Barbie and the Development of Global Commodity Chains

Last Updated on June 1, 2017 by

One illustration of the global commodity chain can be found in the manufacture of the Barbie doll, the most profitable toy in history. The 50-something teenage doll sells at a rate of 2 per second, bringing the Mattel Corporation, based in Los Angeles, USA, well over a billion dollars in annual revenues. Although the doll sells mainly in the United States, Europe and Japan, Barbie can also be found in 150 countries around the globe: she is truly a global citizen.

Barbie is global not only in sales, but in terms of her birthplace as well. Barbie was never made in the United States. The first doll was made in Japan in 1959, when that country was still recovering from the Second World War and wages were low. As wages in Japan rose, Barbie moved to other low-wage countries in Asia. Her multiple origins today tell us a great deal about the operations of global supply chains.

Barbie is designed in United States, where her marketing and advertising strategies are devised and where most of the profits are made. But the only physical aspect of Barbie that is ‘made in the USA’ is her cardboard packaging, along with some of the paints and oils that are used to decorate the doll.

Barbie’s body parts and wardrobe span the globe in their origins:

  1. Barbie begins her life in Saudi Arabia, where oil is extracted and then refined into ethyne that is used to create her plastic body
  2. Taiwan’s state-owned oil importer, the Chinese Petroleum Corporation, buys the ethylene and sells it to Taiwan’s largest producer of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, which are used in the toys. Formosa plastics coverts the ethylene into the PVC pellets that will be shaped to make Barbie’s body.
  3. The pellets are then shipped to one of the four Asian factories that make Barbie – two in southern China, and one in Indonesia and one in Malaysia. The plastic mould injection machines that shape her body, which are most expensive part of Barbie’s manufacture, are made in the United States and shipped to the factories.
  4. Once Barbie’s body is moulded, she gets her nylon hair from Japan. Her cotton dresses are made in China, with Chinese cotton – the only raw material in Barbie that actually comes from the country where Barbie is made.
  5. Hong Kong plays a key role in the manufacturing process of Barbie – nearly all the material used in her manufacture is shipped into Hong Kong, one of the world’s largest ports – and then trucked to the factories in China. The finished Barbies leave by the same route. Some 23 000 trucks make the daily trip between Hong Kong and southern China’s toy factories.

Out of her retail price, China gets about 4%, mainly in wages paid to the 11 000 peasant women who assemble her, 6.5% covers all of the other aspects of the manufacturing and distribution process, 10% goes back to Matell in profit, and 80% is the mark-up which companies like Toys R Us who sell the product add to the cost.

The case study of Barbie shows us both the effectiveness of globalisation, and the unevenness of the process.

Sources used to write this post.

I took this from Giddens’ ‘Sociology’ (2009) – it may be old, but I liked it as an illustration of globalisation and global commodity chains.


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