This article was originally written for Hernest Project and they gave me the permission to publish it here. They have not intervened in the version of the article that you are about to read.
Ever since I can remember shopping for clothes, I remember checking the “Made in” label. Even before I knew anything about sustainability in fashion, I had a habit of judging the quality of clothes by the country of origin.
The brand almost mattered less than that label. As a student, I would shop in fast fashion stores but was convinced that a dress that was “Made in Turkey” or “Made in Morocco” was somehow better than the one “Made in China”. Even though both were sold by the same fast-fashion retailer. I’m not sure what my criteria were but I know I wasn’t the only one believing this.
Especially so when the label stated a European country. Usually, more expensive garments (or high fashion stuff) were made in Europe, so that must mean something.
Once I started learning and caring about ethics in fashion, my perspective started to shift. To paraphrase Orsola de Castro, I started looking for not just the quality of the garments, but the quality of the garment workers’ lives too.
And yet, for the longest time, I followed the same logic of “Made in” labels. After all, if something’s coming from a country with good labour regulations and higher minimum wages, that must mean it’s also made ethically?
Well, not necessarily.
Things are much more complex than that. So let’s discuss this.
The “good” and “bad” countries illusion
As I said, I know I’m not the only one who judges the quality of clothes or even the ethics of a brand by the “Made in” label. If you also do this, it’s OK. I don’t blame you, there are many reasons why we perceive some countries as the centres of cheap clothes.
Fast fashion, which is a dominant business model of the industry today, has a lot to do with this. While the industrial (meaning, massive and cheaper) production started in the UK, and spread through the rest of Europe, and soon North America, these countries barely make any clothes today. During the 20th century, businesses moved away from Western countries. Partly due to political and policy changes, and largely because businesses started to look for cheaper labour. With the arrival of fast fashion, this has only accelerated. Today, some of the biggest garment manufacturing countries include China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, and so on. But also some European countries, which we sometimes forget.
Anyhow, manufacturing did not only move but became faster, dirtier, cheaper, and more dangerous. All at the expense of those living and working in the manufacturing countries, as well as their local textile industry. That’s a whole topic on its own but an important thing here is to understand that the big fashion brands are trying to make a profit with each collection while reducing the actual cost of the manufacturing.
Thus, cheap, poorly made clothes. Not because the labour in those countries is “low-skilled”.
Brands can do this by abusing the lack of international trade policies and the lack of regulations in the manufacturing countries. They can pay the garment workers as little as $2/day. They can also cancel orders when a pandemic or similar crisis hits. Simply because it’s legal. I’ll get back to this later.
Because of the dominance of fast fashion, as well as the history of fashion in the past 30-40 years, there’s a perception of “good” and “bad” manufacturing countries. Usually, European countries are perceived as “good” countries in this sense, which in reality doesn’t always hold the water.
But there’s more.
“Made in” doesn’t tell the whole story
At least partly because of the perception I described above, some brands started proudly displaying their “made in” labels. That is when it doesn’t contain a name of a country associated with cheap labour or poor quality. This only perpetuates an illusion of poor and cheap manufacturing countries.
Moreover, the label doesn’t tell the whole story.
Very often, the “Made in” label displays a country where the garment has been assembled at the last stage of production. The fashion supply chain is long and complex, and sometimes clothes will pass several factories and countries before reaching their final destination. Each stage, from crops, fabric wavering, dyeing, washing, to sewing can happen in another place. Thus, the label doesn’t speak about the whole supply chain, but just the last factory or country.
As Fashion Revolution Week puts it, brands showing only part of their supply chain “leaves a huge blind spot where human rights and environmental risks may be significant and going unaddressed”. This is why they introduced a #WhoMadeMyFabric campaign in 2021, alongside their usual #WhoMadeMyClothes. The campaign shows that it’s important to demand transparency and good labour conditions throughout the supply chain. Ethics shouldn’t stop at the last stage of production.
Nor we should assume that any country guarantees freedom of slavery or human rights abuse.
Time to finally tackle this.
No country is free of exploitation
Slavery and labour abuse happen everywhere. The Global Slavery Index shows that modern slavery might be more present in some places rather than others. However, it exists in virtually every country in the world. Considering that fashion is among the top 5 industries linked to modern slavery, we can start seeing why this is relevant.
