From my home in Southern California a few weeks ago, I purchased a T-shirt and moccasins from what looked like a Native American website. As each item came in, I noticed they were being shipped from China. I checked the labels to see that they were made in China.
According to U.S. law this is illegal. Any good claiming to be Native American must actually be made in the U.S. by Native Americans. The goods were inexpensive, but I wanted real Native American goods, not Chinese goods using Native American designs.
All over the world consumers are being blinded by sellers who want the marketing benefits connected with making goods in a particular country, whereas they are actually exploiting global textile supply chains.
Knowing where our textiles were made tells us more about the item’s production process – both environmentally as well as socially.
U.S. Labeling Requirements
Since my context is from a U.S perspective, I delved into the labelling laws here.
The Fair Packaging & Labelling Act of the United States requires that all finished consumer goods sold in the U.S. be labelled with the country in which they were primarily manufactured. Globalisation has complicated the requirement, but there are guidelines.
If a garment was not made mostly in the U.S., its label could say, “Designed in USA, manufactured in China” or “Assembled in USA with imported materials.” If the last two stages of manufacturing took place in the USA, “Made in USA” label can be used.
Labelling is important enough to consumers that they will report it to the Federal Trade Commission, if they see what looks like deceptive advertising in a label. The FTC will investigate, which can end up being unnecessarily costly to whichever brand needs to make changes, as happened with Walmart in 2015 (see resources).
Decisions Based on Labels
Assumptions made by educated consumers about countries of origin do often help them choose between brands, but they can also be misleading. What can your ‘made in’ label connote ? Here are some examples of what I think when I read “made in” labels :
MADE IN USA – To the average buyer, this implies a high quality product and fair treatment of employees. However, there are numerous sweatshops operating in the U.S. (and Europe), like the garment district in Los Angeles, which was once notorious for exploiting Hispanic and Asian immigrants. On the other hand, there is Patagonia – one of the most ethical brands in the world.
MADE IN INDIA – When I see garments made in India, I assume they are painstakingly made by artisans with light, colourful fabric that feels good, as it swirls around the body. While this might be possible, I am also aware of the poor working conditions and meagre wages Indian workers are subject to and it makes me wonder: Which of these factories was it made in? The cheaper the garment the more suspicious I am of what practices I might be advocating.
MADE IN CHINA – China is better known as the world’s factory. I’ve rarely seen expensive garments from this region and that can only corroborate my research that indicates worker exploitation and hazardous environmental practices.
MADE IN BANGLADESH – When I think Bangladesh, I can only think of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory which caused the death of over a thousand garment workers. Bangladeshi sweatshops are known to promote slavery as well as inhumane working conditions. While I’ve read that these practices are changing, I’m still skeptical !
MADE IN UZBEKISTAN – We see less and less of these labels for a good reason. Workers are notoriously exploited in this region, even to the point of slavery – especially in the cotton farming industry. Further, their environmentally harmful practices have dried up water bodies and destroyed marine life, thereby affecting the region’s ecological balance. For these reasons, brands and suppliers find it hard to sell a Made in Uzbekistan label nowadays – to the point that factories intentionally lie about anything being manufactured in this region.
MADE IN PAKISTAN – Assumptions about this country are similar to Bangladesh, which implies sweatshops and inferior products throughout the country. However, there are very high quality goods made in both these countries. Markhor is a handcrafted shoe company in Pakistan that was the first fashion start up to be accepted into Y Combinator’s prestigious accelerator program in Silicon Valley.
MADE IN TURKEY – I was shocked to find out that 665,000 Syrian child refugees in Turkey are not going to school – many because they have to work, half of those of which work in textiles. Even against Turkish law, where the minimum child labour age is 15 and working hours are restricted, there are nine and ten year old Syrian children working up to 15 hours a day, six days per week. And they’re not alone. Research in 2012 showed that nearly one million Turkish children aged 6-17 also worked, many in the textiles industry, supplying exports of $17 billion in clothing and shoes.
These several examples ask a buyer to look more carefully into the background of a brand. The label itself doesn’t give room for many words, but that leaves the buyer open to drawing assumptions – like I have – which do not always hold true. To counteract that tendency, a brand can use other tools like their website to showcase the transparency of their processes and provide more accurate details.