Op-Ed | E-Tailers Must Tell Consumers Where Their Products Are Made

In brick-and-mortar stores, consumers can quickly check where garments are made before making a purchase, simply by looking at the label. Why don’t fashion e-tailers provide the same information?

A made in Italy label | Source: The Business of Fashion

SYDNEY, Australia — In the wake of last year’s tragedy at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, much has been written about the widening gap between producer and end consumer in the global garment industry. As fast fashion companies, in particular, aim to speed up production, while simultaneously increasing profit margin, supply chains have become increasingly murky and customers are often left with little idea as to where, how and by whom their clothes are made.

Unfortunately, the rise of e-commerce has done nothing to improve transparency, as consumers shopping most fashion e-tailers are exposed to very limited information on how and where their clothes are made, making it difficult to make responsible choices. Unlike shopping at traditional brick-and-mortar stores, shoppers can’t touch clothes to assess quality, read tags for manufacturing information, or ask a shop assistant about the origin of an item. Instead, they must rely on the limited information provided on product detail pages, which, in most cases, says nothing about country of origin, let alone the specific conditions at the factories where items are made.

Country of origin (COO), or the “Made in” tag, is a basic form of labelling that most clothing manufacturers feature on their products. The legal requirements for COO labelling vary from country to country. In the US, the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act requires that a “textile product made entirely abroad must be labeled with the name of the country where it was processed or manufactured.” Most of Europe, the UK and Australia have no such legislation, but it is considered best practice to include this information on clothing tags. Yet log on to your favourite fashion e-commerce store and it’s all but impossible to find out where a piece of clothing was made.

In fact, some large multi-brand websites, including Net-a-Porter and MyWardrobe, fail to mention the country of origin of the products on their website, even though the Textiles and Wool Act states that imported products must be labelled as such “in mail order or internet advertising, such as catalogs, including that disseminated on the Internet.”

Daisy Gardner, corporate accountability and fair trade advisor for Oxfam Australia says that simple COO information enables consumers to ask companies questions about the conditions for workers in that country. “When e-retailers do not provide even country of origin on their websites it takes away even the most basic information about where the garment was made,” she says. “If retailers want to be part of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) international best practice they need to not only disclose the country of origin, but also provide public lists of all their supplier factories.”

It’s not hard to see why fast fashion websites selling products manufactured in places like Bangladesh would want to obscure this fact, considering the widespread issues with human rights and worker safety that plague the country. More surprising is that luxury e-tailers don’t include COO information either, even when it has positive connotations such as “Made in France.” COO can be a selling point, particularly for luxury or premium product. And yet, still, very few high-end e-commerce stores include this information.

Alice Strevens, senior ethical trade and sourcing manager at ASOS, acknowledged the importance of providing customers with information that helps to demystify the supply chain. “We are dedicated to informing our consumers about what we do and how we do it, and as a result have a website committed to openly sharing this information,” she says. But information on the ASOS website focuses on high level ethical codes and standards rather than providing specific information about individual products, meaning there is no way for customers to quickly check where something is made before purchasing, as they are able to do in a brick-and-mortar store, simply by looking at the label of the garment.

And yet the very nature of e-commerce allows companies to disseminate product information more easily than at traditional retail, giving them the unique opportunity to empower customers with in-depth product knowledge, which only needs to be input once when the product is uploaded to a site’s content management system. There is already someone, usually a content writer, entering sizing, fabric and care information; manufacturing information could easily also be included at this stage. But despite this, most fashion e-commerce companies include a bare minimum of information on how and where products are made.

Sara Brinton, digital marketing and e-commerce manager for ethical retailer People Tree says that the detailed manufacturing information they provide on their product pages has increased sales. “When we created the ‘How It’s Made’ section on the website and shared it with our customers on social media, we received very positive feedback. We think it does positively impact sales and we’re working now to add even more information about how our products are made to our website.”

In an industry where it’s becoming more and more difficult for consumers to unravel complex supply chains in order to determine where their clothes are made, the majority of online stores are further obscuring the reality of garment manufacturing. If fashion is going to take its ethical responsibilities seriously, manufacturing information must be made available to customers, who will then have the opportunity to hold retailers accountable for the working conditions of the people who make their clothes. Being transparent about country of origin is a small but important step in demystifying the fashion supply chain and ensuring that workers receive fare wages and decent conditions.

Madelin Newman is a freelance writer based in Sydney.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Although having COO information is a good start, this isn’t enough to inform the consumer of where or how a product is made.

    If a product’s COO is Bangladesh, it doesn’t always mean that it must have been produced in a low cost factory with terrible working conditions. Labels with ‘Made in France’ or ‘Made in Italy’ that further emphasize the idea that it must have been of the highest quality are also just as misleading.

    Now that more consumers are demanding transparency about where and how products are produced, then we should push retailers to be more open to sharing information about their supply chains. (However, this may prove difficult for some companies to do since keeping their supply chain a secret is part of being competitive.)

