlikely.


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