Monday, January 18, 2010

Where did our clothes come from?

As consumers, we have a lot to think about when purchasing clothes, shoes, purses, and accessories. Things like style, color, fit, and price seem to be the most important factors when choosing an item to purchase. But, as we all know but seldom think about, is the impact we make when we purchase something. The impact we make on the sales and profits of whatever store or site we're buying from, sure, but also the economic, environmental, and social impact we make as well, things like the material (organic, renewable sources, recycled material, etc) and the process in which the garment was made (factory environment, child labor, fair trade, etc) should also be put into consideration when buying a product.

I read this great post last night from 39th and Broadway about the label of origin on garments, and it really got me thinking. The label of origin is the tag that states where the garment was made. If you ever wonder how companies can sell things for so cheap, look at the tag, it was probably made in a developing country where the standard of living is low and there are no laws against child labor or fair wages. Sad to think about, but a reality that we have to acknowledge.

So it got me thinking, how much of my own closet is made in third world, developing countries? and how much of it is domestically made, helping our economy and fellow citizens with jobs? I went through my entire closet (which isn't a small task) and pulled out everything that's label of origin said Made In U.S.A and this was the result:
made in the usa

To be honest, this is a lot more than I was expecting to pull out. But to put it in perspective, this is only about 1/4 of my closet. I'd say about 85% of the rest of my closet is from China. The rest is everywhere from Turkey to the Philippines, Mexico to India and even places I couldn't point out where they were on a map (and I'm pretty good at geography). Granted, there were numerous pieces that had no tags at all, either because I cut them off or because they were vintage and simply didn't have any. and while I'd like to think all my vintage clothes were made in the good ol' U.S. of A of yesteryear, I didn't want to assume. So if it had no tag, it wasn't included. The sad part is, there just isn't a lot of things still made in the United States. 39th and Broadway makes a good point:
"If we have learned anything from the recent economic collapse, from the failing auto industry’s illumination on the lack of American manufacturing and jobs, from the rampant unemployment due to out-sourcing, to our abhorrent dependence on foreign oil and more, it is that we have gone from a self sufficient country that made things, to an indebted country that is dependent on foreign goods. "

So let me break it down. I put all the "made in the U.S." clothes into different piles, to put things in perspective of where the majority of domestically-made clothes come from. The first pile was of clothes that I know 100% were made in the US, that's because it was made by either mine or my mom's own two hands (with addition to a grandma-made and sister-made scarf and Etsy seller skirt). If you ever want to know EXACTLY where an item was made, or how it was made, the only way to be completely sure is to make it yourself.


The second pile was the designer pile.
Betsey Johnson, Society for Rational Dress, and Seneca Rising

Granted, I don't own a lot of designer clothes, aside from another Betsey Johnson shirt (made in China) and a vintage Halston skirt I found at the Goodwill (no tag of origin) this is probably all the designer clothes I own. (Does Ralph Lauren count? Even if it does it was made in India) But what surprised me was that not ONE piece of the Go International for Target for ANY designer that I own was made in the U.S. Actually, these are the only pieces out of ANYTHING I've bought at Target that were:

Two! Two pieces. And you know I love me some Target, my closet is filled with Target things. And these are the only pieces that were made here.

The next pile was the "retail" pile. Meaning places like Forever 21, Alloy, Charlotte Russe, Urban Outfitters.

Surprisingly, this is more than I thought would come out of retail. When you think of Forever 21, unfortunately you don't think the highest quality, some might even call it "disposable" fashion. And while being made in America doesn't automatically equal high quality garments, it at least means a better quality of work environment and living standards for those making the garments. I've also noticed that most websites like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters have whether or not the item is imported or made in the U.S. right in the description.

The next pile was probably the biggest, and it makes sense. It's the "thrifted" pile.

There was a time when out-sourcing wasn't really heard of. Fortunately, a lot of the pieces that were made during that time are at your local thrift store or Goodwill. I'm sure you will notice the older the garment, the more likely it is to be made in the U.S. (unless it's fancy-schmancy and might have been bought in Europe during a trip abroad)

The last and final pile was things I've bought off eBay.

Like thrifting, the things you usually buy on Ebay are vintage or second-hand, but sometimes they aren't. It just depends. But notice that the eBay pile is the only pile that includes shoes and a belt. Those were the ONLY shoes I have made in America and that is the one and only belt. Crazy, right? I've still yet to find a purse that was made in the U.S.

I know this is turning out to be a long post, and I'm sorry for rambling, but there are some subjects that I have more to say about than others. This little exercise of going through my closet and actually seeing where all my clothes came from was definitely an eye-opener. Things I thought would be made in America like my Levi's were made in Guatemala and my TOMS Shoes... made in China. The things I hoped would be made in America, like my favorite skinny jeans, are from China. Now does this mean that I'm going to throw out all my clothes that aren't American made? No. But it's definitely going to make me think twice about purchasing something from a third world country, and make me think about who made it and what conditions it was made in.
I also understand that America isn't the one and only place to buy socially-ethical clothes, either. I'm sure my scarves and shoes made in Germany, Italy and England weren't made in sweatshops, or for less-than-fair wages. Plus, most high-quality clothes come from Europe (Hello Paris!). But being an American during this recession and seeing all the jobs lost in your own country by people in your everyday life makes you want to support your own economy and your fellow citizens.
It all comes down to realizing that each purchase you make is like a vote. Depending on what you buy, that is what you are voting for. By you purchasing something it gives that company the money that says "this is what sells, this is what people want and what they buy" so if you buy imported goods, then companies will continue to out-source their jobs for a cheaper price. But if you vote to buy domestic, or even foreign goods, as long as either are from companies that have fair wages, and acceptable work environments, then you are showing that that is what you want and what you expect from companies.
I know in a perfect world these issues wouldn't even exist, but unfortunately, they do. I'm not saying people are bad if they buy imported things, trust me... that's like the pot calling the kettle black. I'm just saying I think we should all think about this the next time we buy something and try to buy domestic when possible.

