Made in USA

‘Made in America’ Versus Fast Fashion

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Denim Jean Production In China
Workers manufacture blue jeans in Congshin textile factory on February 9, 2012, in Xintang, Guangdong province, China. Photo: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Earlier this month, online retailer Nasty Gal shocked fans by filing for bankruptcy. The e-commerce darling, which sold original designs, vintage pieces and items from other brands, became a social media hit thanks to innovative branding. Fellow millennial favorite American Apparel’s demise was not quite so surprising, having long been simmering in the pot despite the brand’s popularity. While both companies cited a number of reasons including legal troubles and mismanagement for their financial crashes, a major, troubling factor was also key—they kept most of their manufacturing within the United States.

The higher wages and management costs of the “Made in USA” label, although ethical, come at a very expensive price. Midrange brands trying to maintain that status have met with obstacles that fast-fashion competitors can sidestep by offering similar designs with minimum financial hassle.

The global fashion market is now an almost $3 trillion annual industry. While one may think that high-end designers with their expensive price tags are the prime contributors, most of the profits can be attributed to the fast fashion industry. TJX companies, a discount and off-price retailer, for example, generated nearly $31 billion in revenue in its 2015 fiscal year alone. It comes as no surprise then that one in every six people alive in the world today work in some part of the global fashion industry. This makes it the most labor-dependent industry on earth, majority of which is outsourced into the developing world, particularly in Asia, where Western household names dominate. According to Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization that monitors the working conditions in factories around the globe, H&M is the largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh.

Mumbai factory
Mumbai factory. Photo: Nicholas Adams/Getty Images

Until the 1960s, America was still making 95 percent of its clothes. In 2015, only 3 percent was produced in the United States and a staggering 97 percent was outsourced. Most fast-fashion retailers see much sense in offshoring their manufacturing practices to countries like Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam because of their low wages, lax local labor laws and agreements of free trade.

“The cheaper the price, the more the profit” rhetoric also stems from the fact that most Americans don’t really care about how the clothes are made as long they’re cheap. Indeed, a 2013 Gallup poll stated that over 55 percent of American consumers make absolutely no effort into finding out where the clothes were created when shopping. New brands are aware of that and hence paranoid about taking the financial risk of local manufacturing. “The entire industry is asking for cheaper prices. Brands will publicly state that that’s not the case, but, off the record, if you ask any factory its biggest issue right now, I don’t care what country they’re in, they’re going to say ‘intense pressure from their clients to lower the price,’ ” Edward Hertzman, founder of Sourcing Journal Online, a trade publication covering the apparel & textile supply chain, told Business of Fashion.

With something new coming into the stores every week, instead of two seasons, brands now have 52 seasons a year. In order to support this mass production efficiently while maintaining their low prices, they see sweatshops and fashion factories in third world nations as a viable and profitable option. “When the Western retailers lower their prices, we are forced to comply and lower our prices and this directly affects what our workers make,” a disgruntled garment factory owner in Bangladesh told Observer on the condition of anonymity.

Currently, over 4 million people work within these sweatshops and an average worker in Bangladesh, makes about $67 a month, which comes up to only a little over $2 a day. Today, they are amongst the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Additionally, over 85 percent of these workers are primarily women who have no health benefits or any form of financial security. Unionization is illegal and working conditions only get intolerable. But these low wages and unsafe working conditions are all excused by most large companies under the assumption that they ultimately “provide jobs” to those who need one. Unfortunately, even tragedies such as the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed over 1,000 workers, has done little to change their point of view.

“Opportunities were missed to reinvent the supply chain and I cannot say with any confidence that there will not be a repeat of Rana Plaza in terms of scale. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, been injured or had their health compromised by producing garments since Rana Plaza and the garment industry remains dangerous, polluting and energy intensive when it need not be any of these things. Retailers were allowed to control and lead negotiations in the aftermath and were not selfless enough in the way that they approached them,” British author and journalist on 2015 fast-fashion documentary The True Cost Lucy Siegle said in an interview.

But how hard is it for a multitrillion dollar industry to ensure fair living wages of its workers and guarantee the most basic of human rights?

