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.

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Fast Fashion and the Destruction of Developing Countries

Photo by delpentax on Flickr

 

If you’re reading FaeriesDance.com‘s blog, then the chances are high that you have an interest in environmentally friendly fashion. I work for a waste management and recycling company in the UK called Forge Recycling, and we recently did some research into clothing and fashion in terms of waste, recycling, and environmental impact. We are keen to share the results with you, as we found some shocking statistics. For example, did you know that in conventional cotton farming it has been estimated that only 0.1% of applied pesticides reach the target pests, leaving the remaining 99.9% to wreak havoc on the environment? This is why shops such as FaeriesDance.com exist; organic cotton is so important for our planet. Please take a look below, and find out more about cotton farming and textile waste.
Best wishes,
Lucy Ravenhall
Content Manager, Forge Recycling

Fast Fashion and the Destruction of Developing Countries

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It’s a little known fact that us Brits wear just 70 per cent of the clothes that we have stored away in our wardrobes, which leaves us with a total of 1.7 billion unused items. On average, a consumer keeps their garments for three years, but even more shocking than this is the fact that something might be frequently worn in the first year, and then phased into the stockpile of unworn clothes later on. That is why the average British closet is so overstuffed: we don’t wear all of the clothes we own.
The spending habits of the average person in the West have changed dramatically over the last hundred or so years when it comes to buying clothing. Between 2002 and 2003, for example, people in the US spent, on average, four per cent of their income on clothes, whereas back between the years of 1934 and 1946, clothing used up 12 per cent of people’s incomes. The current average expenditure per item in the USA is $14.60. Don’t go thinking that we are all consuming less though. On average, just one person in the UK will produce 70 Kg of textiles waste per year – that is a lot of clothing. Cheap, fast fashion means we are spending less yet buying more.

 

So, what will happen after you clean out your closet?
The best way to rid your wardrobe of unwanted clothes is to donate them to a charity shop, as this generates revenue for the charity.

 

Donated garments are sold in charity shops, but any clothes that aren’t sold will be resold to the used-clothing industry. These clothes are sorted into piles based on potential markets (type, condition of the clothes, and fabrics). The sorting process is actually quite labour-intensive because it is often done by hand. After sorting, the clothes will be distributed all over the world, but in fact, most of them end up in countries such as Poland, Ghana, Kenya, and Benin. So, what begins as a charitable donation can end up as a trading commodity.

 

Although this process is good for the charity, it could be argued that this process destroys the textile industries of importing countries. In fact, as a result of this issue, over 30 African countries have actually prohibited import embargos of used clothes.

 

Destinations of end-of-life clothing
Destinations of end-of-life clothing (Wrap)

 

From the sorting process, there will also be unwearable garments left over. These are sold to “shoddy industries”.

 

These industries disassemble garments into shreds, fibre or rags. It is a mechanical process that breaks down clothes with carding machines into fibre components; producing less material than before. These materials are then used as a stuffing in coffins, mattresses, and upholstery. An innovative company, IRIS Industries, is currently using these shredded materials and converting them into furniture or countertops.

 

Click here to continue reading the full article at Forge Recycling.
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Importing Part 1: Human Rights Issues

One of the questions we get a lot is where our products come from. Many people are adverse to purchasing items made from third world countries because they are concerned about working conditions, sweatshops, child labor and basic human rights.

Despite public outrage over the last few years, that concern may indeed still be valid at some big-box retailers. However, at FaeriesDance.com, I personally check on the credentials, certifications, auditing and labor standards of every new manufacturer we add to our line up. Not only do the farmers and factory workers who create the products we carry earn living wages in decent working conditions, but in many cases our manufacturers are directly responsible for improving the lives and conditions of the people.

Probably the very best example of this is the manufacturer Pants to Poverty. Their specific goal as a company is to employ the poorest people of the world in a completely sustainable business model in order to stamp out poverty and hunger. They currently employee over 6700 tribal farmers in India with long-term contracts, enabling those farmers to feed and care for families and raise their overall standard of living. Here is a great video with a little fun from Pants to Poverty on the passion of their commitment.

For a more poignant look at the farming conditions and how organic farming combined with fair trade practices have improved the lives of the impoverished, check out this video, also courtesy of Pants to Poverty.

All of our manufacturers have an honest commitment to being socially conscious as well as eco-friendly. Environmental sustainability is only viable if the efforts are also socially sustainable.

Of course, deciding whether to buy something that is made in an emerging nation versus in the USA is a more complex issue than just Human Rights. There are economic, political and even environmental issues (such as the environmental cost of transportation) that must also be considered. I plan to address some of these in future posts, though they are not always very straight-forward. But in this one area of Human Rights, I’m proud to say that our products are actually helping people world wide.

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