Can Organic Clothing Manufactured in China Really be Trusted?

One of the questions we get A LOT is about organic clothing manufacturing in China.  There is a belief that garment manufacturing in China automatically means low wages and lots of pollution.  Many of our customers avoid anything made in China at all.  However, some sustainably-minded companies are still manufacturing organic clothing lines in China and it’s time to take a closer look at why they are.  For one thing, garment industry wages in China are increasing rapidly.  “Cheaper” clothing lines are actually leaving China for Africa and East Asia, where wages remain ridiculously low.  Additionally, organic clothing manufacturers are working with third party certifiers such as the Global Organic Textile Standard, OEKO-TEX, and Fair Trade International to ensure their Chinese-made goods are meeting environmental, safety and ethical employment standards.  Many of our USA made goods actually carry fewer certifications.

We caught up with Jane Nemis, owner of Echo Verde clothing for an interview on why they still manufacture in China.

Jane Nemis of Echo Verde visits a Chinese organic garment factory.

Faerie’s Dance: What influenced your company to manufacture in China?

Jane Nemis:  I had been working in China when it was the only producer of eco/organic fabrics (18 years ago) and formed relationships with factories that I still have to this day.

FD: How long have you worked with your current factory in China?

Jane:  We have several factories – depending on sweaters or cut/sew knits – some are new 2 years and several are 6 years – 2 are 15 years.

FD: How often do you travel to China directly to meet the people who make your clothing?

Jane:  Twice yearly.

FD: Can you tell us about your relationship with the folks who make your clothing?

Jane:  There is still wide-spread opinion that sourcing and manufacturing clothing in Asia-and more specifically in China is a desire for cheap labor and that the conditions under which people work is not good. The truth, though, is much more complicated and nuanced, or just plain not true!  Our Chinese manufacturers have become experts in working with organic and eco textiles and they produce some of the highest quality goods at competitive prices. All of our factories are reviewed for workers’ conditions and all must show proof of third party monitoring of social and environmental conditions. We have formed relationships with these factories from our years of visiting them in China and their owners and many of the ladies that work there are now our friends!

They have also listened to us over the years and instituted changes which have bettered the living and working conditions of their staff.

While the work ethic in China may not seem “perfect” to our standards, it is considered to be a skilled trade now to be a garment worker.  They bring home a middle-class income and many factories now have health care.  Many of the workers support their families and send their children to school based on the money they earn cutting/sewing and finishing our goods. The factories we work with are all family owned and smaller operations that employ workers from the surrounding areas. This means we are able to support families staying together. There are many sweatshops all over the world including specifically in New York and LA. It is important to us that we can personally monitor conditions and we have a partner that respects and listens to our requests for change.

Our workers are honest, hard-working, and family oriented and doing the best that they can to make a living. They depend on us for this. When we visit the factories, the ladies laugh and joke with us and teach us new words in mandarin. They are free to come and go to the bathrooms, they have tea and water available at all times and they are free to stop work and share a chat with their friends. The food they are served is the same as I eat when there (free lunch tokens are given out) and it is good and balanced and they have access to fresh fruit and vegetables. One of our factories has even built a small meditation garden where workers can walk during their breaks and get some fresh air and enjoy the greenery. Both our knit factories have adopted stray dogs from the local area and care for them like family pets.

These ladies make our clothes!

FD: Do your factories have any certifications (WRAP, GOTS, OEKO-TEX, etc.) and can you explain what that entails?

Jane:  Yes, one factory has WRAP the other has a European version of WRAP and the very small ones cannot afford the costs so I just make sure they are following the same standards.

All our factories are small – we paid for one factory to get WRAP certification but while many big businesses can list an impressive amount of certifications – the reality is this is out of reach for most small family owned operations.  Cost for WRAP was around $350 USD for a small factory of 23 employees.  So it is impossible to do this for all our little factories even though they use the same standards (or higher).  Bigger companies can afford to pay for WRAP and FLA (Fair Labour) is even higher $1200 USD which is to be paid as a yearly fee.

FD: Do the fabrics you work with have any certifications?

Jane:  Yes, bamboo is 100% certified organic, cotton is 100% certified organic, wool is produced using humane farming practices and non harmful chemicals to process it.

FD: Some of our clients are concerned with Chinese factories “faking” certifications or claiming certifications they don’t actually hold.  Is this a real concern? 

Jane:  Yes, I would say this is more related to large scale operations – they can afford to bribe the certifying body – I have heard about it but have never experienced it first hand.  I would say it is a real concern with anything that is produced on a large scale for low cost… organic is expensive – as are good working conditions.

