The exterior of a Zara store in Xidan shopping area in downtown Beijing. In the latest quality control tests on garments by the Beijing Consumer Association, Zara and other well-known brands were declared substandard. Wang Jing / China Daily
Consumer group puts clothes under the spotlight, report Cui Jia and Wang Yan.
Many Chinese consumers favor foreign brands because of their international appeal and perceived higher quality. Now shoppers, and consumers worldwide, might have to think twice.
In the latest quality control tests on garments sold in Beijing, several well-known brands were declared substandard. Six were international brands, 14 were Chinese.
Clothes sold by Zara, from Spain, failed in three categories, the most of any brand tested. It is also the only brand that has failed three successive quality tests.
The Beijing Consumer Association (BCA), which released the results on April 10, sampled 57 pairs of leisure trousers from 57 domestic and international brands. Thirty-seven passed tests in all 13 of the association's categories. Tests covered such characteristics as fiber content, color fastness and pH value. (A high pH, meaning the fabric contains alkaline, can irritate the skin.)
The fabric in a pair of Zara trousers made in Morocco did not match the contents declared on the label that said the fabric was 75 percent cotton, 20 percent wool and 5 percent terylene, a type of polyester. The fabric tested at 68 percent cotton, 10 percent wool and the rest other contents.
Zara is owned by Inditex, a group of 100-plus companies that calls itself one of the world's largest clothing retailers. It reported annual profits that were up nearly one-third last fiscal year from the year before, according to a report last month in The Independent newspaper in the UK.
"What upset us the most is not that Zara's products have been continuously failing tests, it is their silence about the quality issue found in China," said Dong Qing, vice-president of BCA. "I don't think they carry such an arrogant attitude elsewhere. Their attitude really doesn't match their international image."
Zara's down coats failed BCA's quality tests in 2009 and 2010; their actual down content was lower (by 9.1 and 18.5 percent, respectively) than what the labels said.
After BCA published those findings, Zara did not contact the association and BCA is unaware of any action the company took in response. Zara did not reply when China Daily asked what action had been taken, although it did respond to questions about the latest test results.
"If those products were sold worldwide, then they are cheating global consumers," Dong said. "We hope consumer associations or groups are aware of that."
Zara opened 75 stores in China last year and plans to open 120 more this year, The Independent reported. That will put Zara in 42 Chinese cities, up from 30 in 2010.
Dong blamed the fast expansion as the primary reason for Zara's quality problems. "Adding a little bit less cotton and down in their garments could help the company save a lot, and consumers wouldn't notice at all."
In its article about Zara's finances, The Independent said Inditex allayed worries about cost pressures, saying it expected to keep half the margin gains it made in 2010.
It has been a week since BCA's latest quality report was sent to Inditex's Chinese headquarters in Shanghai, and BCA said the company has not responded. BCA would like to see Zara apologize to Chinese consumers and recall problem products.
Another well-known foreign brand that was rated substandard is US-based Hush Puppies. The company sent a written statement to BCA immediately after the report cited labeling that did not match fabric content, requesting a re-test. Hush Puppies said there is no content other than cotton in the casual trousers sampled.
"The company held an emergency meeting after the test result was published and took the issue very seriously," Hush Puppies said in its response to BCA.
The association has reported the sample results to Beijing Administration for Industry and Commerce, which plans to fine Zara about 780,000 yuan ($119,421) for poor quality control. The final amount is still under discussion, BCA said.
"We will continue to monitor Zara's product quality," Dong said. "If they continue to sell substandard garments, we might have to ask them to leave Beijing. Foreign brands need to respect Chinese regulations and consumers."
The fashion retailer admitted to China Daily that the pair of inspected trousers had less cotton content than labeled. It was the company's first official response to questions of quality in China.
"Our quality teams are analyzing the garment to figure out exactly how the problem occurred," said Ray Hsu, who is listed on the Zara website as a media contact person in China. "Our standards are very high, as we must comply with the most demanding laws worldwide in all our more than 800 million units' production," she said by email.
She did not answer a question about whether the inspected trousers are sold worldwide or only on the Chinese market.
In early 2007, Shanghai authorities exposed questionable clothing quality in nearly a dozen top luxury brands, including Chanel, Armani, Christian Dior and Burberry. Samples from Zara were also declared substandard.
Some consumers are not bothered by that.
"I just love Zara's style, which domestic brands just cannot beat. I don't really care about its fabric content, which I couldn't tell anyway," university student Huang Shuang, 21, said while browsing at a buzzing Zara store in Beijing's Xidan commercial district during the weekend.
"I cannot believe such a big brand could have so many quality issues," said Luo Qi, 32, who works for a foreign accounting company and frequently travels to Europe. "I won't stop buying Zara clothes, but I think they owe Chinese consumers an apology. I often find that the quality of the clothes I buy in Europe is much better than those in China, even though they are from the same brand."
Dong from BCA said Chinese consumers are obsessed with foreign brands. "Many people still believe the quality of foreign brands is almost certainly better than domestic brands. Actually," he said, "some Chinese brands care more about product quality than those well-known brands because they can't lure consumers to buy their products just by their brand names."
Some don't bother
"The number of complaints about foreign-brand products has been on the rise in recent years, especially among clothes and electronic products," Zhang Lerong, chief editor of the complaint channel at online.sh.cn, told China Daily for a story about World Consumer Rights Day on March 15.
"When we help complainants solve their problems, we often feel the global companies are reluctant to be contacted by the media."
Wang Fengchang, CEO of the legal website Laweach and a Beijing-based expert in consumers' rights protection, said he has seen few large-scale complaints related to clothes, but it is not because the industry enjoys high quality standards.
"Now that market competition is getting fiercer, many manufacturers have turned to price wars. In order to reduce production costs, they might use cheap and low-quality materials," Wang said. "We have received scattered complaints on clothes, but they are more about obvious flaws, such as ragged appearances and faded colors.
"As for hidden problems, such as incorrect labels, they are hard for the consumers to find out." He said that inspection fees are too high and "not worth it" for an individual consumer. More assertive action by government watchdogs might prevent such problems, he said.
He also attributed the largely passive attitudes about inspection results to people's ignorance of their rights as consumers.
"Many consumers may not want to bother with the so-called 'small money' they spent on the products. They might just swallow the anger and carry on," he said.
"It is not exclusive to the clothing industry. It is more obvious in some other fields, such as electronic products."
Top: A customer selects clothes at a Zara store in Xidan shopping area. Above: A customer passes a store of Friends, another brand name that failed the quality inspection. Photos by Wang Jing / China Daily
(China Daily 04/20/2011 page1)