As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Rob Walker strikes again…Where do gadgets really come from?

Sam Panthaky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Image

Rob Walker writes the “Consumed” column in the Sunday NYT magazine.  Partly in response to the terrible string of suicides at the Foxconn facility in China, he explored the issue of “knowing” exactly where the stuff we buy comes from, in an article called Open Secrets.  He’s acknowledging the fact that when something goes wrong (like the pet food recall, or YouTube video phenom of the slumbering Comcast repairman) the transparency culture and social media tools are quick to surface these blunders.

But Rob is highlighting the 99% cases in which we buy something, and nothing goes “wrong” but we have no idea where it came from, who made it, or how.  He argues that this precise information would be even more compelling to people than aggregate scores of “goodness”:

“I suspect it’s the specificity that matters; knowing something about a particular laptop or pair of sneakers or pet food resonates with consumers more than an aggregate score or a big-picture summary. Imagine an open-source effort emerging to make that brand/production relationship much less opaque than it is. I don’t expect that most consumers would actually turn every impulse buy into a research project, but I bet it would change the way brands scrutinize their supply chains if they knew that every thing we buy was really, truly transparent.”

This article hit me at just the right time as we’ve been evaluating a Grommet submission which does reveal exactly this kind of information.  In my mind having precise supply chain information (factories used, location of each, people employed, component materials information) elevated the product (which is wonderful, but not revolutionary on its own) to a different category.    To “here’s a company raising the bar for everyone else.”

Rob wrote an update to the NYT article on his Murketing blog.  It is worth checking out…turns out there is some progress being made on this issue.

These are the original images from the NYT article…I hope it is kosher to share them….nice work.   I will pull them right down if I am crossing a line.

8 Responses to “Rob Walker strikes again…Where do gadgets really come from?”

  1. Claudia

    Kelsey Timmerman may be a pioneer of Citizen Commerce. He looked at the labels on his favorite items of clothing and traveled to the countries where they were made investigate how the items were produced. His book, “Where am I Wearing?” is not a jounalistic expose so much as a series of journeys to see some of the faces involved in the process and understand the impact of Western consumerism in these third world countries. Highly recommended and enjoyable reading!

    • Jules Pieri

      Claudia, What a great idea for both a trip, a book, and a enormous body of information and learning. Go Kelsey Timmerman! As awful as the various manufacturing scandals are (like Foxconn) they create a sense of connection to the people across the globe. That is nothing but healthy.

  2. Dan Weinreb

    Rob Walker is the best journalist I know of when it comes to how and why we buy things. His book, “Buying In”, is great! (Jules, thank for the recommendation.) I always look forward to seeing his column in the Sunday New York Times.

  3. Dan Weinreb

    This is fascinating. I wonder if there are other examples of involuntary endorsements. It seems to me that this is an extension of the way a company can no longer control its brand as it used to, because anyone can publish on a blog or other web site. In a way, this is an extension of not being able to control your brand. Rob Walker’s Buying In talks about this, as does Josh Bernoff’s Groundswell.


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