At the "jobs summit" last month, organised by the EPMU, New Zealand was painted as a place on the brink of a crisis, with some 40,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the past four years.
No crisis here, move along, replied Steven Joyce, resisting calls for government to get actively involved. Hewing to party lines, the National Government can acknowledge the manufacturing sector is shrinking, but the mentality is "adapt or die". The parties to the left, on the other hand, say the government is not active enough in preserving and protecting the sector.
Politics aside, most of us can agree that local manufacturers are up against some real hum-dingers, including a high kiwi dollar and the ever-lingering global financial crisis. Some companies are valiantly trying to maintain their workforce in the face of overwhelming competition from China, where an artificially low currency has created a low-cost production mecca.
I thought about that this week as my children queued at the lucky dip at the school fair, anxiously waiting their turn to reach into the box piled high with lovingly wrapped knick-knacks. Knick-knacks that were cheap to buy and will break within seconds of use.
I thought, do I really need this cheap ceramic ladybug on a motorbike? This balloon-blower with flashing lights? This make-your-own-crappy-eraser kit?
Of course I don't, and neither do any of us, but we'd take to the streets to protect our right to buy dirt-cheap consumer goods. The next day, we'd be boo-hooing about losing so many skilled people to Australia. And this led to my little epiphany: while the government could show the manufacturing sector a little more love, I reckon it's high time consumers - especially those who can afford it - stepped up to the plate.
My view was reinforced when I talked to Susan Duckworth, owner of the Auckland-based Vanilla Ink fashion stores. Susan designs and makes all the clothing at her Dominion Rd store, and has had a gutsful of people complaining about the cost of the garments, which are, yes, slightly more pricey than what you could pick up at discount chains or on the web.
Susan points out the difference between buying a cheap bit of tat that is fashionable but quickly obsolete, as opposed to paying a bit more for a locally produced garment that will stand the test of time. She said she had doubled down on that philosophy after reading about the 300 workers who died in a factory fire in Pakistan a couple of months ago. The poorly paid workers perished behind boarded up windows and locked exits when fire broke out as they slaved over cheap goods bound for affluent Western markets.
To bolster locally-made goods, clothing or otherwise, we could take a lead from an American scheme called the 3/50 Project. In 2007 Minnesota's Cinda Baxter conceived of a plan that urged consumers to think of three local businesses they would like to see stick around and make an effort to patronise them. She calculated that every $100 spent in local stores returns $68 to the local economy, compared with just $43 in a chain store and zero from online purchasing. Just $50 spent by each person in stores that stock locally-made goods each month can generate millions in revenue.
It's a fantastic plan and one headed for Australia very soon. We could both bolster our manufacturing sector and steal a march on the Aussies in more ways than one by trying to get such a scheme going here.
* Illustration by Anna Crichton: email@example.com