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 12 percent 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.