If you’ve spent any time on our Instagram account (@publichabit), you will likely find - in addition to an obsession with textile waste - a love letter to China. You may wonder, why? Why China? Yes, more than half of the products in your home likely say “Made in China” but, why are we glorifying it? Why is it so special?
There are some very practical reasons we have established our first supplier partnerships in China. I relocated here with my now husband a year ago. It’s a bit of a throwback for me as well as I studied in Beijing during college and then lived and worked in Qingdao and Shanghai in my early twenties. One could say my China roots are deep.
In all honesty, my fascination with China started when my best friend from childhood was encouraged to spend some time in her distant home country and get in touch with her roots (she is half-Chinese, half-English). During a summer vacation after her year-long immersion trip to China, I found her practicing her Chinese characters over her breakfast cereal. This was the same girl who had been known to skip school just because she couldn’t really be bothered that day. It astounded me and when I probed on what the big deal was about these characters she was obsessing over, she told me I just had to give this whole Mandarin thing a try.
And that’s where it all began for me. I picked up the language in my second year of university and fell in love with it, how you put it together, how logical it is and yet how deep. Practicing writing characters is incredibly therapeutic, a bit like paint-by-numbers or adult coloring. Except you’re actually communicating meaning and, with 5000+ characters to learn, it is incredibly rich and will continue to be challenging for as long as I choose to study it. I ended up getting pretty good at the language which propelled me to move to Shanghai as a fresh university graduate for my first job. Living and working in China at a young age, and connecting with people from a completely different culture helped me build confidence and resilience as a young, curious twenty-something. Best experience of my young life.
Back to China today, I’ve returned - albeit to Shenzhen, China's mega-tech city - after ten years living and working in the US and it has changed. Dramatically. And I have changed as well. I'm less flexible, less adventurous and a lot less energetic than I was. But I'm just as fascinated by the culture and trying to understand what this country has gone through and is very much still going through. A few of the biggest changes I've noticed are:
Coffee culture has made a huge dent on society here. It's a 24/7 cafe culture with Starbucks and independent coffee roasteries in every mall, on every corner. Decaf doesn't exist yet so people are pretty amped up.
Wechat and Alipay have transformed the country into a cashless society, driven by mobile payments. Imagine a world in which everything from subway rides to restaurants to a Costco visit was entirely managed through your mobile phone. On one app. That also happens to be the same app that you use to communicate to your friends, follow news and social media. That's WeChat.
Every cab in Shenzhen is electric so the wide streets are oddly quiet compared to my recollection of the hustle and bustle of the mid-2000s.
Life on the streets has moved indoors to big, shiny luxury malls. My favorite $1 street food chuanr has been replaced by big, banquet-style restaurants that will cost at least $50 per head. Life in China is NOT cheap anymore.
These are just a few of the vast changes I'm noticing. They all come down to a country that has experienced rapid economic acceleration in the past 30 years. The middle class has money and they're excited to spend it.
Culturally, I still struggle here. People still don't wait in lines (queues), most toilets are still squat toilets (even at luxury malls), people still spit on the streets and let their kids relieve themselves there too. But it's just as scrappy and entrepreneurial as ever.
Many may wonder why we are sourcing and manufacturing in China when we are in the midst of a trade war and most players in the fashion industry are trying to move production out of China as quickly as possible. For context, in the US the fashion industry accounts for 6% of imports from China but pays 51% of tariff receipts (McKinsey). The hottest countries brands and retailers are moving to today are Bangladesh (popular in Europe) and Vietnam (popular in the USA), primarily due to labor costs. The short answer is, the experts are here and we wanted to learn from the best. The quality and innovation happening to manufacturing at scale here got us really excited about the future of the fashion supply chain.
We have found - through many months of research, factory visits and trade shows - a few highly innovative suppliers that we are partnering with for our first collection Public Habit. These are the people that have been working in textiles for over 30 years in most cases, grew up around fabric, knitting and manufacturing at scale. They are experts at what they do and have taught us more about the future of clothing manufacturing than we could have hoped to learn in just a short year. And even though I still have many frustrating, difficult days in China, these talented, scrappy and innovative entrepreneurs keep me going. We plan to introduce you to the people behind the scenes as we learn and grow.