Friday, January 22, 2010

Counterfeits and Consumers

Consumers already have enough trouble trying to make responsible choices without adding the burden of worrying about avoiding counterfeit goods. Unfortunately, thanks to fact that people are flawed creatures, counterfeit products often invade the marketplace because their manufacturers hope to make a quick buck. While this is certainly unfair to legitimate manufacturers and trusting consumers of such commonly counterfeited things as handbags or watches, it can be deadly if the counterfeit product is a condom.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that anyone would choose to purchase fake condoms (we know that some less-discriminating people do make that choice for handbags and watches), but what happens if the packaging is good enough to fool an unsuspecting consumer into buying the fakes? That consumer runs the risk of contracting or spreading sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV.

When I saw the article, "China's Latest Scandal is Counterfeit Condoms," on today's LA Times website, I thought I'd investigate further. What I discovered is that the condom scandal is nothing new. The press has been talking about it for years. Here's a timeline of reporting about the issue, using just a sample of articles from various sources:

2005 March 17 - The BBC News reported that thousands of fake condoms had hit the market in the UK.

2006 December 4 - The Guardian published an article about counterfeit drugs that included this reference to counterfeit condoms:
A few years ago, Durex executives were astonished to discover pirated condoms bearing their brand name on the production line of a prospective Chinese partner's factory. "It sparked a discussion among the visitors about whether they had found the perfect supplier," said Calum MacLeod, a consultant to Durex at the time. "But from a corporate ethics point of view, it was not realistic."
2007 December 19 - cited condoms as one of many products on a list of high risk drug and medical items. The article also stated:
[Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael] Leavitt signed two agreements with the Chinese government last week that puts the onus on the Chinese and their manufacturers rather than the beleaguered inspectors of the dozen U.S. agencies responsible for imported goods. . . Despite the strong language of the accords and the report, Leavitt did not hail it as a victory or even a long-term cure. . . The Chinese grudgingly agreed to these accords in the face of a more than year-long public relations disaster and it may be difficult getting them to follow through because most reports out of the country reveal that agency leaders don't actually believe there is a serious problem.
2008 June 3 - Tu Salud, The Latino Wellness Magazine, reported about the discovery of sales of millions of fake Chinese condoms in discount stores in New York. (They referenced a May 5th Newsday story that's no longer available online.)

2009 November 11 - posted a story about a factory in Hunan Province that had manufactured more than two million counterfeit condoms in the previous eight months:
Four people were arrested at the factory which was distributing illicit condoms nationwide that provided little or no protection and carried the risk of both pregnancy and disease. . . Authorities say when they entered the factory they saw bare-chested employees using vegetable oil to lubricate the condoms and putting them into fiber bags without any sterilization.
2010 January 21 - The LA Times article I mentioned earlier references incidents dating back to 2008 and concludes with a comment about how the Chinese government has handled counterfeiting (italics are mine):
"Given the vast size and complexities of the society, it is not surprising that there continue to be problems with product quality," said Zha Daojiong, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies. "Back in the early 1990s, the Chinese government repeatedly launched 'strike hard' campaigns -- throwing those involved in producing and selling below-quality products to years in jail.". . But, he added, proper monitoring systems cost money, resulting in higher prices. . ."It's impossible to have enhanced surveillance on the cheap," Zha said. "A genuine dialogue [needs] to take place between the government and the populace at large [about] the costs the average consumer is prepared to pay."
The Chinese government has been trying to stop the manufacture of these counterfeit products since at least the early 1900s according to this article, but I have no doubt that it's been an issue much longer than that. I also think it's safe to assume that there are plenty of credible articles in the press about Chinese counterfeit items that pre-date the few I've listed from the last five years. We've been adequately informed. But the significant issue now is that increased trade with China has resulted in the importing of many more types of items in much greater quantities than ever before. And if the general perception in China is that counterfeiting is not a significant problem, then the risks associated with buying certain Chinese products are substantial.

How do we cope with these kinds of threats? Making sure that we're aware of them through the work of a vigilant press is the first crucial step. Obviously, there are certain governmental restrictions that can be imposed on imports. More extensive and thorough safety inspections of imports can help, too. We live in a global economy, so we can't always buy American-made goods; also, some goods labelled as made in this country use parts or materials imported from other countries. And there's always the possibility that counterfeit products can be made right here, too. It's enough to kick a person's paranoia up a notch or two.

But I also think that the Chinese professor's observation in the LA Times article touches on part of the problem: are consumers always going to choose the least expensive option or will we be willing to pay more in order to get better (in this case, safer) products?

