This post includes photos and an excerpt from the photoessay Christmas, Handmade in China originally published by Make Works. Make Works is an organization based in Scotland championing local manufacturing by making it easier for designers to work with manufacturers and makers. Photos and the original article are by designer Gemma Lord, documenting her experience on as part of the expedition program of Unknown Fields—a nomadic design studio exploring behind the scenes of the modern world, visiting manufacturing landscapes, mines and infrastructural fields.
It's the most gallingly consumeristic time of year, and (for anyone with even the slightest understanding of modern day globalized production and manufacturing) it takes, I'd suggest, a feat of remarkable mental strength and endurance to block out the social and ecological impact of season (squirming uncomfortably in the back of our minds) and actually enjoy it. Fortunately for us, a lot of the new objects appearing in our stores—santa hats and the latest plastic kids toys dropping like some Christmas bloody miracle every year without fail—shield our innocence and let us get on with the admittedly important task of celebrating with our loved ones.
On a mission to shine a light on the realities of global manufacturing practices and make a path for new forms of localized production, Make Works have recently published a photo-essay by designer Gemma Lord documenting her experiences as part of an Unknown Fields expedition project, posing as a European buyer inside a Christmas 'decorations' factory (of course, during the height of summer in advance of the season) supplying vast quantities of jolly tat to the Western world. As well as a fascinating look behind the scenes with some stunning photography, the piece is a much needed reminder of the impacts of Christmas consumer behavior. Whilst the conditions might not look too appalling (grim, definitely, but not the worst by a long stretch), perhaps the most troublesome thought that these pictures provoke, is that so much human life is spent dedicated to the production of something so trivial, to be shipped half way round the world and in landfill by New Year's.
Imagine a Poundland store so enormous that it takes two whole days to walk from one end to the other. Even then, you'll have missed an aisle or two. Well this is Yiwu International Trade Market. Covering over 4 million square metres it is the "largest small commodity wholesale market in the world."Located in Zhejiang Province, Yiwu has space for over 62,000 booths, each of which is run by a factory to showcase the products they can produce. Buyers come from the world over and order any of the 400,000 types of products in the hundreds of thousands, often having them customised, to then be shipped globally and sold to you or I.
Take one example, souvenirs—there is a whole 'street' dedicated to souvenirs, for every nation and city conceivable. These are made in China, bought at Yiwu, then shipped to their appropriate destinations in the millions, traveling thousands of miles by sea on container ships, which contribute to 15% of our current global carbon emissions. They are then sold on markets and in shops to swathes of tourists, you've probably bought one yourself. The majority of these tourists will then fly with the souvenirs back to their home country, which in many cases could well be China. And for what?
Visiting Yiwu market back in August, we were curious to find out more about where these products came from. Stallholders are more than happy to take you to visit their factory—if they think you're a buyer. Armed with a translator we were able to set up a meeting with some businessmen who traded products from multiple factories, through Yiwu. We were picked up that night in a black BMW and driven through the suburbs to a vast—but immensely bleak 'showroom'—which the businessmen were incredibly proud to show us. A meeting ensued in which copious amounts of green tea were ceremoniously drunk and through much badly translated discussion, where we posed as European buyers, we arranged to visit a Christmas factory the following day...
Sam Dunne is a designer, strategist and writer based in London. Sam is founder of design strategy agency Cohere and Contributing Editor at Core77—reporting broadly on design, technology, food and object culture.