Hey, Why Aren't Your Toys Made In China?

The New York Times took a look at some European toy makers who decided to let the Chinese Poison Train pass them by. Why didn’t they outsource their manufacturing to China?


“Looking back, it feels like it was right to make that decision,” said Andrea Schauer, managing director of Geobra Brandstätter, which makes Playmobil toys. “At the level of quality we need,” she said, “we didn’t have enough manpower to inspect factories in China.”

Ms. Schauer said Playmobil, a family-owned company in Zirndorf, Germany, faced intense pressure to move production to China. Most of the industry was moving there, she said, and German banks did not want to lend money to companies to build toy factories at home.

What the companies discovered, though, was while China’s unit labor costs were a fraction of those in the West — the equivalent of $1.50 an hour compared with $30 an hour in western Germany — the distance between China and the companies’ biggest markets eroded some of that cost advantage.

“You cannot blindly believe in German manufacturing. But when you are so close to the factory, you can jump in your car and be there in 20 minutes.”


“We looked at various options,” said Iqbal Padda, executive vice president in charge of the global supply chain at Lego, noting that at the start, it was widely accepted “that it has to be China.”

Ultimately, China was just too far away for Lego.

“Toys are not the fashion business, but they are like the fashion business,” Mr. Padda said. “The need to be able to react to what is going on in the market made us choose [Europe]”.

Will it matter to consumers? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, Playmobil says they are too concerned with quality to ship production across the globe:

“Outstanding quality can only be reached when production is carried out under one’s own eyes, by people who have developed brand awareness over a long time, and learned to produce the highest quality,” said Playmobil’s founder, Horst Brandstätter.

In Europe, Some Toy Makers Shun the China Label [NYT]


Edit Your Comment

  1. The_Shadow says:

    I wish more US companies had done this. I know there are a few toy manufactures still doing all their production here. Take Marble King {perhaps you saw them on John Ratzenberger’s Made in America}- one of the last two marble makers in the US – they’re based in West Virginia. [www.marbleking.com]

  2. Cowboys_fan says:

    This whole China thing reminds me of the war. Years ago, it was a great idea, they get jobs, we save money; what could go wrong!? Now everybody is up in arms as if this is somehow unexpected, that a communist country would sacrifice quality for quantity. This is the fault of all of us, and now we are paying for it.

  3. graphikartistry says:

    Thank god for Lego and the “not so playable” Playmobil (I grew up thinking these were knock-off Lego)! You’d think having workers who were able to afford the toys they make would be a common sense decision. Lego, I miss you.

  4. bohemian says:

    They mentioned something I have wondered about. The shipping costs. It has to cost something to ship a box of toys or clothes from China to the US. Fuel alone isn’t cheap. So how much money are they really saving by having it made in China and then shipped half way around the world?

  5. I used to feel people who ran around saying “BUY AMERICAN” were short sighted. Funny how perspective changes now that I’m getting older and thinking about having kid(s) of my own. I love the variety the global market brings us, but we must not sacrifice quality to a fault.

  6. Amelie says:


    Stop hatin’ on Playmobil.:) Actually Lego seemed to be copying Playmobil in terms of their “little guys.” Lego appears to be more a building toy while Playmobil is geared more to the imaginative play one does with dolls or action figures. Anyway they are both good. As for missing Playmobil, I don’t have to. I buy new sets each year. The devil guy and the bankrobbers are my current favorites.

  7. Buran says:

    @rainmkr: I’ve been flipped off, cut off, you name it, etc. for driving an import vehicle before by people driving (you guessed it) huge american boats.

    People go where the quality is, and that ain’t China. Same holds true for cars.

    I can’t help but laugh when the people being assholes are in some piece of junk that gets universally bad reviews for falling apart, being ugly and cheap, etc., yet sells because of people who blindly buy based on badging. My German car will still be running in 10 years while theirs is rusting in a scrap heap …

  8. Dont Know Me? You Are Me. says:

    @bohemian: For Chinese-made toys, ocean freight costs can be anywhere from 1 to 15%, depending on the volume. In most cases, Chinese labor savings far outweigh shipping costs. The real cost of going Chinese is not freight, it’s shipping time, poor QC, and reduced oversight.

  9. spinachdip says:

    @knave77: You also have to consider relocating executives or hiring local ones, hiring extra legal and PR, increased executive travel, etc, etc. We could keep going with the all the extra expenses required to save on manufacturing. I wonder how much Fisher Price is really saving by moving their production to China.