Lots of us are watching our spending more closely now because of the economic crisis that has affected the majority of our population. That means shopping for "bargains." But cheap isn't always a bargain. As a society, we need to make an important shift in our thinking and realize that buying fewer things of higher quality from trusted manufacturers (or, in the case of some products, from local sources) is better than buying lots of things of shoddy, or perhaps even unsafe, quality.

Consumer decisions are often more complicated than they seem on the surface, but there's nothing to debate when it comes to avoiding dangerous counterfeit products. We can't control all of the factors that allow them to get to market, but to be safe, we can and must make reasonably informed decisions when we're shopping for food, drugs and other medical items.

So, let's kick that paranoia back down where it belongs and remember that thoughtful consumers just do the best we can to avoid fakes. Like the song says, "Ain't nothin' like the real thing."

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: seesky @ stock.XCHNG

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Connections: Cadmium-Tainted Children's Jewelry and Why We Should Still Buy Newspapers

China is a country intent on growth from increasing exports but, whether through ignorance, carelessness or greed, it has a history of selling contaminated products, such as toothpaste, cough syrup and melamine-tainted milk. When they arrive in the U.S., all of those products fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with the daunting task of regulating and ensuring the safety of food, drugs and many other products that affect our health.

Many other consumer products, including toys and jewelry, are the concern of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, another agency with a gigantic task involving the protection of the American public. Because of China's woeful record with deadly exported food, it should come as no great surprise that companies in China have been selling dangerous cadmium-laden inexpensive children's jewelry and trinkets to the U.S. Recent studies indicate that cadmium may be more toxic than lead to the developing brains of very young children. It was rather astonishing that the public response from at least one Chinese jewelry seller just a day after the Associated Press broke this story was that using cadmium cuts costs and profit was the only concern for the makers (see this article):

"Business is business, and it's all up to our client," said He Huihua, manager of the Suiyuan Jewelry Shop at International Trade City in Yiwu, a sprawling wholesale mecca where sellers pitch their wares in hopes of landing a lucrative export contract."

The response by U.S. retailers was swift. Wal-Mart pulled the jewelry immediately and other retailers followed suit. I would imagine that Wal-Mart, so often the big corporate "bad guy" in consumer stories, enjoyed having an opportunity to take an indisputably correct stance:

"Melissa Hill, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., called the AP findings 'troubling.' She said the company, which is the world's largest retailer, had a special responsibility 'to take swift action, and we are doing so.'"

AP writers Justin Pritchard and Jeff Donn also reported:

"U.S.-based trade groups, as well as distributors and sellers of the jewelry containing cadmium, said their products meet safety standards. Cadmium is regulated in painted toys but not in jewelry. . . 'This is just the latest example of the need for stronger consumer safety laws in this country, especially for products manufactured and marketed for children, and shows yet again why products from China should be subject to additional scrutiny,' said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat."

What an interesting, complex story that involves government agencies, corporations, and most significantly and wonderfully, at least to me, the press:

1. Cadmium, a hazardous metal, is not federally regulated when used in jewelry, information reported in the press when this story broke, resulting in many calls for such regulation.

2. Children's jewelry that was saturated with the metal (sometimes as much as 90% of its content) was manufactured in China because using the metal was cheap, as the press discovered through their own AP-funded investigation and research.

The press reported that the jewelry was being exported to major U.S. retailers whose primary appeal to the public is offering inexpensive goods.

4. The retailers stopped selling the jewelry, we hope for wholly for ethical and responsible reasons, but also certainly to avoid a public relations nightmare in the press.

5. Consumers are being alerted by the press so that they can get rid of the tainted jewelry before their children are harmed.

Internet lovers (and, obviously, I like being online, too), please take note that it was the Associated Press that broke this story. The AP, a mainstream media giant, was founded in 1846. Here's its mission statement (italics are mine):

"AP's mission is to be the essential global news network, providing distinctive news services of the highest quality, reliability and objectivity with reports that are accurate, balanced and informed. AP operates as a not-for-profit cooperative with more than 4,000 employees working in more than 240 worldwide bureaus. AP is owned by its 1,500 U.S. daily newspaper members. They elect a board of directors that directs the cooperative."

Those daily newspapers are suffering right now, cutting back reporters and columnists, and struggling to provide a crucial service to all of us.

Even the most noble government servants must deal with bureaucracies and political agendas, and even the most benevolent corporations are beholden to stockholders and profit motives, but a truly free press is the thoughtful consumer's best friend.

