Harney discusses the high cost of cheap products
Author Alexandra Harney addresses a large audience at Mitchell Hall.
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2:30 p.m., Feb. 17, 2009----The night before she was to testify before Congress about the Chinese economy, Alexandra Harney, author of the acclaimed book The China Price, spoke to a packed house in the University of Delaware's Mitchell Hall about the true cost of cheap products.

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“What is good value? We often hear that something that has good value becomes shorthand for something that is cheap,” Harney said, adding, “But what does good value really mean?”

Harney -- on campus Monday as part of the Fashioning Social Responsibility Distinguished Lecture Series sponsored by the University's Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies -- explained that by demanding products be as low in price as possible, American consumers are indirectly leading to abhorrent conditions in many Chinese factories.

“What I've found in my research is that often what we pay (for a product) often does not reflect the true value of that good. It doesn't reflect fair working conditions, it doesn't reflect environmental controls, and so ultimately, by not paying that, we are creating problems overseas and for ourselves,” Harney said. “The working conditions in China are very much connected to all of us as consumers.”

According to Harney, another problem that American consumers create for the factories in China is that Americans want their products to be cheap, but they also want their products to be made in factories with quality working conditions. This had led to some manufacturers “giving the appearance” of following the law to appease American corporations.

Instead of simply blaming the factory managers for forcing their workers to operate in unsatisfactory conditions, Harney said that some of the blame has to be placed on the American companies.

“In America, we talk about how Chinese manufacturing is really powerful and some people talk about it taking away jobs from America, but what is actually happening is Chinese factories have been under extraordinary pressure for many years from American retailers to lower their prices,” Harney said. “American retailers are so powerful right now that they're able to tell these factories, 'make it at this price, if not, we'll buy from someone else.'”

Harney added, “If you look at it from a factory manager's perspective, these factory managers are caught in a really difficult situation. Factories now have to produce for big American retailers that want to have low prices but at the same time want to be able to prove to their consumers that (their products) aren't being made in sweat shops.”

Harney closed her talk by asking those present to really think about the true cost of cheap products.

“What I hope to leave you with tonight is the question of whether we as consumers, whether we as investors, whether we as students and future employees of companies are really demanding good value, and whether we are asking enough questions of companies and of the retailers where we shop,” she said. “Does this cheap price really reflect the full value or the full cost of producing this good?”

Harney, an American citizen who speaks Japanese and Mandarin, has been involved with Asia for 18 years. She is a freelance writer, researcher and frequent lecturer on China and corporate social responsibility. Her work has appeared in Time, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, and will soon appear in the Atlantic Monthly.

For most of a decade, she was a reporter and editor in Japan, China and the UK for the Financial Times.

A graduate of Princeton University with a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Harney currently lives in Hong Kong.

The Fashioning Social Responsibility Lecture Series is co-sponsored by the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies; the College of Human Services, Education and Public Policy; and the UD Office of the Provost with additional support from the Lerner College of Business and Economics.

The purpose of the series is to expose a diverse campus and community-wide audience to a range of issues and perspectives associated with social responsibility and sustainability in the fashion industry and to encourage positive action in response to the ideas presented through the series.

Article by Adam Thomas
Photo by Tyler Jacobson