Worker process dog treats in a plant in the town of Shuitou, Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, on May 17, 2017 (CNSPHOTO)
In the town of Shuitou in Pingyang County of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, a typical day starts around 7 a.m. with factory buses shuttling along the roads bringing workers to factories that produce food and toys for pets.
Cai Zhaodi is one of them. She works in a plant that produces dog chews, a snack which is also a toy for dogs to clean their mouth and play with. Her duties include packing the products and then loading them into containers, which will then be shipped to foreign buyers.
A local resident in her 30s, Cai used to work in factories in other parts of the province and was separated from her family most of the time. The development of the pet supplies industry in Shuitou offered her an option to work near home.
Traditionally, the town was known for its leather processing sector and was home to over 1,200 tanneries. Since its transformation that started two decades ago to curb industrial pollution, it has now become a national manufacturing and distribution hub of pet supplies.
The manufacturing of dog chews was introduced to the town in the 1990s, when it was learned that leftover materials of tanneries could be broken and reprocessed into this product and that it has a huge overseas market.
"In European countries and the U.S., the market for dog supplies is mature, so most of our products are export-oriented," said Zhu Zhaochong, Executive Vice President of the Zhejiang Import and Export Pet Food and Products Industry Association. Zhu started his own plant in 1996 and now its customers are from a dozen of countries.
For years, dog chews were only a small fraction of the town's leather processing business. A turning point emerged in 2003, when the industry was blacklisted by the then State Environmental Protection Administration for the severe pollution it caused to the local water systems.
A campaign was then launched by Pingyang to transform and upgrade the industry, during which most of the tanneries were shut down. Thanks to its lower pollution, the production of dog chews was preserved.
Now, it has become the pillar industry in Shuitou. Data from the local government showed that the town accounted for over 60 percent of the output of dog chews of China in 2020, worth more than 4.5 billion yuan ($0.7 billion).
Its product portfolio has also expanded to include treats, toys, clothes, harnesses and houses for dogs, which are sold to over 30 countries and regions including Australia, the Republic of Korea and Japan, the U.S. and some European countries.
Pet toy producer Yuanfei keeps close eyes on market trends. Its dog leashes in various colors are decorated with metal buttons and bowknots.
Starting also with dog chews, the company has expanded its product line to meet various needs and is now on its way to getting listed on the stock market. Of all its products, pet leashes are the most profitable, selling around 50 million pieces annually.
"They are made from leftovers of waistbands for men, which are made from leftover materials themselves," said Zhuang Mingyun, President of the company. Now it also makes leashes from other materials such as polyester.
The development of the pet economy in the town has won national recognition. In 2014, it was recognized as China's only base for exporting pet supplies.
Pingyang Pet Town initiative is launched on May 29, 2017 (CNSPHOTO)
The booming industry has brought opportunities to people in other parts of the county, especially villages around the town. Apart from getting employed in the pet product factories, they also benefit by becoming part of the industrial chain.
In the village of Fengchao less than 20 km away from the town seat, plants and workshops are scattered along the river that runs through it. They are responsible for a basic procedure: drying the raw leather.
When the leather is delivered to the village from pet product companies, these workshops spread and support them with bamboo poles and leave them under the sun. When they become dry and stiff, the semi-finished products are handed over to the factories in the town. Some villagers even buy raw leather from other provinces, process it into semi-finished products, and sell it to the factories.
Yang Lihua is the owner of several such workshops in the village. Originally a retailer of shoes for children, she became a supplier of semi-finished products for pets in 2012 and expanded her business the next year by acquiring workshops in the village. Currently, the output value of her workshops exceeds 40 million yuan ($6 million) annually.
According to Zhu, there are many workshops in the county to supply various products for the industry. "They leverage the surplus labor in the villages and help increase villagers' income," he said.
According to the White Paper on China's Pet Economy in 2020, the market reached 206.5 billion yuan ($31.9 billion) that year, nearly twice the value in 2016.
In 2017, Shuitou launched the first Pet Day on May 29, welcoming industry insiders from around the globe to discuss topics ranging from the pet economy and pet culture to the protection of animals.
At the event, a brand new building in the shape of bones named Pingyang Pet Town's Living Room was also launched. In the building are exhibition halls showing the development of the pet industry and pet culture, arenas for pet competitions and a pet-themed restaurant.
The building marked the beginning of a provincial initiative put forward in 2016 to build an industrial park in Shuitou, which involves an area of 3.3 square km and investment of 5.22 billion yuan ($0.8 billion). The aim was to upgrade the town to a national base for developing and manufacturing high-end pet supplies and a tourist destination for pet lovers.
The town's vocational school has also opened a new major: pet care. The program currently enrolls 40 students each year and is planning an expansion of recruitment to meet the local shortage of specialists in this area.
During her spare time, Cai is also learning about the pet industry. "My dream is to work in the industry until retirement," she said.
(Print Edition Title: Catering to Pet Needs)
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