    At the same time, consumers should also become more educated about the products they buy. When consumers demand for products to be priced so cheaply — think $5 or $10 shirts at several fast fashion retailers — they shouldn’t be so surprised when they realize they’re manufactured in conditions that are deplorable. It all comes at a price.

    Monique Padrid from San Francisco, CA, United States
  2. Thank you for publishing this piece. While there are so many complexities, we won’t make changes if we don’t start educating others about the basics in our industry. We’ve got to get into the habit of seeing where things are produced and where the materials are sourced.
    Camilla ~ typically sourced in Asia and LA; designed and sewn in the SF Bay Area.

    camilla olson from Sunnyvale, CA, United States
  3. A very interesting article. I agree, all retailers should be telling the customer where and how their garments have been made.
    At Lavender Hill Clothing we are proud of our manufacturers and want the customers to know all aspects of how our clothing is made. We currently only produce in England, Italy and Austria but if one day we choose to move manufacturing abroad we will always show images and share information of the factories. A factory might be in Bangladesh or China but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be cheap, they have custom build factories using the latest machinery which is sometimes hard to find close to home.

    Lavender Hill from United Kingdom
  4. What I find interesting is that in the United States it has been a law, not just a recommendation, to include the country of origin, fiber content and care instructions. On top of that, if the fiber is wool then the label must distinguish what type of wool. Wool is processed in different ways and it is to be labeled as such. If that information is not attached on the inside of the garment the retailer is just as responsible as the manufacturer. On the Internet and catalogs, all it will take is one consumer speaking up to the company’s CEO or President and the company will make the changes. The consumer has to speak up and even make it public for a company to follow the rules. I’ve seen it done.

    Sylvia Scott from Rialto, CA, United States
  5. It seems that with the rise of e-commerce and innovation in technology, information available for end consumer should be increasing too. Unfortunately it’s not the case because it’s not in the interests of many retailers that tries to cover up unsustainable sourcing of their production.

    While retail brands take the largest percentage of income in the whole fashion product value chain, they often undermine interests of both producers and consumers.

    Nevertheless, for some brands such as People Tree, e-commerce provides an opportunity to offer ethical, sustainable products and provide in-depth information about them to their customers.

    Polyforma Design Project is another great example using e-commerce to create transparent sustainable fashion business that focuses not just on profit but also on people who make their products. Find more about them here: http://goo.gl/e2YZ9K

    ro be from Germany
  6. While perusing and purchasing online, I’ve noticed most sites will openly state the country of origin if the item is from Italy, England, France or Japan; if it is from Bangladesh, China, or Indonesia (among others) it will say “Imported.”

    Adam Mena-Silvert from Toronto, ON, Canada
  7. Good luck trying to get Mr Porter to post details of where its products are made. It is eager to trumpet if something is “Made in Italy” but, as a rule of thumb, if it omits to mention a product’s country of origin from its excitable “details” panel it will be made in China. They do tell you on the phone, but why should customers have to make an effort to find out?

    boyd farrow from Berlin, Berlin, Germany
  8. Agree with all the points the author makes. I would like to know where things are made.
    However- reality check: many people buying very low end goods cannot afford to indulge in making decisions based on COO, etc.
    No disparity intended to People’s Tree ( I use this only as example because it was mentioned) but $36. On sale for a Breton top , may be a bit much for many who can get the same look for a third of the price.
    Point being, shopping consciously may be an indulgence for those who can make the difference. And they should. For others, the issue is economic.

    Pearl Gartner from Forest Hills, NY, United States
  9. Great article, very timely. This is a real problem for modern consumers, they need and deserve to know what they are buying and how & where it was made and from what materials it’s sourced from, where it’s grown and raised and under what verifiable conditions. The prevailing attitude of “whatever” is part of this general lack of information or actual incorrect information is comparable to “low information voters”. We see this also in the big issue of simply labeling GMO food-like products and foods that come from animals fed GMO corn etc. It is important and any designer, producer, retailer/e-tailer who is proud of their authentic quality uses that as a strong selling point…when companies are not transparent or actually spend millions of $ trying to block simple mandatory labeling laws that already exist you have to know that they are covering something up. Secrets are generally bad. If something is good then shout it from the roof tops. Transparency (and I don’t mean using silk chiffon) is more important now then ever before. Truth in advertising is a law in the USA, you cannot make bogus claims nor can you actually lie, which is very common these days. It hurts people who actually make the effort to create and offer quality products. Just saying something does make make it true.

    Sandra Garratt from Palm Springs, CA, United States
  10. I recently purchased footwear on gilt.com, the description read Imported, no kidding. It was not until I opened the box that it was apparent these weren’t from China as the finishing of the product was as unusual as the odor from the shoebox. Yes, I sent them a note on labeling specific country of origin.

