The new Barbies aren’t so great for the sweatshop workers who make them

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? Well, not for the women making them.

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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 co-opts 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 for Dove – it worked. A brilliant analysis by Giulia Carando showed the move generated huge profits  (of 700% or returning $3 for every $1 spent in the first 6 months of its launch). The award winning Real Beauty campaign has also been shown on over 25 major TV channels and in more than 800 articles, Dove have 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).

So 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 doll’s bodies more realistic (fair point – curvy Barbie is only a UK size 8), 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 tell us so repeatedly. As recently as between June and November 2014, they’ve investigated the Chinese toy factories that Mattel use. What do they find? That the Barbie factory makers face on average 100 hours of forced overtime a month (the legal limit is 36 hours), a lack of protective equipment and locked fire escapes. The worker’s IDs are routinely confiscated, they are housed in squalid living conditions (including sharing a room with up to 18 people and having 1 shower between 36 people) get wages of just £150 per month.

This is the second time China Labour Watch have investigated Mattel’s sweatshops in the last 8 years. And what do Mattel do? After each investigations, they dodge any allegation of wrongdoing, threaten to sue China Labour Watch, refusing to even allow China Labour Watch make Mattel’s 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 (and fewer men) who work in their factories, this isn’t a step in the right direction

So what? If you can, donate to China Labour Watch here. If you’re an academic or student you can also lobby against sweatshop conditions by getting 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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2 thoughts on “The new Barbies aren’t so great for the sweatshop workers who make them

  1. Thank You So Much for writing this! I often am at odds with myself over this kind of thing. I am both an avid doll enthusiast AND someone that cares about the plight of workers and the environment. It is often a hard thing to acknowledge when the product is something that I covet. I DOES bother me that these companies mistreat the workers that make their products. It DOES bother me that, rather than sell more fashion packs, they just keep churning out new dolls – and it would make sense if they were ALL different, but often to get the new outfit you have to get another hunk of plastic that looks like other hunks of plastic you already have. ALSO, most of the people I know (adults anyway) usually discard the mannequin-like bodies that can’t move around.

    • Oh thanks for saying! Nice of you.
      Yes me too, I’m not above buying stuff like it at all. It’s not really an individual problem (I’m not convinced about the effectiveness for consumer change). I think it’s systematic. I do feel particularly aggrieved with researchers though talking about these issues as a social justice problem (body image concerns) but ignoring more urgent injustices.
      Yes the different sized clothing now is so shameless!

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