“Made in”, what’s up with that?

In the What’s Up With That series we dig deep into common fashion industry concepts. After a blog on fair trade, this time Emma looked into the label of origin, or ‘Made In’. The dark truth: the label seems to be designed to throw you off your game. But there’s good news too: some brands are going all the way to share their every move!

A good friend of mine is getting married soon. And weddings usually mean dressing up. I have exactly one dress in my wardrobe that is suitable for weddings, and last week I found out it has a greasy stain in it. I realised I was in serious need of a new dress.

After a long search on the internet and in the city centre, I was still dress-less. The most important reason was that I couldn’t find anything that appealed to me. But of the items I did pick out, I was doubting the information on the labels. Every label contains a ‘Made in’ section, but what does that actually tell us? Is the whole piece produced in the mentioned country? Or is that just the place where the buttons were attached?

I decided to stop the dress hunt and borrow a dress for this occasion. And to do some research on this ‘Made in’ labelling. Does it really tell us something about the country of origin, or is it subject to cheating?

Why bother?
Many fast fashion brands transfer their production units to low-wage countries such as Bangladesh, India and China, to reduce production costs. Even if workers here receive a minimum wage, this is not a decent living wage. Governments are hesitant to raise minimum wages, because they fear brands will move to countries where wages are lower. And although many countries have laws to ensure good working conditions, it differs how they are respected. So knowing where the clothes are made can be a first step for consumers to have an idea about the working conditions behind their clothes.

EU regulation
In 2014, the European Parliament voted for a mandatory ‘made in’-label for all non-food items. Up until then, the label was voluntary and of 10% of products sold in the EU, it was unknown where they came from. A mandatory label was supposed to improve traceability and increase product safety.

Made in… multiple countries
But the label mentions only one country of origin, while in fashion an item is hardly ever produced in one single country. According to the Fair Wear Organisation, a garment may very well be produced in Bangladesh with cotton grown in Turkey, while buttons and zipper are attached in Italy. How to determine the country of origin then? According to the EU regulation, when a product was produced in more than one country, the country on the label is the one where it underwent “the last substantial, economically justified processing”, resulting in a “new product” or representing “an important stage of manufacture”.

So, ‘Made in The Netherlands’ does not mean that the entire production process took place here. But what is a substantial processing or an important stage of manufacture? Is it sewing a dress together or could it be as little as attaching a zipper?

Determining a substantial transformation
The Taxation and Customs Union has set some rules to determine whether a “substantial transformation” applies. Interestingly, even the Taxation and Customs Union feels “it is not always easy to say when these criteria have been met”. To me, what is most striking about this whole piece of text is that labelling the country of origin is supposed to increase transparency, while the language used by the Taxation and Customs Union seems to do exactly the opposite.

The bottom line is that the country of origin is the one where a change in tax tariff has occurred (this has to do with taxes and depends on how the product is classified… unfortunately that’s all I understood); or where the final value was added. When would that be the case? I don’t know. It does seem that a ‘made in’-label is suitable for cheating, though.

Made in EU
Apart from the now mandatory country of origin-label, brands can opt for a ’Made in EU’ label on their products. The rules to use this label seem to be stricter. Only products that were produced in one or multiple EU member states, can use this label.

So can you be sure that it was produced under good working conditions? InRetail, a Dutch interbranch organisation for non-food, says no. “An item can very well be made in Italy in a Chinese sweatshop under poor working conditions.”

Know the Origin
On the bright side, this also applies the other way around. For every dirty sweatshop in Europe, there is a factory in Bangladesh, India or China where human and environmental rights are respected. And even better news: the number of brands that work with these factories is growing. Know The Origin is one of them. From cotton planting to the final stitches, KTO is transparent about every step of the production process and where it took place. Made in India here means only one thing: made in India.

Conclusion: transparency is key
The label of origin is supposed to give consumers information on where their products are made. But although fashion labels seem transparent when adding a ‘made in’ label, often they are not. Most of the times the label does not really tell us where (pieces of) your clothes are produced. And furthermore, it does not say anything about working conditions or sustainability. What we need is a label that gives us substantive information, rather than the superficial and misleading information that it currently contains. Until then, we will have to keep looking for brands such as Know The Origin that already share that information with us.