“So many of us have been told the sweatshop story based on a false zero sum ratio. It’s explained as either improve conditions or take away jobs. We can build better systems to keep these jobs while also implementing conditions that respect the most basic human dignity of the workers and longterm health of this planet we all call home,” said Andrew Morgan, post production — he was director of  The True Cost. “I can think of no other industry today that so clearly forces us to face the implications of globalization, human rights, women’s rights, and the environmental collision course we’re on,” he added.

The risks of the flawed supply chain are ultimately carried by those most vulnerable and at the bottom, who have no alternative but to be a part of it. They are the ones paying the price for the cheap clothing we buy. However, the industry is slowly but surely changing, starting at the top. There has been an apparent, albeit slow, shift in the effort to change these manufacturing practices. Kering, the company behind top designers including Stella McCartney have paved a new path in the fashion world, to sustainability. Earlier this year, Burberry announced plans to invest £50 million to expand and move most of its production to the North of England. People Tree, Brooks Brothers and Zady are brands catching up with category leader Reformation in the sustainable style race.

Olaf Schmidt, vice president of textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade fair companies, organizes the Ethical Fashion Show in Berlin and praises the fact that sustainability is now becoming a cornerstone for a growing number of shoppers. “Consumers now have a broad range of contemporary fashion brands rooted in sustainability to choose from. For instance, at our trade fairs, more than 160 labels exhibit their collections every season and work in a sustainable and transparent manner.”

Because the biggest step towards sustainability and humanitarian-inspired shopping can only be taken by the consumer. The “Made In USA” label may come at a higher price, but it definitely is the more ethical one.

*This story first appeared on Observer

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Meet Mo and Wesley, Levi Strauss & Co Collaboratory

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Tell us about your business and the work you do.

We are an “experience inspired” outdoor apparel brand based in the Ozark Mountains. We promote a lifestyle of relaxing into the outdoors, not tackling it. I started the company while at the University of Arkansas when I noticed there wasn’t a regional representation of the outdoor culture here.

We produce USA-made, organic, and recycled products that ground the company in sustainability. We are currently growing the brand with outdoor specialty retailers across the U.S. and focusing on lifestyle and some technical products. We are committed to taking strides to make our products more sustainable.

What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?

I’m building Fayettechill to stand the test of time. We have strong ideals and make decisions based on them, not on trends or short-term financial goals. We focus on quality, sustainability, “Made in USA” manufacturing, and building a brand that is different.

I also feel it’s our responsibility, as a company that represents people who love the outdoors, to do our part to set an example in the apparel industry.

How important is water to what you do?

It’s one of many important contributors to a sustainable path. Currently, we use Blue Sign Certified Dye Houses, work to understand alternative materials based on the need and style of the product, and seeking opportunities to up-cycle traditional textiles.
It’s crucial for our designers to know the production processes at every level and work closely with our factories to collaborate on our brand ideals and how to improve processes and find ways to cut down waste.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

I look forward to networking with leaders that have the same mindset around improving how we work and what we create. I am also interested in seeing how anorganization like Levi Strauss & Co.works to solve sustainability challenges. Lastly, I look forward to applying the concepts I learn from the Collaboratory and my mentorship into my organization.

What’s your Levi’s® story?
It’s the only brand of pants in my closet. I’m currently traveling the U.S.A. for a year — working – and I have blue, black and white Levi’s® for all occasions and outdoor activities.

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Wesley Owiti: CEO and co-founder of Cherehani Africa, a social enterprise focused on women’s empowerment and financial inclusion through sustainable fashion.

 

Tell us about your organization and the work you do.

‘Cherehani’ is the Swahili name for ‘sewing machine.’ Cherehani Africa is a social enterprise that offers training on fashion and design to less fortunate women in emerging and underserved markets in Africa. Upon their completion of our training, we provide asset financing for tools to help them begin their independent apparel enterprises. After a one-month grace period they then start making affordable monthly repayments for the tools.

At an event on African fashion, my co-founders and I heard a speaker say that the brands that last are the brands that touch lives. We wanted to touch lives through apparel. Africa is blessed with unique designs and way of life and we thought we would tap into the business of tailoring and fashion to create jobs to help fight poverty, unemployment and gender inequality. Today we have helped more than 600 women start their own independent apparel businesses. We are now working on introducing new products and avenues that will help our beneficiaries to expand, diversify and engage in a sustainable approach to business.

