Mattel’s new Barbies aren’t so good for their sweatshops makers

This is a cross post from here

So this week Matel announced its range of 33 new Barbie dolls. There’s a tall Barbie, a curvy Barbie and a little Barbie. Curvy Barbie has thicker thighs and a slightly protruding stomach. The 33 dolls also have 7 skin tones between them, including a dark skinned Black Barbie with natural hair. Progress? Not for the women making them.

Image: Mattel/EPA

Firstly, this is about profits. Mattel’s net profits were down 7% in 2014. Mattell’s CEO, Christopher Sinclair, is very explicit about this as he writes in their latest annual report:

“By any measure, 2014 was – candidly – a challenging year for Mattel….Overall, the doll category accounts for about 40% of Mattel’s total business….the remarkable success of Disney’s FrozenTM franchise came at the expense of several of our brands, including Barbie” (pg. 3).

So increasingly what does a company like Mattel do when its profits are down? It coopts a social movement. Just like Dove did when its profits were tanking in 2004 and competitors like Proctor and Gamble were overtaking them, Mattel have found something to put a new spin on Barbie. For Dove it was the megalomaniacal transformation of itself from beauty cream company to body image ally with its ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. (Behind Dove’s campaign was Martin Staniforth, founder of Laughing Phoenix a company that “drives brand growth with causerelated marketing programmes”. On his website Staniforth writes:

[Dove] challenge[d me to] drive aggressive growth [and make Dove] an iconic masterbrand with a purpose. [The goal was to] support a relevant social issue [which] benefits a specific needy group”).

And it worked. A brilliant analysis by Giulia Carando showed it generated huge profits for Dove (of 700% or returning $3 for every $1 spent in the first 6 months of its launch). Dove’s award winning Real Beauty campaign has been shown on over 25 major TV channels and in more than 800 articles, it’s partnered with Harvard University and its global director has a TED talk (it’s not actually a TED talk, Dove just paid TED for the name).

Now Mattel have done similar. They’re upfront about it too: “We were seeing that Millennials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values, and they didn’t see Barbie in this category”. And its working. Short from the few commentators pointing out Matell could have made the dolls more realistic (fair point), the response so far has firmly been this is a step in the direction.

But is it? I would like the dolls if they weren’t made 1) by Mattel and 2) made in sweatshops.

And they are. China Labour Watch investigated Chinese toy factories that Mattel used between June and November 2014. The Barbie factory makers faced on average 100 hours of forced overtime a month (the legal limit is 36 hours), lack of protective equipment and locked fire escapes, confiscation of their ID, squalid living conditions including sharing a room with up to 18 people and 1 shower between 36 people and wages just over £150 per month. This is the second time China Labour Watch have investigated Mattel’s sweatshops in the last 8 years. After each investigation, Mattel have dodged any allegations of wrongdoing refusing to even allow China Labour Watch to make their response public.

Barbie sweatshop
Image: China Labour Watch (2014)

The new Barbie dolls would a better step *if* it meant that Mattel’s profits didn’t increase because of it. But they will. And we know where those profits will go. It won’t be to improve sweatshops conditions, as China Labour Watch have doggedly asked. But in expanding, in making more Barbies and in opening more sweatshops. This means that for the thousands of Chinese women who work in their factories, the new dolls are not a step in the right direction

So what? You can donate to China Labour Watch here. If you’re an academic or student you can also lobby your university to use its vast purchasing power of products, that like Barbie are also made in sweatshops (electronics and clothing). The campaign run by People and Planet pushes for better conditions in the sweatshop factories, 11 universities have joined so far.

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