    Rose Capobianco from New York, NY, United States
  11. We love this article! It is very relevant and evidences a few key problems. The main issue in our opinion is that people on the web look first for cheap and/or discounted items… Even when purchasing on ‘luxury’ websites, they shop for looks or trends and fail to enquire about the actual provenance, quality and durability of materials! Provenance, quality and durability should be conditions for any brand to qualify as ‘luxury’ (not a word we like as it is almost always abused) and obviously to charge a higher price. We founded our own brand and online store on the premises that we have to seek the maximum transparency from our brand partners and suppliers. It is often a tough job to get this information when the supply chain is complex so we do our best to work directly with manufacturers and to ask the tough questions. We source from countries with decent labour laws and wages (USA, Japan, Italy, Germany, France etc.), otherwise we seek Fair Trade companies (Fair Spirits, Pachacuti hats, Fibre Tibet shawls…). People Tree and Honest By are very inspiring and credible benchmarks for the industry and we very much look forward to the day the whole industry shows more respect for all stakeholders, from workers in the fields to final customers…
    PS. Of course we do not even discuss here the crucial debate around the ‘made in’ definition, which we discussed in this article with Cutloer and Gross here http://www.jardinsflorian.com/blogs/news/6009376-made-in-italy-going-back-to-meaning-substance-cutler-and-gross-story

    Jardins Florian from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  12. I endorse everything Monique Padrid said.
    The low end brand patronizers buy because it’s cheap.
    How many people really look at the label when they see a design they like.
    “Oh it’s made in China so i won’t buy it.”
    Really! How many people? Very few.
    Even people with money, majority with money to afford high end designer clothes don’t care.
    People who buy Givenchy tees didn’t look at the label of where it was made before they bought them.
    They buy brand.
    If people want to really know where stuff gets made, they should be speaking to the brand.
    I don’t think retailers should be held accountable for this at all.
    Looking into factories is extra work and time consuming.
    The best retailers can do is ask designers to provide information on the country is was made.
    Just that.
    That’s really it.
    I’m a designer myself. Why would i let the world know who my manufacturers are?
    Like why?
    People complain too much.
    People buy brands, not products.
    How many of us really care about .cotton/polyester ratio when we love the design?
    We still use apple products and we all know is from china…
    Blah blah blah. Point is just like this article….People, some people complain too much.
    Sew if you can.

    Kwame Adjaye from Accra, Greater Accra, Ghana
  13. Great article. At Runway2Street.com, we believe in empowering our customers with information on where the products are made, who makes them and how they are made.

    Rathna Sharad from Seattle, WA, United States
  14. Agree, its also interesting that in Europe you don’t have to say where it is made when producing garments. Nice right article Maddie!! Regards Joshua @ Subfusco

    Joshua Roberto Scacheri from London, London, United Kingdom
  15. How long does it take to publish comments?
    You post lavender hill’s full PR blast comment and leave mine out?
    Who’s your competition?
    They’ll appreciate my contribution and participation.

    Kwame Adjaye from Ghana
  16. Ooops….
    Shame on me.
    I jumped the gun and welll….Shame on me.
    Forgive me.

    Kwame Adjaye from Ghana
  17. Some etailers such as my own business Shift to Nature http://www.shifttonature.com.au are taking the ethical mandate for retailing eco/organic products that are traceable to their source with appropriate certifications. I am really thrilled to be growing this ethical business. The prices are expensive but the products are luxury and well worth the price – giving consumers an ethical choice is my aim, people will make considered choices that is not only about the price tag. Thanks for raising this issue Imran!!

    Sonja Bar-Am from Wasleys, South Australia, Australia
  18. Completely agree.
    However, a simple Google search will show you how incredibly impossible it is to find and to deal with ethical fashion, fair trade or sustainable brands in the fashion industry. A lot of them are small designers and most websites have poor SEO. Not only that, but the brands that have managed to convey an actual style with flattering and fashionable garments are either too “important” and expensive to be sold through channels other than high-end stores or too incapable of understanding their business opportunities. So, small entrepreneurs that want to get in the fashion business sometimes don’t have an option but to settle for made in China items that appeal to the masses, are easy to find and have a reasonable distribution platform.
    Ethical fashion brands have long ways before they can be competitive and position themselves as real options for the average consumer. Not only prices, but logistics, marketing and design are still aspects in which ethical fashion is still lagging.

    Yarina Valverde from San Luis Obispo, CA, United States
  19. I 100% agree about the transparency of production in fashion. I work for a an ethical jewelry label called Sweet Cavanagh, which is handmade by women in London who are striving to achieve/maintain recovery from eating disorders and/or addictions. All of our craftswomen get paid ethical wages for their work and our materials are sourced in a responsible way. Not only does our website (www.sweetcavanagh.com) tell you where the jewelry was made but we also tell you about the woman who made the piece and how the jewelry making process has helped her recovery. Look good, and feel good about your purchase with Sweet Cavanagh!

    Maxine Korval from United Kingdom