What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?

The apparel industry has great influence to drive global conversations. But, great influence calls for great responsibility. It is therefore imperative that players in the industry invest in important steps toward making the world a better place to live in. We need a safe and healthy world for apparel businesses to keep flourishing, and we can choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. As an industry we have a chance to write our own positive narrative.

How important is water to what you do?

Our design classes include lessons on safety and the dye process. In the villages where we work, this process is not possible without water. How are they conducting this process? How are they disposing the grey water? These are the questions that make water very important to our entire organization. We are committed to ensuring that our beneficiaries and indeed, other players in the apparel industry, do not pollute our environment by releasing unsafe water into local rivers and streams.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

The fresh water that is available for human use is less than 1 percent of the water on earth; this is the reason we need to use water in a sustainable way. This year’s LS&Co. Collaboratory topic is close to my heart as I see it as a fantastic opportunity for me to continue my research and learn from experts and other fellows about innovative and best approaches to recycling grey water. I also look forward to tailoring a blueprint on ways to reduce an organization’s water footprint, not only for Cherehani Africa but for the other players in the apparel industry in Africa.

What’s your Levi’s® story?

I grew up mostly in the rural parts of Kenya and so I never knew much about apparel brands. We wore what was available. When it was too hot we barely wore anything!

The first time I did learn about an apparel brand was in a marketing class when I was pursuing my first degree at the University of Nairobi. The professor used Levi’s® as an example of a brand that had placed ‘innovation’ and ‘user experience’ at the center of their growth, something that has allowed the company to keep re-inventing itself over the years and maintain its position as a leading global brand. To me, the name has become synonymous with ‘innovation’.

*This story first appeared on Levi-Strauss

8 Sustainable Fashion Projects to Watch in 2016: The Experts Weigh In

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Image: factory45.co

There’s no doubt that the fashion industry is changing. While, for some of us, it may not be changing as quickly as we’d like, there is proof that consumer behavior is shifting, the role of the designer is growing and technology is at the forefront.

Below are eight experts in the sustainable fashion industry, sharing the projects they’re most excited to watch in 2016.

jasmin malik chua

I’m excited to see what the fashion industry does with recycled ocean waste. From Raw for the Oceans’ line of denim to Adidas and Parley’s 3D-printed shoe to Ecoalf’s dredging of the seabed for textile materials, trash has never looked so promising!

 

— Jasmin Malik Chua, managing editor of Ecouterre

 

I am so interested in 2016’s take on textile waste and more discussions on closed loop production. One company I have been watching for the past 2 years or so is Evrnu. Evrnu is a revolutionary technology that recycles cotton amy-dufaultgarment waste to create new, renewable fibers. Considering in the U.S. alone, 14.3 million tons of textile waste was created last year and with fast fashion showing absolutely no signs of slowing down production, companies looking at textile waste, like Evrnu are not only going to be part of those closed loop discussions, they’re going to be sitting on a gold mine.

— Amy Dufault, director of digital media & content at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator

 

marci zaroffI am super excited about the launch of Metawear — the nation’s first and only GOTS and Cradle to Cradle Certified manufacturer, producing fair labor organic/sustainable T-shirts and custom contract apparel. This 40,000 sq ft turnkey factory based in Fairfax, VA offers cut & sew, garment dyeing and proprietary seaweed-based, GOTS certified screen printing all under one roof — using solar and geothermal renewable energy. Truly sustainable style, made in the USA is here!

 

— Marci Zaroff, founder of Under the Canopy and Metawear

 

sass brownI am excited about the speaker series, The Hand of Fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a collaboration with Simone Cipriani, Founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative, a flagship program of the United Nations. The series is free and open to the public, and incorporates EFI partners and brands talking about their journey towards a more ethical fashion industry.

