Today’s Book Review: “Where Underpants Come From” by Joe Bennett
When Joe Bennett bought a five-pack of ‘Made in China’ underpants in his local New Zealand Warehouse for $8.59, he wondered who on earth could be making any money, let alone profit, from the exchange. How many processes and middlemen are involved? Where and how are the pants made? And who decides on the absorbent qualities of the gusset? ‘Where Underpants Come From’ tells you all you need to know. In fact, probably more about this mystery of global commerce. Leaving his supermarket trolley behind Joe embarks on an odyssey to the new factory of the world, China, to trace his pants back to their source. Along the way he discovers the extraordinarily balanced and intricate web of contacts and exchanges that makes global trade possible — and rapidly elevating China to the status of world economic superpower. He also grapples with chopsticks, challenges his own prejudices and marvels at the contrasts in one of the world’s oldest, but fastest changing, societies.
While the book is written about the global supply chain for a specific set of underpants, the stories Joe writes about are taking place every day in just about every industry that sources product in China. As such, the book is an excellent insight into how the import-export business actually functions.
The scams exposed and characters introduced are an extremely accurate snap shot of who and what you will find in China (especially the guys he meets at the pub or the joker who runs a trading company but teaches English for his main income while cheating in China on his wife back home).
The book is a bit outdated in that the days of cheap and easy to arrange labor in China have started to draw to a close. But his descriptions of pollution, size of cities, pace of driving and the experience of dining in China remain very accurate. The book adds a lite sprinkle of Chinese history and politics. Just enough to set the stage for the stories described in the book, but as the author explains, this book was not meant to be reference book on Chinese history or culture.
The author does an excellent job of explaining how the Chinese view themselves. This will make interesting reading for the typical international businessperson. I also enjoyed his vivid descriptions of the differences between China’s first tier cities (Shanghai in particular) and the 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier cities most outsiders never hear about.
According to the author, his understanding of China was based on a few trips to China. So as a long term resident (almost 20 years in China now) I kept waiting for him to make some blunders in his descriptions and explanations for the way the Chinese do what they do. I have to give him credit. He nailed it. Especially his descriptions of factory life and even handshake styles.
If you have yet to go to China… read this book on your flight and land with your eyes opened.
If you have been to China a few times… read this book to help recall fond memories of what a great adventure it was to do business there.
If you have lived in China and are in the sourcing industry… ask yourself if know how Joe’s stories are going to turn out as you read the book. If you guessed wrong, shame on yourself because as you are one of those expats that Joe describes who make a living pretending to be China experts but survive by having only a little more knowledge about China than the people you advise back home.
While the conflict between Han culture and ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province is a topic worth of discussion, I feel Joe spent a little too much time on this issue in his book. But I must say that Joe experienced more in one tour of China than many expats do in course of a living here full time.
Where Underpants Come From is an excellent book! I highly recommend it!
Book Review by Mike Bellamy
Advisory Board Member & Featured Blogger at the not-for-profit China Sourcing Information Center (www.ChinaSourcingInfo.org). Author of “The Essential Reference Guide to China Sourcing” and founder of PassageMaker Sourcing Solutions.