Guest Editorial: The Race to the Bottom

By Jessica McNaughton

A common question that I hear is, “What are we going to do about China?” Everyone’s concern with China seems to center around the fact that it can copy anything and make it cheaper than U.S.- or European-based manufacturers. So, the solution for many stone and quartz fabricators who currently use well-known brands like Cambria and Silestone is to rush to find something cheaper that they can source in China.

This is the proverbial “Race to the Bottom.” If you find a source that is $1 cheaper per sq. ft., the guy down the road has a source in China that is $1.25 cheaper per sq. ft., and the guy up the road locked up $1.50 cheaper.

Nobody wins in this model. Ever. But this is the path quartz is on, and rarely, if ever, does an industry pull itself out of this downward spiral to the bottom of the quarry.

There is not much you can do about China. You have to find a method to work with the companies there in a way in which you are comfortable and confident, depending on your company’s business.

Concerns that are more relevant about China are working conditions for the labor force and respect for the environment. There are serious concerns about treatment of employees, contamination of drinking and ground water and other factory-related conditions that need to be addressed. The air quality in Beijing is terrible, but there are other industrial cities where it is even worse.

In this inevitable race to the bottom, there is some good that can be done. Vetting the factories and manufacturers that you purchase from is a first step:

  • Do they perform water reclamation?
  • Do the workers have to wear respiratory protection systems when cutting?
  • Are there good ventilation systems?
  • Are employees treated with respect?
  • Are there containment plans for waste?

There are great products made here in the United States, and they are starting to get traction as the market becomes aware of the concerns with granite and quartz and the fact that the “stone look” is becoming dated. Smaller American surfacing companies, like PaperStone and IceStone, have U.S. factories and employ a local workforce. They also use recycled materials from other U.S. factories in their innovative products, further pushing the employment of U.S. workers.

Sintered compact surfaces have seem to become the “next big thing,” and players like Lapitec, Neolith and Dekton by Cosentino have engineered their way to the forefront of surfacing. They are largely based in Europe and have the largest growth potential in the current surfacing landscape. In general, European manufacturing is state of the art, and worker health and safety area primary considerations.

But in the race to the bottom, you don’t necessarily focus on the U.S.-based brands or leading edge materials, and thus, you are likely working with India and/or China. The challenge is finding the best partners there and making sure that you are helping these companies find a better path to manufacturing competitively and responsibly. So, if you are in the race to the bottom, you can find partners that make it a more respectable journey, but remember where you are inevitably headed.

About the Author

Jessica McNaughton is the President of CaraGreen, a distributor of sustainable materials, and co-authored the book Understanding Green Building Materials. She has her Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering and her MBA from the Ivey Business School. She is also a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP).

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in guest editorials are those of the author’s and do not necessarily (although in some cases may) represent the views of the publisher, editor or owner of this website.

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