The Questions We Asked Every Potential Manufacturer

Let’s talk deal-breakers. We’re not willing to manufacture Facilitator Cards if (1) they won’t be amazing; (2) they will be the byproduct of the abuse of workers or unsafe/unhealthy/unfair labor practices; and (3) we’ll be creating a carbon footprint by printing and shipping the cards.

As it turns out, this is a tall order.

Most of the things Meg & I make together are digital (curricula, online resources for facilitators & educators, facilitation guides, etc.), so we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these things. The only humans involved in the creation are us, and the only carbon footprint we’re directly responsible for is the electricity powering the website’s servers + the computer/device downloading the thing.

(Which, to be honest, is actually more pernicious than we generally realize, and something I’m thinking about a lot lately, considering I’m a contributor to about 50 websites.)

But manufacturing a physical set of cards with picky specifications (like being dry erase compatible, and packaged in a custom box) is a wholly different story.

Here are a bunch of the parts of this project we’re focused on now that we generally don’t have to pay any mind to:

  • The people in the every aspect of the supply chain (from the ones working the printing presses, assembling, and packing the cards, to the printing company ownership, to the distributors)
  • What all those people’s working conditions are like, how they’re treated, and if they’re fairly compensated
  • The waste & biopollutants generated by the manufacturing process (paper, coating, etc.)
  • The electricity used in manufacturing the cards, and in the raw materials used to create the cards
  • The fuel used shipping the cards to our warehouse
  • The fuel used shipping the cards to you, or our eventual cardholders

There’s more, but I think you get the picture.

So, here’s what we’re asking everyone:

Beyond the basic requirements for the project (can you print cards with these specifications in a box shaped like this?), we’ve been asking…

  1. Where are you (the owners) based, where are the cards actually manufactured, and what’s your relationship? Specifically, what oversight do you have over the plant?
  2. Have you visited the plant to ensure ethical & safe working conditions? Can we?
  3. Can you provide us with information on worker hours, compensation, safety records, and relevant certifications?
  4. Can you provide us with information on waste creation and recycling? Plant energy consumption?
  5. What else can you tell us about the human, animal, and environmental impact of your plant?

Now, for the tall order:

It turns out that trying to make a quality/specific physical thing in ways that are humane and environmentally sustainable is a bit like going to a restaurant serving prix fixe with a paired wine: we don’t have a lot of options here.

Especially considering most of the companies we researched couldn’t even make the cards to our spec, period. That’s hurdle one.

Once that’s cleared, hurdle two is quick to follow.

Most of the companies I’ve been in touch with (via internet search, and asking friends for referrals/ideas) haven’t even given me a human response.

So much of this industry is powered by automated bot responses to any inquiries about printing. Or the company’s website has a little app you can use to estimate the cost and pay your invoice. There’s also a lot of ambiguity about where companies are based/owned vs. where the printing happens. Not good.

And in general, when I’ve been able to talk to a human, the norm in this manufacturing industry seems to be closed books on any of our questions above.

Reps are happy to talk about how thick their printing stock is, or the speed of their turnaround time, but unwilling to even try to answer any of my questions above.

Don’t like the wine? Don’t drink it.

Against all odds, we think we found one.

This has a happy-ish ending. Like the little engine that could, we kept trying and trying, and eventually found a company that tried to answer all of the questions above.

I stress tried to, because they were honest where they simply didn’t have answers. They’re not typically asked these questions. And they – like a seasoned facilitator – promised they’d look into the answers and get back to us. That’s the “-ish” part of the happy ending.

Before we launch our Kickstarter campaign, we’ll have this nailed down for sure, and we’ll be able to include the relevant information there.

And with all that said, this process highlighted how much of this is going to require creative problem solving.

We might not be able to find a manufacturer that checks every box, but that doesn’t mean we can’t check the boxes ourselves.

Facilitating ethical manufacturing.

It would be perfect if our manufacturer produced no waste, used only 100% post-consumer recycled materials, and their plant was Platinum LEED certified and carbon negative.

Adding to that, it would be wonderfully convenient if the global shipping infrastructure ran on solar power instead of fossil fuels.

But neither of those are in the cards.

And there are other gaps we’ll surely notice – between our ideal way of doing this and the way the world allows us to – as we keep moving forward in the process.

As long as we have a manufacturer who meets our deal-breaking criteria above, and is open and transparent with us, we have a starting place we can work from.

Instead of wishing the world were different, we’re planning on closing the gaps ourselves.

Here’s our promise for the manufacturing of Facilitator Cards:

  1. We’ll plant trees for the portion of the cards that doesn’t come from recycled stock, order-by-order, deck-by-deck;
  2. We’ll offset the carbon emissions we’re responsible for (via manufacturing, shipping, and, yes, our website, per the note above);
  3. And we’ll direct energy & money into lobbying for a shift toward ethics, sustainability, and wellness in every part of the supply chain we can (from manufacturing to distributing), so that this isn’t an uphill struggle for others.

We’d love to hear your advice for following through on any of the above. And your thoughts on all of this. Email is a good way to say hi:

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