“I should taste bitterness while I’m young.”

This is a quotation from a Chinese worker in a Mattel contractor toy factory in Guangzhou. (from Sweat, Fear and Resignation Amid All the Toys, Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2004). Being prone to magical thinking, I found it interesting that a.) the article appeared on my brother’s 50th birthday, b.) that my brother used to work for Mattel, and c.) that my brother is in China for a visit. (We magical thinkers like to string together unrelated events and see deeper meaning…)

Manufacturing - the dark side of toys…as if the marketing of toys wasn’t dark enough. Reading this article by Abigail Goldman I was torn as to what to think about this world that LATDA hopes to explore and celebrate. As with politics, religion, and all social ethics, the world is in a dizzying stage of chaos. Since one of LATDA’s precepts is that toys reflect the world at large, I guess it is no surprise that the toy industry partakes in the ugliness of the world even as it proposes to provide enjoyment and mental nourishment for our most vulnerable and valuable members of society.

Li Xiao Hong is 20 years old and works on an assembly line for 5½, ten-hour days a week at $65 a month. Did she ever play with toys when she was a child? Is she able to look at toys without a feeling of profound exhaustion? Will she have children and buy toys for them?

The article says that sincere attempts are being made to reform the manufacturing process in the many third world countries that are providing the largest toy companies with their products. Mattel has established ‘humane campuses’ in China and Indonesia, but they account for a fraction of the world’s toy manufacturing facilities. And that’s only Mattel. Poor ventilation, toxic environments, and grueling work shifts are the norm in many other factories.

Every time I stop and admire a finely painted plastic toy or marvel at the complex and fine construction of a plush toy priced at a mere $4.95 or less, my guilt meter is triggered. Words like ‘slavery’, ‘political prisoners’, and ‘sweatshops’ bombard my mind and stay my hand from my credit card. But as pointed out in the article, if the manufacturer goes out of business, the workers lose their jobs – or conditions become even more intolerable as the race for a better bottom line demands more hours from less workers.

So what about ‘sustainable’ toy manufacturing? Or ‘slow toys’? What if we actually valued their products and paid more for them so the people who made them could be paid more? One might own fewer toys, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

There have always been toy makers who work steadily at their craft and make an actual living pursuing that which they love. Of course some occasionally have to supplement their income with other jobs – even Geppetto had to make clocks on the side.

There is a wonderful book called “Goldie the Dollmaker” by M.B.Goffstein (regretfully out-of-print) that evokes a wildly un-industrial revolution attitude towards toy manufacturing. It takes Goldie three months to produce 18 of her simple wooden dolls. (Li Xiao Hong can assemble a Mini Touch ‘n Crawl doll in 21 seconds.) Goldie trades three months worth of dolls for a beautiful Chinese lamp and her friend calls her crazy. She falls asleep fretting over her foolishness and plans to return the impractical lamp in the morning. The spirit of the unknown artisan who made the lamp visits her in a dream. He tells her that he made the lamp for her, because she ‘understands’. The implication is that Goldie understands its beauty because she understands the love or passion that was put into it, just as she puts her love into her dolls to be recognized and released by the right recipient.

How much of yourself can you put into something that you make in 21 seconds? Why is it necessary to make something in 21 seconds except to meet manufacturing quotas? I don’t think that it is unheard of for people who make toys on an assembly line to feel proud of their work. But it is if you are being abused in other ways.