Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko visited the factories of Marimekko’s partners in China

Customers are interested in the origin of Marimekko’s products. In the summer of 2015, Marimekko’s new President Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko visited factories where Marimekko products are manufactured near Shanghai, China, together with Chief Product Officer Niina Nenonen. Although the majority of Marimekko’s products are made in Europe, manufacturing in China is an especially hot topic among customers. Tiina wanted to personally meet the management and employees of local factories and see production with her own eyes. Below you can read more about Tiina’s thoughts on the visit, Marimekko’s sourcing and responsible production.

What was the reason for your visit to the factories?

“I have worked for Marimekko for more than ten years already and during this time I have familiarised myself extensively with Marimekko’s different functions in my different roles. Although we have production nearby in Herttoniemi, Helsinki, thanks to our own textile printing factory, it is important for me that all of Marimekko’s products are manufactured according to our values, regardless of the place of production. During our visit to China, the most important thing for me was to see how our products are actually made and how today’s manufacturing conditions reflect our values.”

What expectations did you have prior to the trip?

“At Marimekko, we have talked a lot about countries of manufacture and responsibility in production. When it comes to China, I knew that in many product categories, there is high-quality production and special expertise has been accumulated over the years. In addition, responsibility matters have become part of daily operations, especially in factories doing business with Western customers, so it was interesting to get a chance to discuss these matters, too, with the representatives of the factories. In connection with my other duties, I have had a lot of contact with our Chinese partners so the local culture and conventions are basically familiar to me.”

What positive things came up?

“When we toured the factories, I observed the employees closely, and it seemed that they liked their workplace and wanted to work in the factory in question. In general, there is a lot of discussion in China about the fact that many factories are already suffering from labour shortages and the turnover among employees may be high. I did not sense any signs of coercion in the working atmosphere.  Similar factories can also be found in European countries. What we saw was a far cry from some of the images people in western countries may have of Chinese factories. The pace of work is demanding, but production is of high quality and the employees are skilled. I think it’s a shame that in western countries people sometimes make erroneous generalisations.

I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the factory representatives and how we could discuss different topics with the management. The factory management also expressed an open attitude towards developing things together.”

Which aspects worried you?

“Issues related to employees’ health and safety are crucial. I felt that themes related to responsibility are highlighted strongly and factories pay a lot attention to providing guidance to employees, for instance. However, responsibility covers a wide range of matters and some of these are newer for the factories. There is still room for improvement, as is probably the case in all companies and countries.

Knowing the local work culture and the often long workdays, the number of working hours is of course a factor that gives pause for thought. This is also a controversial issue as local people clearly want and are used to working a lot, but both Chinese legislation and the operating guidelines required by the factory’s customers restrict the number of working hours permitted. On the other hand, a generation is emerging that appreciates free time more than their parents, so it remains to be seen how Chinese working culture will change in the coming years.”

Did your image of the sourcing and manufacturing process change? If so, in what way?

“Not really. The conditions and production processes at the factories met my expectations. We have discussed matters related to responsible sourcing extensively and cooperation with factories is part of our daily operations. For me, it is important that operations are transparent and the areas for improvement can also be discussed openly, in line with our values.”

In your opinion, which aspects of the sourcing process can we develop and how?

“It is certainly possible to improve cooperation relationships with all partners. I hope that we can achieve even more open relations and closer dialogue with all of our contract manufacturers. In some cases, we may well be a small customer for a certain company, but even in such cases, we can exert influence together with other players in the field, if necessary. I want us to be as transparent as possible in our sourcing and supply chain.”

When it comes to responsible sourcing, which area do you consider the most important to be developed?

“I want our choices to reflect our values. We must pursue greater transparency throughout the supply chain, including sub-suppliers and raw material suppliers of contract manufacturers. This is not an easy task, and the players in the field have more room for improvement in this regard. Nevertheless, joint initiatives, such as BSCI and BCI, help us move forward. Besides, we must look after our good, long-term relationships with our contract manufacturers in order to gain sufficient influence and leverage for negotiating.”

What was your main impression of the visit?

“I found it truly inspiring to see people on the other side of the world, proud of their skills and work in a good way, making our products—to meet and talk with them. It was also important to see the latest production conditions and context with my own eyes. The trip strengthened my impression that good companies can be found around the world. There is a lot of special expertise—Marimekko’s goal is always to find the best producer for each product. In addition, open dialogue is very good and important.”