FD: Can you tell us a little bit about what modern Chinese facilities are like?

Jane:  Here are some pictures – they are like any factory I walk into here in Canada or USA.  Some are much better kept actually.  Very  neat, all windows are open in summer and doors.  Well ventilated, lots of natural light and each worker has their own chair/light/table.

FD: What other information can you give us to assuage the negative connotation that is still often associated with garments that are Made in China?

Jane:  Another reason that we manufacture in Asia is because all of the eco textiles originate from Asia, and one of our goals is to have our production facilities as close as possible to where our fabric, hardware and fixtures originate, this has been proven to reduce the environmental impact of shipping.   Did you know that much of the cotton produced in the US is sent to either China or India for milling before coming back into the states?  So really, if you go to the root of the garment – it is possible almost every piece of clothing has come from China in some way.

I would add is that I find it frustrating that there is such a negative connotation with Chinese goods.  The US has spent the past few decades growing trade with China and helping to bring the work up to standard, pay etc.  This is primarily why all the cheap brands have moved to countries without any work conditions in place (Bangladesh, US Samoa, Cambodia, Areas of Africa) – I also think other big industry has not kept pace and there are still horror stories of people falling asleep making cell phones and getting little to no pay for extremely poor work conditions.  So unfortunately, I think this is the impression that is given in the media – these are the things that make the headlines – not the goods news.

FD: Is there anything you’d like to add or would you like to bring up any points we may have missed?

Jane:  Just to stress that we have worked a long time with our factories and they rely on us – that’s how they make a living.  So although we may do some production locally, we will continue to support them.   It is impossible to do the sweaters we make in US or Canada.  The machinery just does not exist anymore.

Share this article:

Organic Clothing has a Reputation for Being Expensive. Is it really?

You’ve just made your first eco-fashion purchase.  You’re enamored with your $20 organic cotton
t-shirt and matching $40 shorts.  You’re
touting the benefits of your new eco-duds to one of your friends when she whips
out a t-shirt made from organic cotton that she just bought at Big Mart for $5.  Ouch! 
What just happened?

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may be familiar
with my suggestions on what to look for when purchasing truly eco-friendly
clothing.
·       
What is the source material the fabric is made
from?
·       
How is it processed?
·       
What dyes are used?
·       
Was the final garment treated with toxic
chemical finishing agents?
·       
Were the workers who made it treated equitably
in a safe working environment?
Cheap “organic” clothing is the new trend in
green-washing.  Big companies source a
small amount of organically grown cotton and then insert it into their current
production system.  This clean,
organically grown cotton is then dyed with conventional dyes, finished with a
chemical soup of toxins to make it softer, wrinkle free, and machine washable,
and then sewn in potentially unsafe factories by workers earning subsistence
wages. 
Am I exaggerating?  Maybe.  It’s unlikely that all of these things would
be true of every Big Mart garment labeled organic.  And big box stores can weather smaller profit
margins because they’re selling greater quantities.   However, if you think about all the things
that need to go into making any t-shirt, and shipping it half way around the
world, you’ll realize it is very likely that some serious corners need to be cut
to offer that shirt for $5. For organics specifically, certifications such as
GOTS, OEKO-TEX 100, and Fair Trade are also expensive to get and maintain, and
those prices have to be factored in somewhere.
You may be thinking, if I only have five bucks, isn’t it better
to get the shirt that at least has some organic material in it than one that
doesn’t?  While that may be true if those
were your only choices, there are better options.  Instead of that cheap “organic” shirt, I
offer up the following alternatives:
1.     
Buy better quality, gently used items at charity
shops, thrift or consignment stores or on eBay.
2.     
Host a clothing swap with your friends and
family.  How many of us have clothing
that we don’t like or doesn’t fit that’s barely worn (or in some cases still
new with the tags on)?
3.     
Save up to buy fewer, higher-quality,
lower-impact pieces.  They may be more
expensive but they’ll also last longer, be better for the environment, and make
a positive impact on the workers that create and sell them.
Watch the video below to see the issues with “fast fashion.”

So is organic clothing expensive? Really?  Like many other things, you most often get
what you pay for.
Share this article:

Fair Trade Fashion Round-Up: Peau-Ethique

The French company Peau-Ethique (which roughly translates as skin-ethics), is next up on our Fair Trade Fashion Round Up.  Peau-Ethique is a member of La Plate Forme du Commerce Equitable, France’s national member organization to the World Fair Trade Organization.  Peau-Ethique concentrates on making intimates and nightwear that is organic, fair trade and beautiful.

