Do you know where your clothes are made? When ‘Made in’ may not matter as much as ‘Made by’

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Sabrina Maddeaux: As it turns out, many consumers falsely assume that products boasting the label ‘Made in Canada’ are, well, made in Canada

Do you know where your clothes are made? The label may say “Made in Canada” or “Made in Bangladesh,” but those terms have never been murkier.

Last spring, high-end Canadian outerwear brand Moose Knuckles was accused by Canada’s competition bureau of faking “Made in Canada” claims. The watchdog claimed Moose Knuckles’ parkas were assembled cheaply in Vietnam and other parts of Asia, then imported to Canada where finishing touches like zippers and the all-important “Made in” label were sewn on. Moose Knuckles denies it attempted to mislead customers, and the matter is before a tribunal.

Concern over sustainability, worker rights and other ethical issues have convinced many shoppers to be more aware of the stories behind the clothes they buy. The infamous Rana Plaza collapse that killed over 1,000 Bangladeshi garment workers in 2013 put the issue of ethical manufacturing at the top of many consumers’ minds. Subsequent deaths from factory fires and reports of sweatshop conditions continue to make headlines.

As a result, the “shop local” message is drilled into our heads over and over again, while we’re taught to avoid products made in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. But it turns out this approach to ethical shopping may be a vast oversimplification: “Made in” may not matter nearly as much as “Made by.”

Many consumers falsely assume that products boasting the label “Made in Canada” are, well, made in Canada. However, designers can legally use that term if as little as 51 per cent of an item is made in Canada. Shoppers also tend to focus on whether a company or designer is Canadian, rather than whether they actually make their products here.

Moose Knuckles

“There are a lot of Canadian designers who don’t manufacture here. It’s not necessarily about where the brand originates, you have to do a bit of digging and find out where they’re manufacturing,” says Kelly Drennan, founding executive director of Fashion Takes Action. “A lot of the time designers can’t afford to visit the factories they use overseas, so they’re taking the word of somebody else when it comes to work conditions. They really have no idea who makes their clothes.”

“Even, for example, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau promoting Canadian fashion… That’s great, but does she know where they’re actually making their clothes? What if they’re manufacturing in a sweatshop?” says Drennan.

Similar issues surround well-known European luxury brands Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton, which have also been accused by industry watchdogs of using sweatshop labour and even mislabelling their products. “Some of the factories in Bangladesh are making Joe Fresh and Chanel in the exact same factory,” says Drennan.

Even clothes that are made in North America or Europe can come with a host of ethical issues. In 2015, popular European fashion retailer ASOS was accused of allowing sweatshop-like conditions at a manufacturing facility in the United Kingdom. According to workers’ unions, bullying was constant, healthy and safety rules were ignored, targets were impossible to reach and union access was often denied.”It’s the worst system I’ve seen in my life,” an ex-worker told VICE News. “People end up doing 90 to 100 hours a week, 12 to 13 days on the run.”

Drennan says cases like this aren’t rare in developed nations: “50 per cent of the garment factories in the U.S. are sweatshops or violating at least two labour codes. People always think that’s an Asia thing, but it also happens here.”

Meanwhile, simply writing off any product made in Asia is also a mistake. While factory disasters steal the headlines, less developed countries are also home to many artisanal brands that produce goods ethically. Classifying entire countries as “bad” only hurts those trying to make an honest living in the fashion industry.

For example, Markhor is a modern handcrafted shoe company based in Pakistan. The brand gained international exposure in 2008, when the husband and wife team behind Markhor became the first fashion startup to be accepted into Y Combinator’s prestigious accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Every single shoe is made by local craftspeople in Lahore. Similar stories can be found in Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. Last month, Fashion Takes Action hosted 300 brands from Least Developed Countries (LDCs) like Haiti, Uganda and Bangladesh at the Textile Museum of Canada to get feedback from local industry experts and media.

Suddenly, a “Made in” label doesn’t seem to matter nearly as much as who made an item. Unfortunately, there’s no label that says how much workers are paid, or if they were locked in a stifling factory for hours on end. Consumers can’t be blamed for being confused. Groups like Fashion Takes Action are pushing for increased transparency, including more information on clothing labels, and apps like Australian-based Good On You are springing up to provide easy access to trusted ethical ratings on the go.

When it comes to ethical shopping, there’s still no easy answer. It’s not enough to frequent Canadian, American and European brands and trust that they’re doing the right thing. Even an industry expert like Drennan admits, “it’s complicated, at best.”

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