t is a bit of a perfect storm. Just as US consumers seem to be perking up with interests
in going green, they are alarmed that the products they buy might be delivering more than they
asked for — and not in a good way. It is great news that consumers are thinking about how things
are made and with what they are made. However, a recent rash of recalls and troubling environmental
news from China has shaken their confidence.
For years, the US consumer seemed uninterested — T-shirts were just T-shirts, toys
were just toys, dog food was just dog food and even fish were just fish. One rarely considered the
safety of toothpaste, and the current contaminations chillingly harken back to the Tylenol
cyanide-tampering scare of 1982.
US consumers are used to these types of negative events being handled as Johnson
& Johnson handled the Tylenol crisis — that company set the bar for crisis management. J&J
immediately ceased production, recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol at a cost of more than $100
million, and sent a team of researchers and scientists to get to the source of the tampering.
J&J was vocal in the media about the dangers of the product and initiated the use of
tamper-resistant packaging. Within months, the company regained its market share and may have
earned a stronger following due to the integrity it demonstrated to the US consumer.
Looking at the fiasco of toys decorated with lead paint and Chinese-made tires that
were supposedly not made to original specification, there is clearly an additional challenge here.
Who stands up and owns the problem? Is it the retailer? The importer? The brand? The
J&J was able to stand up and own the problem, resolve it and move on. That may
not be possible here. Recently, the Chinese government announced a four-month “special war” to
raise product quality. According to reports in the China Daily newspaper, eight categories of
products are involved. Vice Premier Wu Yi, who recently was appointed to head
a Cabinet-level panel on food safety and quality control, was quoted as saying, “
This is a special war to protect the safety and interests of the general public, as well as a war
to safeguard the made-in-China label and the country’s image.” That announcement came the same week
The Wall Street Journal ran an
article detailing river pollution in China under the header “Ravaged Rivers” and
titled “China Pays Steep Price As Textile Exports Boom — Suppliers to US Stores Accused of Dumping
Dyes To Slash Their Costs.” The story details Hong Kong-based Fountain Set’s 230-acre Dongguan Fuan
textile campus, which it states is responsible for 6 percent of the world supply of cotton knits
and is accused of dumping 20,000 tons of contaminated water into a nearby river each day.
The US has had its share of environmental problems, but US manufacturing has come a
long way. If how it is made and what it is made of matters to US consumers, and big retail is going
to hang its hat on going green — then the opportunity to promote “made green in the USA” would ring
loud and clear. Just maybe, T-shirts aren’t just T-shirts, toys aren’t just toys, dog food isn’t
just dog food, and even fish aren’t just fish.