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.
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.