Turn over an iPhone and you'll see the phrase "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China" embossed on the back of the device.

The focus on design allows Apple to retain ownership of the product in the United States, while simultaneously conceding that the product is in fact made in another country. To Apple, the value isn't in the raw materials but rather in the idea that brings them together into a unique product.

Apple isn't alone in the use of "Designed in California", with the phrase also being used by shoe companies and furniture designers. Over the last two years, it has, however, become most popular among the tech companies in the area.

Justin McGuirk, curator of the museum California: Designing Freedom, told the US publication Co.Design that in much the same way that 'Made in Italy' came to be associated with quality, 'Designed in California' has come to symbolise the best examples of design in the field of technology.


Advertising campaigns ensued, pushing the idea that well designed technological devices from the area offered personal freedom and liberated people from tasks they didn't really want to do. Once again, the product isn't as important as the idea behind it.

The furore over Dame Denise L'Estrange Corbet's swing tags was largely based on the fact that they said 'Fabriqué en Nouvelle Zélande' when the garments were in fact made in Bangladesh and Hong Kong.

Had L'Estrange Corbet simply taken the Apple approach and swapped out the tags for ones that said 'designed in New Zealand', then it wouldn't have been as easy take aim at the business.

She did, after all, tell RNZ's John Campbell that while the shirts were sourced from AS Colour, they were "embellished" with the sequins purchased separately. While the bringing together two random items is by no means as complex as designing an iPhone, it was an idea born in the World design studio – and it's something consumers seem happy to pay a premium for.

Asked whether it was perhaps time for the New Zealand narrative to evolve and perhaps focus on IP and design rather than manufacturing, Buy NZ Made director Kirk Hope said that it was something that might be worth looking into in the future.

He adds, however, there is a significant premium attached to the New Zealand provenance and that this remains important.

He said that this is also part of the reason why clear rules have been established in the Fair Trading Act to ensure that business that makes a claim about New Zealand provenance meets certain prerequisites.

He also said that he didn't believe the scandal would have a lasting impact on the trust consumers have in 'Made in New Zealand' labelling.


"It's a highly respected brand that has put significant investment into retaining local production," Hope said.

But by L'Estrange's own admission, it's becoming more difficult to retain production in New Zealand. Dropping transportation costs and increased accessibility to international factories means that local designers are now competing on the global front, and with the growing prominence of Alibaba and Amazon, there's little indication of this changing.

It's something that even prestigious Italian brands have had to come to terms with, with many now outsourcing some of their production to China.

As far back as 2007, the New York Times reported that products from major Italian brands were being manufactured in China. And even worse, to appease customers looking for the 'made in Italy' label, several of these brands had taken the step of underpaying undocumented Chinese labourers in cities such as Prato, which now boasts one of the largest Chinese populations in Europe. If we're going to be really transparent, this is essentially 'made in Italy' by Chinese hands.

It is, of course, in the best interest of New Zealand brands to ensure that their products are not being made in factories with dire work conditions and New Zealand can certainly play a global leadership role in helping to monitor and improve factory conditions.

However, the obsession with 'made in New Zealand' detracts to some degree from the more important issue of where it was designed.

Take a celebrated Kiwi brand such as Allbirds, which has taken off on a global level. While the company's spiritual home remains firmly in New Zealand, it was incorporated in the United States and uses an Italian textile mill to make the fabric for its shoes, which are then sold online globally. There is perhaps no better example of Kiwi design genius going global.

In PwC's Value of Design Report published last year, Allbirds founder Joey Zwillinger described design as an effective way to overcome the small size of our market, suggesting New Zealand become a smart design hub, creating ideas, which can be sold internationally.

The report also stated that the $10.1 billion value of the design industry to New Zealand has enormous potential to grow. But this can only happen if we shift our focus to championing ideas authentically 'designed in New Zealand'.