Peau-Ethique works primarily in Turkey, where the majority of certified organic cotton is grown.  They have focused on lifting the lives of their manufacturing partners by:

  • Paying workers 20% more than the local minimum wage,
  • Partnering with a small factory that employs 90% women from poor neighborhoods,
  • Pre-paying their entire order to keep the producers out of dept,
  • Creating a long-term relationship to foster sustainable development,
  • Paying for employee meals and shuttle service.

They also work with a small artisan village in Peru providing the locals the means to stay in their village rather than having to move to the city for work.

Peau-Ethique was started by a lone women with a mission to improve the ethics and environmental impact of the fashion industry (just like FaeriesDance.com)!  Everything they make is Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified, and early on they won accolades for innovation in organic cotton and peace silk lingerie.  We’re impressed that Cathy Abruzzo both had the vision to make this eco-lingerie line a reality and took the time and money to get it fully Fair Trade certified.

Our first 3 fair trade company spotlights include a US company manufacturing in Peru, a UK company manufacturing in India and now a French company manufacturing in Turkey. It’s obvious that the fashion industry touches the entire world, and our clothing can make the world better or worse, as we choose. 

Share this article:

Fair Trade Fashion Roundup – Pants to Poverty

As World Fair Trade Day approaches, FaeriesDance.com is highlighting amazing manufacturers and brands that focus on fair trade clothing.  Today’s featured company is UK brand Pants to Poverty. In 2005, Nelson Mandela stood in Trafalgar Square and called for a generation to rise up and Make Poverty History.  (Hear his full speech here.)  That speech inspired the creation of Pants to Poverty, an underwear brand with a mission to rid the world of “bad” pants.  From their website,

“We’ve got a very English name. In England, in case you didn’t know, Pants are not trousers, but they are underwear. However, more than that, if something is pants, then that means it’s terrible! So, “Pants to Poverty” means Poverty is terrible, as well as saying that they are fairtrade and organic underpants! We all need pants and so we aim to provide pants for all people, in a way that supports, rather than destroys, all of the wonderful people that make them!”
 

With that goal in mind, Pants to Poverty started manufacturing their pants in an area of India so poor it was dubbed the Suicide Belt.  This is one of their earlier videos produced just 3 years after they started business, but it’s a great summary of the work they’ve done and continue to do.

The pants themselves have evolved as  the company grows, gains experience and gets feedback from their customers.  The Moulin Ruche style has become very popular with women, while the men seem to like the newest Long Leg Brief best of all.  But we continue to carry the brand for their amazing dedication and commitment more than any other reason.  The fantastic products are just a bonus. If they cost a few extra bucks, well you know it’s going to a great cause and it suddenly makes your underpants an interesting topic of conversation. 🙂

Pants to Poverty is also diligent about following their entire production line, so the farmers are taken care of just as well as the factory cutters and sewers.  The company regularly travels to India to make sure everything stays on track.  This year they even brought their models to India both to do an in-the-field photo shoot and to be sure that every person in the Pants to Poverty family understands the importance of fair trade and organic and has the opportunity to experience it first hand.  The experience really touched many of the folks who had the opportunity to go.

Watch this next video to hear a little about the trip from the folks who had the opportunity to experience it first hand.

In Pants to Poverty’s own words,

“With climate chaos, the global financial meltdown and growing poverty around the world, the consequences of doing nothing are terrifying… but we prove that doing something amazing can be easy, fun and even sexy!”
 

So with that in mind, I’ll leave you with a completely gratuitous video of one of their photo shoots, because we absolutely agree that fair trade is sexy.

Share this article:

Fair Trade Fashion Round-Up: Indigenous Designs

We’re heading into World Fair Trade Day by highlighting certified fair trade clothing manufactures, and Indigenous Designs’ entire philosophy embodies fair trade ideals.  From their website,

Indigenous’ mission is: “to elevate artisans in the poorest regions of South America to world renowned status in the handicraft textile market while preserving the rich cultural heritage. We actively work with over a dozen fair trade field organizing teams and quality control centers that coordinate over 300 knitting and hand-looming artisan work groups.”

While it may sound lofty, Indigenous puts their money where their mouth is.  They pay truly fair wages for masterful work and it’s evident in their designs and their clothing.  Just take a look at the stunning detail on the Chic Pullover shown top, left.  They are a featured partner of Fair Trade USA and their entire brand – every single product – is certified fair trade.