— Sass Brown, author of Eco Fashion Talk & professor at FIT

 

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Good Clothing Company, Cape Cod’s first and only sustainable and ethical small batch apparel manufacturing facility, is expanding to Fall River, MA. With a focus on re-shoring US based jobs, supporting a living wage and spearheading positive change in the fashion industry, GCC has been working side-by-side with the Massachusetts state legislature to legalize hemp as an industrial and agricultural crop. In anticipation of the successful passing of the bill and a desire to revitalize Fall River’s manufacturing hub, GCC will be opening Good Clothing Fall River and Good Textile Company, the nation’s first hemp textile mill in over half a century.

— Kathryn Hilderbrand, owner of Good Clothing Company

 

kate-blackFashion is undergoing great steps towards sustainability but the one area I am most excited about is textiles. Cradle to Cradle keeps increasing their ‘perpetually cycled materials’ library and Kering has included the textiles from their Materials Innovation Lab into their new EP&L; measuring the long-term environmental impact of material choices. Add to that, new advances in recycling in cotton, cellulosic fibers, nylon and a new plant-based polyester plus what will be revealed from the MIT/Nike “Materials Matter” global competition (ends January 29, 2016): textile innovation will be the big news of 2016.

— Kate Black, author of Magnifeco: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to Ethical Fashion and Non-Toxic Beauty (Oct. 2015)

 

kestrel-jenkinsMySource is a newer name to the game, but they’ve been tackling fashion industry challenges since 2006 as the Ethical Fashion Forum. Their evolved product is meant to match individuals with tools to build a better fashion brand. I’m intrigued to see the response to their innovative technology, and especially to watch how far they can break through the conscious realm and into the mainstream.

— Kestrel Jenkins, founder of AWEAR World & co-founder of Falcon Related

 

shannon-whiteheadI’m really excited to watch the Carolina Textile District continue to grow and reshape what it means to manufacture in America. There are some key players organizing the value chain within the region so that everyone can win. By coming together as collaborators, instead of seeing each other as competitors, these suppliers are partnering in a way that benefits their businesses and the entrepreneurs who work with them.

— Shannon Whitehead, founder of Factory45

*This story first appeared on Factory45 blog.

Textile Recycling Company Brings 500 New Jobs to Texas

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Ryze Renewables, a newly-formed manufacturing company that recycles textile waste to produce new products is setting up shop in Port Arthur, Texas, creating 500 new full-time jobs.

The company is investing $200 million into two different businesses, according to Port Arthur News. One will use scraps from the textile industry to make medical and personal care products as well as luxury garments and product packaging. The second facility, which manufactures floor tiles, will take the textile waste left from production to be recycled yet again.

Joy Nunn, managing partner and the creator behind the patented process told Port Arthur News she has been working on the project for a year and a half.

“What we are doing is rejuvenating fiber, taking scraps and putting it through a patented process for people all over the world to use,” Nunn said. “The process is 100 percent green technology.”

Port Arthur’s easy access to both the railroad and the ocean make it a desirable locale for bringing in raw materials from Asia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean, Nunn explained.

To encourage the company to do business in Port Arthur, the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation (EDC) agreed to provide a $1.5 million incentive. $750,000 will be given upfront to help the company pay for equipment and the retrofitting of its facilities. The remaining half will be based upon payroll and employment, Floyd Batiste, EDC director told the Port Arthur News.

Ryze will lease two existing buildings at the port, which will be retrofitted. The first shipment of equipment is expected to arrive in January of next year, with operations beginning by July or August. The company plans to manufacture 10 product lines extending from cotton to polyester, and Nunn said seven of the lines have already been sold.

According to Port Arthur News, Ryze is required to hire 260 of the city’s residents and over the course of three years the payroll for these residents should meet $16 million.

The company does not plan on bringing along many of its own workers; instead it will train its employees through a partnership with local Lamar State College, Lamar Institute of Technology, Lamar University and the Texas Workforce Commission.

Job offers vary from maintenance to engineers, to accounting personnel and machinery operators, among others, with an average pay of roughly $42,000.

Port Arthur’s mayor, Deloris “Bobbie” Prince is excited about how this company could affect the city’s future.

“To have a manufacturing facility in the city of Port Arthur is much welcomed. We are hoping this will inspire more manufacturing in Port Arthur,” she told Port Arthur News.

**This article first appeared on Sourcing Journal here.