When you think Made in America you probably think high quality goods made in sweatshop-free environments by American workers, but this is often not the case. For starters, the terms ‘Made in America’ or ‘Made in the USA’ have been the subject of debate and scrutiny. As companies tried to reap the PR benefits of claiming to be made in America, government bodies rushed to streamline their definitions, and consumers grappled with just how much of a product has to be made domestically for it to purport to uphold their “American” values.
In Part II of this longer-running series, Reshoring Fashion Manufacturing: Will it Live up to the Hype?, we examine some of the most commonly held misconceptions about what it means to be 'Made in the U.S.'
As it stands, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), the agency “charged with preventing deception and unfairness in the marketplace,” defines the standard to be met in order to claim to be ‘Made in America.’ According to the FTC, to qualify as ‘Made in America’ a product must be “all, or virtually all” made in the US; an objectively high standard to be met and most likely not what the lay person would have in mind.
Here is an example: Detroit-based brand, Shinola has based a substantial part of the marketing and branding of its watches, bikes, and leather goods on their status as “American Made.” Recently, Shinola was forced by the FTC to alter these claims, as the government regulator found that the claims failed to meet the “all or virtually all” standard.
According to the FTC’s investigation, despite Shinola’s “American built” claims, “all materials [the company] uses to make certain watches were imported, some belts contained 70 percent imported materials and overseas steal is used in certain bicycle parts.” As such, Shinola’s products more likely fit the description of being “assembled” in the U.S., which does not meet the FTC’s rigorous standards, but might be enough for some consumers, who are looking to buy goods that support American manufacturing jobs in some fashion.
American made does not automatically mean well-made or high quality. U.S. workers are not immune to shoddy workmanship or cheaply made goods. Due to mounting competition from far-flung manufacturers, which boast dirt-cheap costs, even domestic brands are furthering a commitment to rock bottom prices by cutting corners.
In this same vein, this does not mean that imported goods are necessarily of inferior quality. While “imported” may bring the work of sweatshop laborers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to mind, this is certainly not always the case. The rise in artisanal goods from various locales, for instance, has led to an increase in the quality and level of craftsmanship of imported goods.
Human rights abuses are not a construct of foreign-run businesses either. The history of American sweatshops is well documented, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 (sometimes referred to as America’s Rana Plaza Factory collapse) to the rampant use of near indentured servitude to manufacture clothes in the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa (both American territories) throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Factory owners there exploited both the consumer’s desire for goods ‘Made in America’ and the foreign workers’ desire to work in America despite these overseas territories not being what either group had in mind when they thought of America. Not to mention that at the time these territories were exempt from many U.S. labor laws.
The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) continues to investigate garment manufacturers in the US. In the California garment district, it has uncovered widespread violations mostly in the area of minimum wage and overtime pay, and often involving Los Angeles-based fast fashion retailer, Forever 21. In the past five years the DOL’s wage and hour division has secured more than $11.7 million in back wages in Southern California alone.
A 2015 survey of garment workers in Los Angeles conducted by the Garment Worker Center revealed a number of health, safety and wage violations. Laborers from companies that served (and may continue to serve) as suppliers for Nasty Gal, Forever 21, Macy’s, and Nordstrom, among others, complained of poor ventilation, eye and nose irritation from chemicals, and unclean work environments citing the presence of rodents and roaches. On the wage front, almost half worked 10 hour or more days without overtime pay and were even unlikely to make minimum wage as they are paid per piece sewn instead of per hour worked. They were more likely to make an average of $5 an hour, though some workers made as little as $1.70 per hour.
Even higher fashion labels have been targeted in the past for utilizing questionable labor practices. Alexander Wang, for instance, came under fire in 2012 for allegedly running a “modern day sweatshop” out of his New York manufacturing space. According to a since-settled class action lawsuit filed by two former Wang employees, they were forced to work over 80 hours a week in Wang's windowless, 200-square-foot factory without being payed overtime wages and were was terminated after filing for workers’ compensation.
The garment manufacturing industry is particularly vulnerable to oppressively low wages due to the nature of its production cycle. It is typically decentralized and thrives on multiple levels of contracting for every piece that goes into a single garment. This often leads to unregulated “home work” and unauthorized subcontracting; and with labor costs comprising a significant portion of input costs many sewing contractors pay sub-minimum wages as their only way of making a profit.
While we may have mostly moved away from the more egregious practices of child labor and locked factory doors of the last century – at least in the U.S. – we have by no means rid ourselves of exploitation of workers or human rights abuses in the U.S. garment industry.
The workforce of the U.S. garment industry is, and largely has been for over 100 years, comprised primarily of recent immigrants. In 2005, the DOL estimated that over 75 percent of the apparel industry workforce was comprised of immigrants. This populace, documented or not, is inherently vulnerable as they often lack strong second-language skills, are unfamiliar with a new country’s laws and the possibility for recourse without an unwanted change in their immigration status. Not to mention many workers’ legal status is controlled by their employer (think: H-1B visas) and they can do little in the realm of unionizing or asserting their rights on even the most basic level without fear of repatriation. This complex set of circumstances makes this population a prime target for exploitative business practices. The quest for cheaper labor does not stop at the U.S. border; it has permeated the country.
Gabrielle Turnquest is a graduate of The University of Law (formerly The College of Law) in London. After law school her interest in fashion lead her to explore the industry from the side of the creative through studies at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, California.