While stricter regulations and better laws are of absolute importance, there are still a lot of loopholes.
In the summer of 2020, journalists exposed British retailer Boohoo for producing their garments in sweatshop-like conditions. Part of their clothes come from a factory in Leicester (UK), known for illegal working conditions and paying workers as little as £3 (less than half the national legal wage). The UK is certainly not the only place where this could happen.
About 3 years earlier, similar conditions were discovered in a garment factory in Los Angeles. Italy and Germany have a similar story too. And in Canada, there have been reports of sweatshops in Montreal and other big cities for years. It’s not only the poor working conditions. Some brands manufacturing in Europe and North America were abusing other labour rights. For example, a Canadian brand Goose that takes pride in manufacturing locally was accused of union-busting and unsafe working conditions.
In all those stories, factories and brands are usually taking advantage of migrant workers and other groups in vulnerable positions.
Still, even paying workers the legal wage doesn’t equal ethics.
Making in Europe: the reality check
You remember how I said I’ll get back to the question of legal vs. ethical? Here it is.
Brands, especially when working in countries with strict laws, are obliged to pay a minimum wage at least. Minimum wage means legally defined wage in the country.
But would you work for this?
A minimum wage, while a legal requirement, doesn’t mean it’s a fair wage. Usually, the minimum wage is not enough to cover all the expenses, like proper food, shelter, healthcare, or time off. It’s a wage that keeps people in poverty. For example, in Croatia, the garment industry is the lowest-paid manufacturing sector, with 80% of the garment workers earning what is considered below the poverty line. Those same workers make clothes for brands like Benetton, Hugo Boss, Versace, Armani, and Olymp. Workers in Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and many other European countries, face the same situation.
May I point out that three out of four countries I just named are also EU member states?
Thus, we should insist brands pay at least a living wage: an amount of income necessary for someone to live a decent life in a given country. And the difference between a minimum and a living wage can be significant. For example, it is 14% in Romania!
This is all to say that legal and ethical aren’t necessary synonyms. Pushing brands to change their policies but also raising the minimum national wages are important if we want to ensure better working conditions in the industry.
Add to all of this the working conditions in the factories. While the working conditions in many (if not the most) garment factories around the world fail to comply with the basic safety principles, European factories are no exception. The same goes for long working hours and abuse. In the media, as well as the slow fashion movement, we sometimes overlook the fact that many European garment workers face the same destiny as those in Asian countries and elsewhere.
Geography is not a guarantee for ethics.
Always ask questions
In other words, don’t assume a brand producing in a country A is more ethical than a brand producing in a country B. Geography doesn’t tell us much about the conditions in which clothes are made. We always need to ask questions.
That is exactly what I did with Hernest Project. I sat down with Cassandra, the founder, and asked her to explain to me the conditions in which they make their clothes.
“Here’s how I think about it: if we want to get to a place where fashion is really sustainable, we need to pay fairly for the work that’s done. It’s a simple principle that guides me”, Cassandra said to me during our call. She also added: “For me, ethics mean that we, as a brand, don’t work with those who create barriers for people to make a decent life. If I can’t see myself working in some place, it’s a clear sign that I’m not going to work with them.”
Cassandra spent over a year in research before launching Hernest Project. She considered suppliers from all over the world but had very high standards. After a long search and many meetings, she found the right partners in Portugal.
Now, Hernest Project produces everything there, in a very tight supply chain. Their fabrics and their clothes are made nearby, both by partners, Cassandra has visited. It means that she has witnessed how the factories operate. These factories are also regularly audited by Tribunal de Contas de Portugal (TCP). This is a governmental organization, and the results of the audits are shared publically.
Yet, that wasn’t enough for Hernest Project. Even though they are still a young company, they are taking a further step and have created their own Code of Conduct. A Code of Conduct will allow them not to depend only on the external criteria but make sure that their whole supply chain aligns with the brand’s values. Currently, their partners are signing it, and it will be available soon.
Hernest Project is just one of several brands I know personally that are manufacturing ethically in Europe and are promoting better working conditions in the industry. Thus, expect more on this topic soon!
The above images are courtesy of Hernest Project.
Check out Hernest Project here.