In 1982, while I was pregnant with Mari, I started my mail-order business from a desire to provide natural products for babies. At that time, it was a one-woman operation. If I stood in the middle of the small spare bedroom, I could touch the laundry baskets filled with baby products with one hand, and my desk, where I processed orders, managed sales, and did accounting, with the other. Two to three years later, I expanded to the garage and hired my housekeeper as my first employee.
After 13 years of running the business in my home, I moved i play., Inc. to an industrial location, where I began manufacturing with home seamstresses. Every week we cut fabric, and women picked up the pieces in big black bags, sewed them at home, and returned the finished products in exchange for more cut pieces. At one point, they could sew 10,000 swim diapers a week!
As our product range grew, I developed in-house manufacturing with several women sewing. This was one of my most challenging times in business, as I learned that time is money, and labor and product costs could skyrocket without efficiency and controls. Dealing with the pressures and problems associated with manufacturing was not my personal strength, so I started outsourcing to small contractors around the United States—in North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas. These contractors required micromanaging, and it was difficult to control quality. I had to call them several times a day to keep them on track to meet deadlines.
At that time, I was strongly against manufacturing outside the United States because of the same concerns that many people have today. In 1996, I had a change of heart when I went on a human-rights mission trip to Central America through the Center for Global Education. I saw poverty that I had never imagined, and I saw women begging for sewing work. It was very painful and sad for me to experience their desperation.
That trip created a shift in my thinking: “People need work to make money to feed their families everywhere in the world.” This changed my nationalistic thinking from believing in the value of only making products “Made in the USA.”
As my business grew, I looked for larger-scale manufacturing in Latin America—Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Colombia. At the time, the factories that I worked with did not have the capacity to print the fabric designs that we required, so we shipped fabric from Korea to Bogota, Colombia. They cut, sewed, and packaged the products and shipped them to us in North Carolina. We had lots of quality issues that required repairs and reworking. In addition, I did not appreciate the fact that the owner of the business was rarely available, and not at work, while the workers received low wages.
In 2002, a friend advised me of his experience of working in Asia with increased efficiencies. He introduced me to a factory in Thailand that improved product quality and gave me fewer headaches than I had experienced previously. Of course, I still had some problems with quality, scheduling, and communication, but that seems to be the nature of manufacturing. However, the overall efficiency and infrastructure for outsourcing were better than I had experienced in the past. Although costs were lower, I had added freight and duty costs, along with higher MOQs (minimum order quantities) and a longer lead time to receive the products. Because production thrives on making large amounts of the same thing over and over to reduce cost, I had to buy a large amount at one time.
As I traveled to Asia to work with our suppliers, I contemplated the complexity of the changing global situation. The United States has moved from an industrial era to an information age. Industrialization seems to move around the globe, chasing after cheap labor. As an economy strengthens, prices go up and companies move on to the factories that have the next-lowest price. I asked myself, “How does i play., Inc. fit into this global maze of product production?” Here were my considerations:
- Consumers are demanding lower prices. We are a small company, and we need to be price competitive with other juvenile products companies that outsource in Asia and offer low prices.
- We need suppliers that have the infrastructure to provide quality products in a timely and efficient manner. We must also be able to depend on and trust our suppliers.
- Domestic manufacturing is becoming less of an option for us, because many of the sources have disappeared.
- Owning and running a factory requires major capital equipment that my small business does not have, and production management is becoming a rare commodity.
- By outsourcing we have been able to diversify our product line to include apparel, feeding items, toys, dried ingredients for homemade baby fare, and baby care.
Meanwhile, I recognize that Americans have valid concerns about offshore manufacturing, particularly in China. My understanding is that the main concerns are quality, ecological concerns, social conditions, and U.S. jobs.
I believe that it is the responsibility of the company that owns the brand, instead of the contractor(s), to manage product quality as an integral process from start to finish. That means setting standards in design, raw material, construction, quality control, and testing.
Because of our international business, particularly in Europe and Japan, we have been alerted about material concerns sooner than other U.S. manufacturers have been. Years ago, we manufactured bibs with a PVC coating on fabric from New Jersey. When we discovered the dangers of PVC, we tested it and immediately took it out of our manufacturing process. In 2006, we petitioned against BPA and removed it from our product line before any regulations were enforced. We are always investigating chemicals that can adversely impact baby’s health and well-being and always work to find safer alternatives for our products.
Guoxu (Samuel) Zhu, a graduate of the University of Georgia, manages our office in China, overseeing production quality and factory conditions. Samuel has a son named River, and he shares our values for healthy baby products. He personally visits the factories regularly to check for quality and factory conditions.
Once the product arrives, we take a random sampling of every shipment of product that is delivered to our facility. Each item goes through a verification process to check for quality and safety. We guarantee that our products have a 98% pass rate.
In the past, labor practices in China have included child labor and unfair treatment of workers. However, our factory managers say that the demand for workers is higher than the supply, which means that workers currently have increased wages, power, and options. If workers do not like the conditions and pay at one factory, they can easily find a better job at another. These increased labor costs do affect our product costs.
Until recently there has been little concern for the environment in China. However, because the lack of concern for the environment has had negative effects, the government is starting to create environmental regulations and standards. At least they are taking some steps in that direction, but environmental issues are still a big problem for China. In our product-development processes, we choose materials that have a low negative environmental impact.
United States Jobs
Many Americans say that outsourcing to other countries has reduced U.S. jobs. Factory skills such as cutting and sewing are not taught in technical schools or on the job site because today’s youth who are going into the job market in our industry have little interest in factory work. i play. employs over 60 full-time staff, with around 25 in the office and 35 in the warehouse. Outsourcing to factories overseas has provided my business and other US entrepreneurs the opportunity to develop a business with limited financial resources.
I have been to Asia a dozen times to work with suppliers—in China, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan—and with each trip the changes seem to accelerate. I recognize that our global economy is not static; it is dynamic, ever changing, and complex. I cannot begin to understand all of the factors and how they fit together, how they affect each other, and what the implications will be in the next few years. I feel that it is impossible to find a clear-cut solution that is exactly right because of the complexity of the situation. The best I know to do is to try to be conscious and to try to make choices with intentionality and prioritization every day, while keeping our main purpose and values in mind.
Samuel, the manager of our office in China, says that because of the one-child policy, two parents and four grandparents place all of their resources into one child, and they want a better life for that child. They want her to have an education and do not expect for her to do factory work, the same as American parents wish for their children. The next generation is not entering the labor market as factory workers, so the majority of current factory workers in China are over 30 years old. The one-child policy also means there will be a reduction in China’s population in the next generation, which is decreasing their labor force. Because of all these changes, it is hard to predict who will manufacture our products in the future.
Whatever the changes may be, we are always looking for a better way through sourcing in different countries and factories. We at i play. are committed to ongoing research and development for making healthy baby products, with the baby in mind, that are high quality and affordable.