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Made in Germany
By Fritz Burmeister
Published February 2006

The history of the label “Made in Germany” goes back to the year 1887 when British imports were legally required to be marked with a label such as “Made in Germany” through the “Merchandise Marking Act” to protect the British economy. It was an attempt to make the British consumer aware of the origin of the merchandise and hopefully entice him to buy domestic products. But this measure had the opposite effect. Products so marked soon became known for quality and reliability the world over, much to the dismay of the originators of the marking act. 

Germany’s heavy dependency on imports of natural resources forced its industry to specialize in manufactured goods of superb quality to keep the import/export ration in balance. Its reputation stretched around the globe. Optical instruments such as telescopes, microscopes and binoculars, manufactured by Carl Zeiss in Jena became world-renowned. Krupp became the most reputable steel producer in Europe and Mercedes made a name for itself on the automobile market. Chemicals and musical instruments were likewise not be outdone by the competition. The slogan “quality goes in before the name goes on” tells the story.  

While WW I left the German industry basically intact to continue on the path of quality production once the burden of reparations and inflationary setbacks were overcome, WW II virtually wiped out German industrial capacity. That this turned out to be an advantage in gaining an edge on the competition was not immediately apparent. But rebuilding also meant modernization and automation which provided industry the means to slip into the competitive forefront. The Wirtschaftswunder was under way. 

Application of the latest technologies coupled with proven quality workmanship in manufacturing consumer goods indicated that the old label “Made in Germany” had lost nothing of its pre-war reputation. Based on production figures for domestic and international consumption it seemed that Germany was on its way to become an industrial powerhouse. Foreign products labeled “Made in Hong Kong,” or “Made in China,” or even “Made in Japan” which flooded the international market, were offered for a low price, but lacked in quality. For instance, nails would sometimes bend before penetrating a two by four, and tools broke or wore out prematurely. 

Globalization and pervasive outsourcing changed much of that. Western manufacturers started to take advantage of cheap labor in the East, but forced production to comply with their specifications. It should, therefore, not be a surprise to anyone discovering a “Dirndl” dress labeled “Made in Thailand.” Japan re-emerged as an industrial nation on its own accord. With its market contribution to high quality automobiles, cameras, computers and associated adjunct equipment it has established itself as a tough competitor. Even China shows promising signs of world competitiveness. 

“Made in Germany” may have lost some of its luster, particularly following some high profile failures in the field of technology, as was recently reported. The Road Toll System, plagued by schedule delays and cost overruns due to the inadequacy of the system design, is still awaiting completion. The Mars Probe, incorporating German technology, is simply lost out there in the vastness of space. Is the consumer concerned with high-tech failures such as that?  Probably not. Labels have lost some of their significance anyway. Customers don’t care anymore about the origin of the merchandise, as long as the quality of an item matches the price. To some, however, “Made in Germany” has a certain nostalgic value. Its established reputation lingers on.  

Today Germany’s export figures show an increase of 9.7 percent for the third quarter 2005 over the previous quarter, according to the Federal Office of Statistics. And as long as that trend continues, who cares about a label, after all, exported goods are wanted goods.  

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