Next Time You Buy Clothes, Think Of This

When people throw the phrase “made in China” around, you can bet that the responses are usually pretty negative. "It's low quality." "They don't have any respect for designers." "Some child probably died to create this." "It's destroying the planet." "It's not patriotic." But the reality of modern-day Chinese manufacturing would probably surprise those critics. It's not an accident that most of the items in your closet — including pieces from respected high-end designers, like Alexander Wang, 3.1 Phillip Lim, or Opening Ceremony — are produced in China. Let's unpack those clichéd responses to the ubiquitous label, and see if they ring true.
"It's low quality."
Launched in the 1960s with the iconic Exercise Sandal, Dr. Scholl’s shoes is now part of $2.6 billion global footwear company Caleres, which also owns Via Spiga, Franco Sarto, and Sam Edelman. Even with their Americana origins, Dr. Scholl’s shoes are produced in China. “We’ve really been manufacturing fairly extensively in China for the better part of about 30 years,” said Keith Duplain, general manager and senior vice president of Dr. Scholl’s division of Caleres. “I would consider ourselves one of the pioneers of footwear manufacturing in China.” The heritage company works with multiple Chinese factories to source nearly 50 million pairs of shoes a year. “What happened over time is [China] built up the specialised skills, invested in the machines, and the global community came to them,” explained Duplain. “The level of quality that you get out of China right now is superior to what we get out of most other developing or emerging markets, where you still have relatively low manufacturing costs,” said Brian Buchwald, CEO of Bomoda, a consumer intelligence company with a focus on luxury retail in China. Back in 2011, Miuccia Prada even told the The Wall Street Journal, “Sooner or later, it will happen to everyone because [Chinese manufacturing] is so good.” (Yes, Prada produces part of its collection in China, too.) “What’s resulted in the last 15 years is just massive investments in large-scale factories with very high-end, brand new, or newer equipment,” said Kyle Vucko, CEO and cofounder of Indochino, a custom menswear line founded in 2007. After spending four months looking for a factory in New York and abroad, Phillip Salem, who launched contemporary handbag line Owen in 2014, found that China offered the best option to manufacture his signature geometric-hardware handles. “The factories are so intelligent,” he said. “They have the resources. They have the technology there right now.” The New York-based factories that Salem spoke with either didn’t have the technology available or they would have to outsource the handle production to China themselves. It made business sense to go right to the source. For Indochino, “it’s not a question of cost,” said Vucko. “It’s a question of quality and speed of delivery.” By producing in China, Indochino can offer customers made-to-measure, high-end suiting both at a friendly price point — starting at £295 as compared to the roughly £655 that is typical of bespoke suiting — and a four-week wait time, at least halving the eight to 12 weeks it usually takes for a custom-made suit to arrive. "Some child probably died to create this."
“Today what you see is largely a much more educated workforce that is adopting digital design and digital manufacturing,” said Duplain about the shoe production process at Dr. Scholl’s. According to a 2015 World Bank case study, the Chinese manufacturing economy has “shifted towards new knowledge-based industries,” that include advanced skills in handling electronic information, as compared to earlier years when the factories were largely comprised of unskilled laborers. And there are official minimum wages in China, that are set on a local level. According to a 2015 China Briefing report, in the past 10 years, the minimum wage has also risen rapidly with an average increase of approximately 13% annually, though it's still much less than in other industrialised countries — The Economist estimates that many Chinese manufacturers pay above the minimum wage at $270 per month, as compared to minimum wage in the U.S. at approximately $1,257 a month. But that’s still higher than what workers make in the alternative emerging manufacturing markets where production is shifting — an average of $27.50 per day in China versus $8.60 in Indonesia and $6.70 in Vietnam, The Economist reports. China has actually been experiencing a labour shortage for factory workers since 2012, as the younger generation of college graduates prefer white-collar industries. Facing high turnover and in an effort to attract more workers, some factories began raising wages, creating more reasonable working hours, and offering benefits packages, WSJ reported in 2013, including basic insurance and free meals. BloombergView pointed out that with the rising labor costs, “in some cities, semiskilled factory workers make more than university graduates in office jobs.” All of this isn't to diminish the dire importance of recognising and preventing the instances of worker rights abuses in China, that are exacerbated by government corruption. But “there are general laws and practices held up by the Chinese government and they’re actually very strict,” Vucko said. For example, in 2014, China put into effect a revised Workplace Safety Law, which requires factories to create and enforce factory safety standards, gives local regulators more power to enforce the rules, and metes out stricter punishments for offences. In 2008, the Labour Contract Law required companies to give workers contracts to protect their legal rights. Although, it should be noted that the law does not allow Chinese workers to organise independent labour unions. Unfortunately, labour abuses are prevalent in manufacturing countries around the world and some believe that the answer lies in international companies to play a much larger role in ensuring a safe working environment and fair wages. “Responsibility for working conditions in global garment industry rest primarily with international brands and retailers, because it’s those companies' own supply chain that creates labour rights abuses in the workplace,” said Theresa Haas, director of communications at the Worker Rights Consortium, citing the attractiveness of low production costs and the opportunity to hide from the public eye. “I think everybody has their own stance on it,” said Vucko about companies taking responsibility for working conditions in their factories. “We have a really strong position as to what we believe. I’ve seen it firsthand in China: They care about their employees. [There are] great companies [that] treat their team members well and invest in all sorts of things, whether great perks or working conditions, and they’re setting the bar as much as we are.”
