In the last three weeks I’ve been in six countries on two continents. Just to prove how far from glamorous this travel schedule has been, one of my observations is about tile.
Manufactured ceramic tile is, clearly, a global business. Bathrooms, hotels, airports, and businesses use the exact same tile that U.S. Americans can buy from their local hardware store to decorate their homes. This stuff for example can be seen gracing a business bathroom in South Africa and the lobby of a hotel in Germany.
For my work, I visit places that make tile. I don’t happen to know where the example above is made (I’d guess China) but they are doing a much better business than their competitors. I visit those places because making tile is a process that involves combustion which pollutes. The company I work for makes instruments to help reduce that pollution. Which is why I’d guess that tile is made in China.
Wealthy countries have exported not only the manufacture of tile (and steel, and other smelly things) but also the pollution that it generates. If we bought our tile from local facilities we’d save on transport costs (small, compared to the price of the manufacturing plant) and we might be able to manage the pollution they generate through regulations (the same regulations that drove steel manufacturing away from Western Europe and the United States, but this sword cuts both ways doesn’t it.)
Globalization effects tile, but also where and how pollution is generated. Tile, then, becomes one of the reasons that it is so difficult to make progress on international global warming policies. And it’s why I think the tile is made in China where they have embraced the downside of pollution as a necessary stepping stone on the path to growth. The west, meaning Europe and the U.S., did the same, it’s just that most of us aren’t old enough to remember.
For me, the unforeseen consequence, is that from Russia to South Africa, lobbies and bathrooms truly are starting to look the same. I can’t imagine that twenty years ago, fake Italian tile was the fashion almost literally at both ends of the world. And for me it’s even more boring than all the hours spent in the plane.