The reason we love Indigenous is that their entire business model is focused on fair trade and respect for people and the planet.  While many companies embrace fair trade ideals after they’ve been in business for a while and seen some of the negative effects of the fashion industry (or even as a marketing scheme – but hey, it’s still good), Indigenous’ founders Scott Leonard and Matt Reynolds started the brand explicitly with the well being of people and the planet at the forefront.

Here’s a great video from two of their partners and social engineers in Peru.

Indigenous products are a little more expensive than some of the other brands we carry, but we think they’re well worth it. They spend a much higher percent of their production cost on raw materials and labor, meaning you end up with an eco-friendly product made by someone who was equitably paid for their work and whose quality of living is actually improved by your purchase. Many of the designs, like this customer favorite Sheer Drape Tee, are also very versatile, making it easy to buy fewer, higher quality pieces.

As a bonus, Indigenous only uses azo-free, low-impact dyes without harsh chemicals and have no elastic in any of their products.  Everything they make is also Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified and Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified. Impressive.

Share this article:

Fair Trade Fashion Round-Up

World Fair Trade Day is on May 11 and in its honor we’re putting together the Fair Trade Fashion Round-Up.  There are a number of fair trade organizations, with an array of fair trade logos, and it can sometimes be confusing to know what to look for.  (Heck, we’re not even sure if it’s “fair trade” or “fairtrade”.)  According to the Fair Trade Resource Network, “Fair Trade is not regulated by a single authority, and anyone can claim their organization or products are Fair Trade. So, Fair Trade advocates usually look for an independent, third-party recognition in the form of product certifications, or organization/brand approvals.” So to start the Round-Up we’re identifying the prominent fair trade organizations and how they fit together.
World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) –  The WFTO is probably the biggest player in the Fair Trade arena.  They are an international membership based agency.  Membership is limited to organizations that demonstrate a 100% Fair Trade commitment and apply its 10 Principles of Fair Trade. The logo, or FTO Mark, identifies organizations that practice Fair Trade.
Fair Trade Federation (FTF) – The FTF is a member organization of the WFTO.  They screen producers based in Canada and the USA. This screening process is also considered a membership, rather than a certification.  Whenever you see the FTF logo on a product tag or package, you will also see the member organization’s name. This is because FTF membership represents an entire organization, not just an individual product.  It’s important to note that almost every nation has it’s own member organization of the overall WFTO.  For example, our French lingerie designer, Peau-Ethique, is a member of La Plate-Forme pour le Commerce Equitable, which is France’s WFTO member.  All of the individual national member organizations are still bound by the WFTO requirements and the 10 Principles of Fair Trade.

 

Fairtrade International (FLO) – Headquartered in Bonn, Germany, FLO sets international fair trade standards to certify that specific products and brands are fair trade.  TransFair, Fairtrade Foundation, Max Havelaar, etc. are all national initiatives of FLO and fall under the Fairtrade International family. The Fairtrade International logo to the left is the most common one found on fair trade clothing outside of the USA.
Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) – FTUSA is the leading third-party certifier of fair trade products and brands in the United States.  Originally, FTUSA was a member organization of Fairtrade International.  However, in 2011 they separated to form their own system.  This means both systems now have different standards and reporting requirements. This can be confusing to a consumer because European brands whose products are FLO certified, generally do not use the common Fair Trade Certified logo we see to the right, which is a USA-only certification.  Also, this logo is relatively new and the old version of the FTUSA logo shown below is still widely found on Fair Trade products in the USA.
In addition to these 4, there are a number of smaller organizations that do third-party certifications.  The Fair Trade Resource Network offers this comprehensive list.
It’s also important to note that the producer must pay to be certified.  So there are some smaller companies we work with that adhere to the basic principles of the WFTO and monitor the conditions of factory and farm workers through frequent visits and interviews, but who have not actually had their products certified.  This is fairly common and it can be an acceptable alternative depending on the level of confidence in the manufacturer and the frequency and thoroughness of their own monitoring.
Now that the logos are clear, we’d like to highlight the manufacturers that we work with who are fully focused on fair trade and are certified by and/or members of the above organizations.  Between now and World Fair Trade Day, we’ll introduce our readers to these incredible manufacturers – one at a time – whose entire business model revolves around ensuring that people and planet are equally valued in their every decision.
Follow this blog or follow us on Facebook to get each installment.

 

Share this article: