Why Chinese Go to England to Buy Shoes Made in China

shoe factory, shelves

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Terracycle once sang the praises of intelligent globalization, and from kite-powered ships to the return of the airship, we've seen plenty of ways that international travel and commerce can be made less harmful to the environment. Nevertheless this globalized world can be a strange, strange place—especially if you're concerned about our outrageous reliance on decreasing fossil fuels. Here's an interesting story that caught my eye—apparently Chinese tourists are increasingly flocking to a small English village to buy "English" shoes. The only thing is, they're made in China.

Closing Factories Become Retail Outlets for the Goods They Made

Writing over at The Guardian, Patrick Barkham describes how Street—the one-time home of manufacturing for Clark's shoes—is becoming better known as the location for a factory-outlet mall, housed at the old shoe factory, that is attracting increasing amounts of Chinese tourists. Apparently the Chinese love Clarks' shoes. This is a relationship that the local powers-that-be are keen to promote as they deal with the ongoing economic shock-waves of their declining manufacturing industries:

"Apart from lending its name to the shopping centre, Clarks, the biggest shoe brand in the world, has little to do with the success of Clarks Village. Its shoes are in fact now made in China, India, Brazil and Vietnam but not in Britain, after the site and the Village brand was sold. So the Chinese are flying to the site where Clarks used to make shoes to buy shoes that are actually made in China and sold in a shopping centre not owned by Clarks. This is globalisation's very own coals- to-Newcastle."

Brand is No Longer About Origin

Of course there is nothing particularly surprising about this state of affairs. Many of us who travel will pick up souvenirs or keep-sakes from the places we visit, often to find out that they are made elsewhere. And sometimes we just shop because it is cheaper. (The shoes on sale at Clark's Village would cost twice as much in China.)

Modern branding is at least as much about story and heritage as it is the actual reality of how a product is made. Nevertheless, there are very real concerns about how long a country that doesn't make things can trade off the heritage it once had. After all, doesn't the story start to get old?

"How long can this British nation of shopkeepers trade on the status conferred by its history without actually making the things it sells? The replacement of factories with factory shopping in Street has certainly seen the status of jobs fall."

It's a good question, and one worth answering. As Barkham points out, if a nation is selling the shoes it used to make to the people who now make the shoes, there is a very real danger it has become the "nation of shopkeepers" it was always said to be. With authenticity being an increasingly prized asset in the branding world, companies and nations will need to think beyond pretty landscaping, old buildings and heritage plaques, and instead make some statements about who they really are, what they stand for, and what they actually do.