Today The Huffington Post's Highline published a longform feature, titled "The Myth of the Ethical Shopper". The piece operates as a takedown of the American myth that by protesting poor factory conditions, we're helping to save the modern production cycle. While we, as a culture, believe that our efforts to combat poorly-ventilated factories, and child labor have actually made the clothing manufacturing industry change for the better; all we've really done is create an environment where factories merely appear to make positive changes—not truly enact them.
Most notably, the Huffington Post piece draws the "fire extinguisher story:"
"The way it goes is, an inspector was walking through a clothing factory in Bangladesh and noticed that it had three fire extinguishers on the wall, one right on top of the other. He asked why, and the manager of the factory told him, 'We get audited under three different standards, and they each require us to have a fire extinguisher a different distance from the floor. We got tired of moving the fire extinguisher every time an inspector came, so now we just have one at each height.'"
Yes the changes are a step in the right direction, but the article points out that establishing better practices, doesn't automatically mean they'll be enacted in the way we envision them. That's likely why John Oliver still has plenty of hard facts to deliver when he goes on a brutally honest tirade about today's "fast-fashion" and the labels that embody that fashion market.
But that has us wondering: Is it all doom and gloom when it comes to clothing? We know that apparel production isn't as good as it could be (ethically speaking), but that doesn't mean there aren't companies and individuals who are changing the game and keeping manufacturing honest and fair-as-possible—especially in the menswear world.
Thinking back to the "Americana" wave that swept menswear a couple years ago, guys were actively searching for products that were honestly "Made in the U.S.A." Brands who tapped into the classic aesthetic or, better yet, had long-standing U.S. histories of their own, flourished.
Today's "Made in the U.S.A." isn't just a tag that may help clothes sell better to conscious consumers, it's a rigorous process that the FTC takes seriously. As outlined in Fashionista's "What Does Made in America Really Mean?", in order for goods to bear U.S.-origins on the tag, it must be almost entirely produced in the U.S.—not just assembled here. That's just textile-based products; it's even tougher for leather goods.
"It’s even more of a challenge for makers of leather goods, which do not fall under the Textile Fiber Rules. Instead, things like handbags and wallets must comply with the general Made in U.S.A. Standard, which requires that "all or virtually all" of the product be made in the U.S. For leather goods, there is no “one step back” addendum. If the rawhide is not from an animal that was raised in the U.S., the resulting item probably should not be labeled as Made in the U.S.A."
So who really embodies this method of quality, ethical production—while still "reasonably" upholding the "Made in the U.S.A." moniker?
Well, if you're producing small batch items, like Eric Emanuel down in NYC's garment district, then production is certainly ethical. Even though Emanuel admits to having a team of seamstresses that help him bang out his custom jerseys, he's a small scale example of how to employ talented apparel workers and keep work at home.
But a bigger example of the "Made in the U.S.A." move? Billy Reid's re-ignition of the Alabama cotton trade. Something like your local "farm to table" restaurant, Reid is using his Florence, Ala. location to score local Alabama cotton—grown, and harvested by American workers. In a post-NAFTA world, this approach is almost unthinkable. When companies are outsourcing production to save money, it begins this sweatshop production cycle. Reid's method effectively stops that cycle for his product before it begins.
Speaking on how he's opted for local cotton, grown and handled by workers in fair conditions, Reid says: "We broke down, sort of, those barriers in some ways, [showing] that you can do it from anywhere if you do it right and do it real."
The test process yielded a small run of T-shirts and accessories, but goes on to prove that shoppers in search of an ethically earned "Made in the U.S.A." label don't have to go too far, they just may have to dig a little.
But we're not going to act like the U.S. is the only one providing ethical production methods. Italian powerhouse Brunello Cucinelli crafts much of it's insanely upscale offerings at traditional mills and factories in the town of Solomeo, in Italy. Cucinelli has set to work rebuilding the once small village, turning it into a production powerhouse that prides itself on quality practices and personal relationships as much as the luxurious knits and sharp suiting it serves to ravenous international acclaim. It's part of what makes it one of the most prestigious Italian brands in the game.
For a better perspective on life in Cucinelli's Solomeo, The New Yorker visited Mr. Cucinelli in the village:
"A castle with walls of honey-colored stone, several feet thick, has been converted into a factory; its chambers hum with the sound of knitting machines, its basement rumbles with ceaseless laundering. A Renaissance villa close by has been turned into a dining hall for employees; with a vaulted ceiling and views of the hills, it is often mistaken by tourists for an attractive restaurant. Cucinelli contributed to the restoration of the village’s Church of St. Bartholomew, which was founded in the late twelfth century and rebuilt in the seventeenth. He has repaved streets, restored squares, and built a woodland park. In addition, he has constructed a two-hundred-and-forty-seat theatre, crafted in the architectural vernacular of the sixteenth century. It has a pseudo-classical portico whose large Latin inscription, “B. CVCINELLI CVRAVIT A DOMINI MMVIII,” recalls the façade of the Pantheon, in Rome"
While it certainly has its downsides and fault (for all the beautiful description, Cucinelli does have a "modern factory" in Solomeo as well), it's a far cry from the factories The Huffington Post describes in its piece; institutions of abusive manager-worker relations, and safety hazards tucked throughout East Asia.
Even East Asia, for all the terrible factory tragedies out of China, Bangladesh, and other nations, isn't completely devoid of ethical production. Dries Van Noten—one of the esteemed "Antwerp Six"—uses a cottage industry of 3,000 to produce the fabrics he uses in his runway collections. The key point, Van Noten is intimately tied with the production, and treatment of his workers and print-makers. As told to The Independent:
"I try to see that every season we have prints, so that we can work with our six printers. In India we have a cottage industry involving 3,000 people working on many techniques of embroidery, so for me it's important that in every collection we have embroideries. Sometimes they're very in-your-face and visible, sometimes they're subtle. But they're always there, so that I can give work to these people."
It's understandable that, while positive examples, are often seen as single high points in a generally negative sphere. As mentioned in The Huffington Post piece, even though factories have made strides in improving their conditions, that usually only applies to the big names (like Nike for example), who are also most likely to be protested. Small, generic brands rarely receive heat on the topic of production—even though they provide as much product into the market at the end of the day.
Are the solutions that Reid, Cucinelli, and Van Noten perfect solutions to the wider manufacturing problem? No. But they are examples that, in a world where outsourcing and terrible factories are rampant, conscious production is possible.