It's not uncommon to see the tag, "Made in the USA" and automatically assume that means it was made under fair labor standards. At one point, as a brand new ethical business owner, I made that assumption. However, I felt the pull to learn more about the nature of garment manufacturing in the US and through that process, I developed an understanding that challenged my former way of thinking.
The journey to transition to an ethical wardrobe can be challenging. I believe that whenever we can share the wisdom we have gained in the process, it makes it easier for others in the journey! So, this blog is intended to be an opportunity for me to share the 2 questions I ask every time I see "Made in the USA" and details behind why I ask them!
1. Was it 100% made and assembled in the USA?
"Made in the USA" and "Assembled in the USA" are two different things. According to the Federal Trade Commission, "In order for a garment or accessory to be permitted to bear a "Made in the USA" label, apparel and textile products must originate in the United States or be only “one step removed” in the supply chain. We can discern from this that there is room for material production or manufacturing of a garment to occur in foreign locations without penalty.
The "Made in the U.S.A." labeling standard as mandated by California State law (which holds that companies can only use the "Made in the U.S.A" label in California if “the product is 100 percent made in the U.S.") takes precedence over a national standard overseen by the FTC, which allows manufacturers to use the “Made in U.S.A.” label on clothing that is “all or virtually all” made domestically."
Unless a brand is manufacturing in California, the vagueness of "Virtually all" brings me concern, especially in an industry that commonly utilizes sweatshop labor.
"Assembled in the USA" means it is made of imported parts put together in the USA. According to the FTC, "For the "assembly" claim to be valid, the product’s last "substantial transformation" also should have occurred in the U.S. ". Again, we have vagueness about what the "last substantial transformation" could be. Is it possible that just the zipper or the brand tag could added to the denim in the US while the rest of it was made in a foreign sweatshop? There is no requirement for disclosure of the details of this, they simply can place "Assembled in the USA" on the tag.
2. There are garment sweatshops in the US. How can I be sure this product / brand didn't use one?
As recently as October 2018 the "California Labor Commissioner’s Office fined six [LA based] garment contractors a total of $537,704 for labor law violations after uncovering a scheme where the contractors operated illegally under one license to avoid complying with California wage and hour laws." (lawyersandsettlements.com) In this particular situation, most of the victims worked up to 65 hours a week for less than minimum wage and without overtime and few were covered by worker’s compensation insurance. Child labor laws were also violated.
In the late 90's, a sweatshop in El Monte California was raided and 71 Thai nationals were rescued. They had all been forced to reside and work in the apartment with boarded up windows, bard wire and 24 hour armed security. The victims passports were taken upon their arrival and they were told they needed to pay back their $400/month earnings to pay off the cost of their transportation to the US.
This raid surfaced the enormity of the problem of sweatshops in the US, and in California. While the most recent fines are not for conditions identical to that of El Monte, there clearly continues to be abuse of labor laws and exploitation of vulnerable people within the California garment industry.
Given the historical and present lack of trustworthy practices in the California garment industry, to get an answer to the second question, I go directly to the source! I start with the website of the brand and look for information about the nature of their manufacturing. Do they talk about it and give me more than the geographical location? Do they show that they care about the people? Do they have pictures of the factory?
If I cannot find the information I am looking for online, but I identify a spirit of ethical manufacturing, then I reach out and I ask some questions on their contact page. The answers I get here can usually resolve my needs and I either end it or move forward. Sometimes I receive full disclosure, easily and quickly. Other times, there are significant delays in response and eventually I am told that factory locations and audit information are not shared.
I often hear blanket claims that because it's made in the USA, "We know it's ethical." My caution against this thinking is that in my quick and limited searches, I find more evidence to suggest that, "Made in the USA" is not ethical than I do to support that it is. Ethical manufacturing is so rare in the garment industry that the companies who really do it, celebrate it!
I have decided that the "Made in the US" claim without any documentation or factory audits, does not qualify as "ethical" to this girl. I am not okay with the manipulation of the "Made in the USA" label and language, that intentionally gives consumers and buyers the wrong impression. As the owner and buyer for an ethical boutique, my obligation to my customers is to do the background work and ensure no sweatshops were used. If I cannot easily find information to affirm the integrity of a product, I move on.