"They don't have any respect for designers."
A lack of a regulations when it comes to intellectual property means that knockoffs are rampant in China, and the international counterfeit black market is problematic for a number of important reasons. But for fashion designers — especially those with small, independent labels — who need a factory to be understanding of, flexible and lenient with them, Chinese factories are specially equipped to lend helping hands. “There are smaller, more specialised factories in China, and they will take orders of a smaller scale,” explained Nancy Zhang, vice president and COO of Otte NY, something that's crucial to smaller businesses that can't risk or afford to order huge quantities. Salem, too, found that his factories really understood his startup business needs: “With [my Chinese factories], they understand that this is my first time wholesaling the bag, so they're willing to grow with me,” he said. It’s a risk that many domestic factories can’t afford to take, and a reality that shatters the myth that it's only large corporations mass producing cheap products in China.
"It's destroying the planet."
Environmental standards are also a hot topic in China itself — so much so that on January 1, 2015, the government implemented amendments to the Environmental Protection Law originally passed in 1989. It’s “the most stringent law for environmental protection management in China,” Zhou Xiao-Jian, managing principal of Ramboll Environ’s China operations explained via email. In the past, it would cost factories more to follow the environmental guidelines than to flout them, so the recent amendment inverses that, making following guidelines more financially appealing. Zhou has also observed more random factory inspections by the local Environmental Protection Bureaus. “Reportedly, some companies with poor environmental performances even receive fines as high as £1.3 million,” he said. In compliance with the laws, Zhou noticed that some fashion manufacturing brands have replaced old machinery with updated “green” equipment that consumes less energy and emits less pollutants into the environment. But the bigger the fashion label is, the bigger the onus is on the brand to push for change. “Voluntary codes of conduct do not work,” said Haas. “It’s necessary for brands and retailers to make binding commitments to enforce labor commitments at their suppliers and offer prices to allow factories in compliance to those standard.” Because — shocker — ethical factories do exist in China, even for small-scale companies. Just click on over to transparency-touting Everlane, which proudly features backstories and beautiful imagery of its Eastern and Southern China factory partners on its website. (Everlane representatives declined to be interviewed for this story.) Salem considers finding factories with workplace standards a “top priority” when it comes to producing his handbags. And on his search, transparency was key. “We asked about the [environmental and working] standards in the factory before we started working with them and we received a video tour of the factory,” he explained. “All the ethical standards are in place at the factory, and we are going to visit in the coming months.” Despite so many respected brands sourcing there, and the public actively purchasing products of Chinese origin, the negative “made in China” stigma still persists. “There’s just been a cultural bias against ‘made in China’ for a very long time,” said Zhang. Possibly proving the point: I reached out to at least eight designers via public relations, including the three listed in the opening paragraph, and they either declined to participate or went radio silent. It’s as if “made in China” is an elephant in the room, never to be publicly acknowledged. But, why? “One [reason] is a certain level of U.S. nationalism or European ethnocentrism where we regret the fact that manufacturing jobs and other opportunities have moved out of the States,” said Buchwald of Bomoda. “When people talk about American-made, they think of that with a certain level of pride, and I think [the stigma] is part of the reaction to that.” He did point out that when China started becoming a “viable mass-manufacturing alternative” in the mid-'80s, the end products were cheap, both in cost and quality. “It might fall apart, it might not be as highly produced,” he said, or at worst, the product would contain some sort of toxin. But, “those issues have largely receded into the past.” The reality is that savvy brands break up their production — a piece might have raw materials from Italy that are refined in China, made with patterns from New York, and mass produced in Turkey. But what I have heard over and over again is that taking your fashion brand to China just makes sense. “In terms of quality and value, I actually think that China is the best in the market for most things apparel-related,” said Vucko. Zhang points to the popular contemporary lines that Otte the boutique carries, including Alexander Wang and 3.1 Phillip Lim. “They are very proud of the production that they have in China,” Zhang explained. “In the high[-end] contemporary space, we do a lot of our production in China or our vendors do a lot of their production in China — and also in California and New York. It’s not like the Made in China [pieces] are inferior to the ones made in the United States [or Europe].” So maybe we can finally start acknowledging — if not welcoming — that elephant in the room.

More from Fashion

R29 Original Series