“I don’t look both ways, just forward”
Day 4 was epic. Too epic for one blog post so if you want to hear about factories being blown up for not complying with environmental standards, check out part 1, if you want to hear about how Mao taught youth to concur nature as a form of environmental ed, check out part 2, if you want the inside scoop on e-waste in China part 3 is for you. But if you want to hear Richard Brubaker wax on about corporate responsibility you are in luck. Read onward oh mighty blog reader!
So after lunch, Adam (see e-waste) offered to walk me to my meeting with Richard. As we crossed the street, he just walked into a road filled with buses and cars and bikes all moving in different directions at once. “Adam!” I gasped, as some biologically implanted maternal gene reached out to protect him. “Oh, I don’t look both ways, just forward,” he said, and smiled as he and his Taoist-self stepped back into the sea of motion. I would learn that line is the perfect metaphor for how people operate in China. Everyone focuses on getting to their dreams and vision for the future, but there seems to be no time to look back to see what happened.
I turn down the narrow ally to find myself at another coffee shop (apparently you don’t drink tea in China if you hang with the expats), to meet the utterly infamous Richard Brubaker. His blog says all roads lead to China. I say all roads on the track to sustainability lead to Richard. For a profile on his charitable works, check out the post I wrote for WhatGives about HandsOn China.
While I chugged my coffee and tried to pretend that jetlag is just a figment of my imagination, Richard rambled about a ridiculous amount of topics. I’ll highlight a few of the moments worth repeating.
Richard’s been in China for 8.5 years (64 dog years), a term everyone uses to clock their time in China. Apparently the pace of life in China ages you at a different rate.
Like many who came to China, Richard first arrived to seek out career opportunities as China’s economy gathered steam. In pursuing those goals he developed market entry and distribution strategies for firms who were also looking for China-based opportunities.
I knew I liked Richard when he told me the reason he liked working in China is because you have the ability to get shit done. Then he turned around and starting giving me a hard time for owning an iPhone. “The screens from those things only put 100 people in the hospital, maybe more.” Next thing you know we’re heading down the Foxconn path. (Foxconn’s been in the news since that morning the 11th attempted suicide of workers was announced. The company employs a small army of employees, over 300,000 in its Shenzhen factory alone.)
But then Richard told me something that challenged my entire American activisty way of thinking. “Their supply chain is rotten~ Apple outsources their entire production of iPhones, iPads, iTouch, and other gadgets to Foxconn, so they don’t own it. “It” being the production of the products… the labor hiring, processes, supplier selection .. the fundamentals of the supply chain.
So Apple ultimately doesn’t have control. Foxconn can source and manage all key suppliers~ part of the Taiwanese. HP, Dell, Motorrollo, Nintendo, Sony all use them to make their products. So if you want to solve the problem, all of Foxconn’s buyers need to organize together. So in other words…I can’t just put pressure on Apple to do the right thing, we need to put pressure on the supply chain manufacturer to do the right thing, and well, Houston, we have a problem. I suddenly feel powerless over the supply chain and the story about consumer power is quickly slipping into the land of mythology.”
Richard explained that at the commodity level, this has been happening for a while actually, but where it is new is that you now have ODMs who are in control of everything from product design to material selection to manufacturing for multiple brands. This has lead to large ODMs, like Foxconn, who have much more say in the products, and much more power over the customers (Nokia, Apple, etc).
While Richard talked about his work with HandsOn China and organizing volunteers in migrant schools I got confused. Again, I have to pinch myself a remind myself I’m not in Kansas anymore. Migrants in China are considered people from the far provinces who have moved into the cities. 15 years ago people started being able to move freely for the first time around the country (previous to that one had to obtain permission from the government to move to a new location.) The result has been a massive urban migration, causing one of the major modern crisis of our time in regards to addressing overpopulation in cities.
I finally asked the question everyone wanted me to report back on, Whats the deal with China building 5 new coal plants every week? Richard explained, “They are building new plants every few weeks: super critical plants that are efficient and utilizes the resource at a higher level (so you need less coal for the same amount of energy). What you don’t hear is that for every plant they build, they are dismantling five of their older less efficient plants.”
“Remove the people, great stuff is happening in the creation of systems. So the idea is, how do you create systems? Our current model is: Extract, package, and trash resources.” We are working on changing that: a great success story is that the high speed rail is actually competing with the airlines.”
And then Richard dropped right back into the topic that we were discussing earlier with the Greennovate team. The kicker is that China is both part of the problem and the solution, they are the Petri dish for experimentation. China is just trying to catch up with America’s consumer model. Its not realistic to expect things to stay the same, and you can’t tell people to stop consuming, or to purchase single family homes. The drive toward economic development is causing a herd mentality, everyone is out to get theirs.
So when we talk about trying to persuade people to make sustainable choices with their new earned money, Its not about polar bears: its about clean air, clean water, clean food. The western perspective doesn’t translate: its not carbon dioxide. If they wanted to cut carbon footprint: they would stop exporting given that 40-60% of the carbon pollution is created from factories.
Okkkk….haven’t gotten your fill on information about the supply chain? Well you are in luck…because check out Day 4 Part 5: an interview with GIGA who is greening materials.