  10. spinachdip says:

    @Buran: I think the delicious irony is when “German” cars are made in Alabama or South Carolina, while “American” cars are often shipped from Latin America.

  11. SaveMeJeebus says:

    Playmobil always creeped me out. Maybe it is all the little people having the same expression on their faces and not being jointed well… maybe it is memories of this awful church my grandma would drag me to as a kid. The only toys they had were Playmobil and I was a Lego kid.

  12. vitonfluorcarbon says:

    Chinese manufacturing is on a boom, but I think you will see some push by companies to re-insource certain parts of their operations back into the US and other places. I’m seeing some of it at my place of employment. The true savings don’t necessarily add up. As noted by other posters, the downside of things being made 1/2 way around the world is not cost – it the issues that shipping time creates.

    To be completely honest, I’ve yet to see something from China that “wow”ed me in regards to quality – aside from the companies with plants that very tightly control what is going on there. The Chinese are focused on improving, so don’t count them out and assume that all is crap. There’s a good reason there are so many of them – they are not stupid people and will be raising the bar on quality sooner rather than later.

    Hopefully China has expanded enough to create it’s own demand base which could mean that many products will be produced in China for local markets. If we are lucky, we will produce more products for our local markets as well.

    I’m not an environmental tree-hugger, but I hate to see waste when there is a better way. Even though I’m not a tree-hugger, I still have to wonder about not only the burning of fuel on the ocean voyage to get Chinese things here, but also about the lax emissions requirements that the Chinese have to meet when manufacturing products. Our high gas prices have nothing do with supply, it’s future anticipated demand by the Chinese and India principally.

  13. humphrmi says:

    Switzerland is a great place to buy high quality toys (especially wood) that are made no further away than Germany. I stock up every time I have a business trip to Europe. Our “poison train” collection is very small, only stuff that our local relatives give our kids. This year, we’re telling them to give our kids clothes :).

  14. Buran says:

    @spinachdip: That does amuse me, although mine was actually made in Germany. Still, though, it’s true for a lot of Japanese cars too.

  15. Trai_Dep says:

    @spinachdip: academics have looked at this and found that, once all factors are included (shipping, command & control, QC…) outsourcing results in about 30% savings. In spite of a 10:1 wage differential. This was several years ago – China’s experiencing wage pressures forcing the ratio downward.

    And a LOT more headache, bureacracy, etc. Assuming that everything goes right and one of the Chinese subcontractors doesn’t go and murder hundreds of your customers. Which – icky!!

  16. ShadeWalker says:

    umm.. couldn’t we just teach children to not chew on things?

    lego is full of tiny pieces but i don’t hear people complaining about how lego pieces are too small for kids which is why they make duplo but duplo pieces have some pretty sharp edges.

    isn’t lead poisoning developed over time?

  17. KvaleGames says:

    Working in the board game niche of the toy industry, its been known that manufacturing games overseas is also an area of concern for environmental, health and safety matters. Yet, the valid dangers of plastics or lead-paint toys receive a bulk of the press for consumer safety.

    Our small board game company is one of the few that sources materials, prints, and assembles in the U.S. It is the best way for us to maintain our eco-friendly position by using safer, non-toxic materials and processes.

    These authentic green production choices have nothing to do with our game play concepts, and instead just the production side.

    Notably, if our company was to sell at a rate equal to the first four months of *(unnamed)* board games, our decision to use 100% recycled papers (50% post-consumer, PCF) would save:

    26 tons of greenhouse gases,

    168,190 gallons of water,

    330 million BTUs of Energy,

    and 650 trees. This does not it include the additional impact of our choice to use vegetable-based inks, water-based sealants for product longevity, and recycled glass/wood players tokens.

    Despite the pleasant increase in calls from consumers, we shall see if retailers help answer a growing demand for responsible games and toys from US companies.

  18. FosterDad says:

    I can’t believe the lack of manufacturer attention to this,
    especially from those that don’t make goods in China. If my stuff was
    made elsewhere I’d post that fact all over my web site and advertising.
    If I was a retailer, I’d have signs pointing out every toy not made in
    china as well. Of course, those toys would fly off the shelves.

    It’s hard to find sites that help you find non-chinese toys, and a
    lot of the sites that do focus mainly on wooden toys. I found a couple
    sites that help find mainstream toys that my kids actually ask for.
    I’ve found a lot at http://www.toys-without-china.com and FAO Shwartz. FAO has
    a country search, but who can afford $300 for a stuffed bear?