Why Transparent Manufacturing & Made in the USA Matters
Much of the conversation around human rights issues in the fashion industry has been internationally focused. Think widely publicized disasters like the notorious Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and recurring revelations of mainstream brands using sweatshops overseas. So it makes sense that when consumers see a “Made in the USA” clothing label they often assume that production on American soil means fair pay and safe working conditions. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
The good news is, third-party certifications like Certified B Corp and Fairtrade are an easy way for consumers to look into the ethics of their favorite brands. When a company voluntarily submits itself to third party audits, they’re held accountable across their supply chain. Sometimes, smaller brands can’t afford these certifications, however, in those instances, they typically have a close relationship with their producers and should be able to answer questions about the quality of the conditions in which their wares are made.
Without these certifications, the “Made in the USA” label can be misleading. Although a garment may say it was manufactured in America, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was. On a research trip in the Philippines a few years ago, I met former garment workers who shared stories of hand stitching “Made in the USA” and “Made in the UK” labels onto items that were actually produced in Manila. The reason? This claim means companies can sell the clothing at a higher price.
What’s worse, garment worker exploitation is a very real issue in the U.S. Despite national minimum wage requirements, a three-year study released in 2016 revealed that U.S. garment workers were commonly paid as little as $3 an hour and often victim to stolen wages by employers. While there are federal laws that theoretically protect workers, they are rarely enforced. The majority of U.S. sewing centers are located in Los Angeles, California, where workers often don’t speak English. In many cases, these workers are also immigrants without citizenship, which adds another layer of vulnerability. Challenging employers over unpaid overtime or dangerously hot factory conditions could put them at risk of deportation in addition to losing their job. So they don’t speak up.
And the truth is, factories that mistreat workers may be even less likely to face consequences or lose business when they’re in the U.S. For example, fast fashion brand Forever 21 says it inspects factories abroad as part of its “social responsibility to better protect workers.” However, the company doesn’t inspect factories in California because they expect the state’s Department of Labor to enforce worker protections. In short, it’s not their problem.
The result is an industry that largely overlooks the harsh and unsafe conditions workers have to endure day after day. A 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 85 percent of garment industry employers were violating federal minimum wage and record-keeping laws. There’s hope that this will change soon with the passage of landmark California law SB 62 in September 2021. The legislation, known as the Garment Worker Protection Act, ensures minimum wage pay for workers, penalizes brands for wage theft, eliminates piecemeal pay per garment, and more.
But socially responsible brands, like Hass, are stepping up to show others that companies can put people and workers first without sacrificing profit. To back up our commitment to providing safe, healthy working conditions and fair pay for employees, our materials, supply chains, and factories meet rigorous third-party standards. We’re a Certified B Corporation, which requires us to meet high standards for social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability. We use natural, organic certified materials like organic cotton and wool, plus Modal and alpaca fiber. And we stitch all of our apparel — with the exception of our alpaca collection, which is handcrafted in Peru — in L.A. factories that are Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified, which verifies our materials are sustainably and ethically sourced and free of harmful chemicals, which protects our customers and our workers.
Being made in the U.S. is a good thing, particularly from a sustainability perspective as it drastically reduces transportation emissions. But consumers need to be aware that it’s not the guarantee of ethics that brands would sometimes lead them to believe. The next time you notice a brand enthusiastically sharing that their items are ‘Made in the USA’, poke around and don’t be afraid to ask them deeper questions.
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