Over the past few years, you may have noticed something missing—or extremely hard to find—on the websites of your favorite fashion brands and retailers. You’re an ethical consumer, so you like to know where your clothing and shoes are made, but it’s often extremely difficult or impossible to find. Why? Because today, the vast majority of fashion items—even from luxury brands—are made in China. These brands are well aware of the stigma associated with the “Made in China” label, so in order to keep you clicking that “Add to Cart” button, they have decided to start hiding the truth. But what is the real reason behind their lack of transparency? That’s where I dig in.
You know the feeling … you find a cute pair of shoes online and you think it’s love at first sight. But then you read a little more and you see those three dreaded words: Made in China. It’s pretty synonymous with something that is poor quality or unsafe. Remember the BPA scare with baby products in the 90s? But no, despite the well-known dislike for products made in China, I would argue that this is not the reason so many brands are starting to hide the label. The truth, I surmise, is that they are drowning in shame.
China is not a free economy and it’s not a free market. While it’s not exactly the communist state of the past, the government still holds the ultimate power over its people and its businesses. Some might call it Authoritarian Socialism, but you didn’t hear that from me (ask Google). The government also has the power to intervene in private business activities, including in the fashion and cosmetics industries. And for my animal rights friends, you’re probably familiar with the fact that it’s mandatory state law that all cosmetics sold in China be tested on animals. That was a government move to help improve the bad reputation of China producers of “unsafe products.” But what about the fashion industry?
While not every factory in China is a sweatshop, we can’t ignore that the working conditions are beneath any reasonable person’s expectations of humane.
Sweatshops are still very much alive in modern day China, as is child labor as is forced labor. While not every factory in China is a sweatshop, we can’t ignore that the working conditions are beneath any reasonable person’s expectations of humane. These workers generally make below minimum wage at less than $2 US dollars per day. Oftentimes, parents leave their children behind to go into the cities and work, in the pursuit of a better life for their children, slaving away to desperately scrape together a college fund. Many factories even lock the doors during shifts, not because their employees are slaves, but because they are so desperate, they have been known to steal from the factories where they work in order to survive. Nicora Shoes’ industry advisor and 20-year China made footwear veteran tells me that it’s actually illegal to drop in on the factory hired by your brand in China without giving them substantial notice. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you why that is problematic.
Also, we can’t forget that “ethical fashion” is now a term—and ideal—that capitalist companies are trying to capitalize on.
Also, we can’t forget that “ethical fashion” is now a term—and ideal—that capitalist companies are trying to capitalize on. They know exactly what we want: cute factory photos, maybe a video set to music featuring an old man cobbling my shoe (doesn’t he remind you of your dad?). You even click on the “About Us” page and see the smiling faces in aprons holding a t-shirt and it compels you to buy, buy, buy. Right? Especially when the website has chosen to omit or hide that “Made in China” language that used to live above the “Add to Cart” button. Those capitalists are clever, aren’t they?
But let’s be real. Even if you’re not a shoe industry professional, you can probably guess that a $99.00 pair of shoes is probably coming from a sweatshop. The mall is getting their rent, the store clerk is getting paid, and Teen Vogue is getting their advertising dollars. So once you subtract all of that from the $99.00, there’s not much left for the shoemaker, is there?
So now that I have completely bummed you out (sorry!), let’s get to the upside. If you’re like me, you probably still want justice for all the rad Chinese fashion makers I was talking about. We want them to be paid a fair, living wage, even if that means we have to pay a little more for the products they make. That’s where the good news comes in. Remember how the Chinese government intervenes to help private economies? They might just listen to us, the American consumer, because the U.S. still has a lot of buying power and we can still work our consumer muscle.
One thing we don’t want to do is to keep eating up the “ethical fashion” marketing campaigns without asking a few more questions. Don’t fall for “cute grandpa shoemaker” or “cute aunty seamstress,” and always ask where your stuff is made. And if you’re really in doubt if it’s fair, remember to do the math and follow the money. When you pressure brands to do better, they pressure the factories, and that’s when the government gets the memo. And of course, not buying from brands that don’t give a shit about people always helps—I’m looking at you _______ , _________ and __________________.
So remember, the clothes and shoes you wear say a lot about who you are. Are you someone who cares about the well-being of others, even if you’ve never met them and they live on the other side of the world? I sure hope so.
Note: Shoe producers are moving into Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa and Turkey. Where they can avoid the spotlight on China labor rights issues.
WANT TO READ MORE?
China's Forced Labor Problem:
Huff Post, Chinese Labor Stats:
(Non Profit Resources - Charitable Resource) Poverty Stats / Sweatshops in China:
In the News 2018: Reuters. Yes Nike and Adidas still use Sweatshops