The LA Times. The New York Times. The Washington Post.

Your paper?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: Lusi at Stock.XCHNG

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

City Living: Designed for Thoughtful Consumers?

Being a thoughtful consumer doesn't just mean making wise personal decisions about purchasing, recycling and donating; it also means contributing to making larger decisions about where and how you live and work. Wherever that may be, the built environment that houses and surrounds you is planned, efficiently or not so efficiently, and that affects you as a consumer and a citizen.

There's ample evidence that the practice of designing cities, what we call "urban planning," has been around for thousands of years. Once a sizable population gathered in one relatively small area, streets or paths were laid out in a grid pattern, drainage and other water use systems were set up, and sometimes walls were constructed for protection, all for the purpose of making city life work. Modern cities face a similar challenge to those of their predecessors: how should a city be built to provide the best possible environment for its inhabitants? There are issues of safety and functionality to be considered, but aesthetics are important, too. Jails are urban microcosms, but most of us wouldn't be happy to live in those surroundings, even if we weren't forcibly detained inside them.

Throughout the U.S., cities were the vibrant centers of community life for generations. But after decades of unprecedented rapid increases in both population and construction, eventually crowding and deterioration afflicted many urban areas. The process of "urban renewal" in the last century was a sporadically successful effort to reclaim some of the positive aspects of city life that had been lost.

The real blow to the perceived desirability of city living in the U.S. was the return of GIs after WW II and the development of the suburbs. The American Dream became defined by a single family home with a yard and, significantly, a car. Living outside of the city was made possible by the ability to commute. Cars and the highways created to accommodate them were the factors that most altered urban landscapes.

But now, years after many of our cities sprawled for miles, their centers collapsed and turned nightmarish, a renaissance of urban life has been occurring across the country. Is life at the center of the city "The Next American Dream?" That's the thesis of the interesting documentary of that title from filmmakers who examined the re-birth of Kansas City, Missouri, over the last several years. (See the brief trailer here.) I saw the show on a PBS station in the LA area recently, but you can check your local stations for broadcasts scheduled later this month.

While "The Next American Dream" examines the societal changes that are making cities more appealing again, an episode of the PBS series LIFE (Part 2) examines what sort of communities allow people to flourish and live longer-than-average life spans. (YouTube clip here.) Turns out that one of the important factors is living in a walkable community, something that's provided by an urban rather than rural environment. Reduction in obesity is cited as one of the benefits, but I would think that there are also advantageous social aspects. Part of the "French Paradox" may have to do with drinking red wine, but living in a walkable community and spending much time socializing at the local cafe probably help, too.

How would your life as a consumer change if you lived and worked in a well-designed city? Walking more and being able to rely on public transportation would mean better personal health, less consumption of fuel, even less need for owning a car. You'd eliminate the stress of a long commute. You'd probably be more inclined to patronize local businesses. Access to cultural events would be easier. You'd live in a smaller space and probably would own less useful stuff as well as less clutter. You'd share outdoor spaces like parks and plazas rather than maintaining your own yard. There might be community gardens, too. There would be potential for a very nice balance of private and public spaces. Much urban planning today also includes "sustainable development" that considers environmental impact while working simultaneously to achieve a workable, comfortable city life. What's good for you can also be good (well, at least not so bad) for the planet.

There are some excellent resources to peruse if you'd like to learn and think more about city life. I was pleased to discover that William H. Whyte's terrific book City: Rediscovering the Center was reissued in paperback last August. He also wrote The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a brilliantly insightful book (there's also an accompanying film) that was the result of his Street Life Project, "a pioneering study of pedestrian behavior and city dynamics."

Planetizen is a fascinating website that "prides itself on covering a wide number of planning, design, and development issues, from transportation to global warming, architecture to infrastructure, housing and community development to historic preservation. We provide a forum for people across the political and ideological spectrum, ensuring a healthy debate on these and other important issues." For an example, check out this post, "In Praise of Mid-Century Modern Planning," which links to an article in New Geography, calling for design diversity.

We all can have an impact on our built environments, whether we're in a big city or a small town, by informing ourselves about the decisions that affect the structure and infrastructure of our entire communities and acting to make sure that those decisions are responsible. To do this, we need to refocus our thinking, at least at times, to consider what it means to be consumers on a much bigger scale.

In the 1970s, many people thought that the answer to society's problems could be found by going "back to the land." Today, maybe the answer is going back to the cities.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Artwork: © 2009 Mandie LeScum, stock.xchng