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Buyers beware

The debate over the use of the New Zealand Made symbol and the buy New Zealand Made campaign to promote domestic consumption of domestically produced goods seems as pointless as the campaign itself.

Why buy New Zealand made? Does it matter where products are assembled? Can you honestly say you would buy an inferior product on the grounds that it was made in a kiwi factory?

Can all goods be regarded as of the same value because of their point of origin – a generic standard–does it follow that something is well made because it is kiwi made? Some consumers may buy a New Zealand made product versus an international substitute as their ‘default’ but, arguably, only if the quality (design, materials, assembly, brand-fit etc…) are satisfactory. But the majority of consumers are more concerned with the way the product solves their problem – including cost-effectiveness. It is a basic economic imperative.

The flood of imported goods has changed New Zealand’s buying behaviour dramatically since the liberalization of imports and the end of the corrupt import licensing system of the Muldoon era (which allowed the few to exploit demand for internationally sourced products by, effectively granting government sanctioned monopolies). Our exposure to the world’s products has raised expectations; not only for quality, but also that we will enjoy ‘a bargain’, which accounts for the rampant success of The Warehouse.

Marketing companies like Icebreaker source their raw material; fine Merino wool, from farms in the South Island. They design their products here and all of the high value roles in the organization are based here. The ‘assembly’ of garments is sourced offshore. Not necessarily because of cost, but because the technology, systems and skills of workers in China, India and other countries in the emerging world are more reliable and able to manage the volumes required to fill international demands.

Pumpkin Patch manufactures its garments for the world in China then brings them back to New Zealand for redistribution to retail stores in Australia, Britain. Pumpkin Patch has enjoyed rapid growth, growing from about $2million to over $20million(est.) turnover in just a few years. Manufacturing in New Zealand would simply not be viable.

On its website Buy New Zealand Made suggests that A C Nielsen research showed that 75% of New Zealanders prefer to buy products that are made in New Zealand. Preference and intention to act don’t always translate into actual behaviour. I suggest that on an emotional subject like nationalism it is psychically easier to default to a good intention-which makes the result possibly meaningless.

There are some products that ‘should’ be made in New Zealand. No matter how talented Balinese carvers might be I wouldn’t want to see Maori designs being made anywhere but here. The same is true of any product that demands highly skilled workers to produce an item where the making is in fact the product or significantly differentiates the product. Anyone with some training could produce art glass as they do in Murano, Italy. But it wouldn’t be Murano glass. Artisan products have a high intrinsic value. Machine manufactured products, typically, do not. In the case of artisan products like wine I personally prefer New Zealand made products because they are often very good (better than alternatives) and well priced.

In a way this conversation opens Pandora’s box. What ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be made smacks of central planning. Hopefully those days are behind us now. In a world of vast consumer choices it is naïve to imagine that people will make choices on the basis of patriotism alone - any more than business people will make decisions about where goods are assembled if the costs don’t have companion benefits.

I am not arguing that one should not buy New Zealand made goods. On the contrary, if they are good then all’s well and good. But to suggest that only New Zealand made is good is ridiculous and counter-productive (as evidenced by companies like Icebreaker, NZ-O mountain bike wear and Pumpkin Patch, all of whom bring profits home to New Zealand and who add the value here from design and marketing).

Buyers beware. Patriotism is, after all, the last refuge of scoundrels.