So sorry for the novel, I just wanted to say my two-cents, for whatever it's worth. I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on the subject.


  1. i agree completely. i rarely look at where the clothing i buy is from but if often don't buy other things based on where the from. I will have to start being more judgmental about the clothing i buy--no matter how cute the item is.

  2. Very interesting post! With my incredibly small budget, I am a forever 21 lover, but I do feel a twinge of guilt whenever I shop there, or Target, or well, anywhere that's not expensive.

    This is a simple choice with powerful repercussions, and I'm excited to say I am tired of "twinges of guilt." Your post has inspired me to really spend a lot more time thrifting instead of buying cheap new stuff, which will definitely save me money!, and only new Made in the US clothing.

  3. I went through a period at the beginning of last year when I said I wasn't going to buy anything unless it was made from organic or sustainable material. I ended up saving so much money because I couldn't find a lot of these kinds of clothes and when I did, I didn't want to spend $150 on a shirt. I understand why it's so expensive, but the point is is that once you step back and ask yourself, "do I really NEED this?" you most likely don't. I ended up saving a ridiculous amount of money by just not buying stuff I didn't NEED or things that I didn't think made a positive impact on either people or the environment. Unfortunately, I slowly started to buy things again, but I want to go back to that mindset of being more aware of my purchases.

  4. Great post. I occasionally check the made-in labels, but not often enough. It's not so common these days to find the Made in the US label.

    But even if it carries that label, who really makes our clothes...normal everyday Americans or illegal immigrants? There's too much to say about this topic but I do think people need to think more about what they're actually buying.

  5. That is such a great point, stylepint! Is it everyday Americans or illegal immigrants? I definitely think companies need to be held responsible for who they're employing. I hate the fact that we have to constantly be questioning the ethics behind what we buy... companies need to be fair and truthful about how and by whom their garments are made.

  6. I just finished an international business class and here's something else that made us think. It's called the moral dillema. Basically in 3rd world countries there is an abundance of prostitution. If a young girl became an orphan her choices would be horrible conditions in a sweatshop or prostitution. It's a horrible realization that comes about in many 3rd world countries which is why so many US companies are trying their hardest to audit the factories to make sure everyone is being paid fair (fair for their country) and working conditions are in order. It still doesn't work as well as some would hope though. I just try and buy mostly thrifted clothes for this reason. At least if its something made in Indonesia it's from the thrift store and the money goes to charity.

  7. Great post, and with some very important points. I try my best to find out about where my clothes come from, and the working conditions of those who make them, but sadly it can be easy to "slip up" when i see something i love :-(

  8. Great post, Emily! I just learned another way to hold businesses accountable and ask corporations to join the fight against slavery. Visit and email companies to ensure that their products are slave-free. (Really easy, they give you a sample email and everything) Soon you will be able to demand a SLAVE-FREE brand. (It'll be as simple as shopping for organic food-- can't wait for that day!)

  9. This is a great post. I really learned from it. I often think about myself when I am shopping and fail to think about the other side. I am trying harder this year to buy secondhand and thrifted goods. I will have to make sure to check its origin before I buy it! Thanks for the heads up, Emily.

    Have you seen Food, Inc.? This is very similar to the meat industry. It is so intriguing too.

  10. I'm glad you did this, I don't know if I have the energy to go through my whole closet right now but alot of it is thrifted, bought online and of course China - ugh!

  11. what a terrific post! i, too, rarely think about where my garments are made, but it's obviously important. the food movement is relying on this same type of rhetoric--that a purchase is like a vote. what consumers tend to purchase stores will tend to stock.
    this is terrific and deserves to be spread generously around the web.

  12. Wow, very thought-provoking post! Whenever I'm thrifting and notice "Made in the U.S.A." on the tag, I'm so much more likely to buy it! Just knowing that the garment was made here in the States, even if it was 60 years ago, makes me feel like I'm not supporting the extremely low wages of workers in third-world countries.

  13. Great post...It really is important to think about what you choose to support through the financial support you give companies. I'm too terrified to go through my closet... what's done is done...but I will definitely think twice on future purchases. :) On a side note... I love your math: "But to put it in perspective, this is only about 1/4 of my closet. I'd say about 85% of my closet is from China. The rest is everywhere from Turkey to the Philippines, Mexico to India..." haha.

  14. You may already know this, but if you go on ModCloth and go to their FAQ, the second to last question asks if their products are manufactured in the US. It says no, that they are from around the globe, but at the end it says if you want to check out their "made in the usa" items, to "Click here" so go click! there are four pages of made in the usa products!

  15. The Daily Fashionista: It's awful to think that kids, especially girls, are forced to pick one of two horrible situations to put themselves in. It's so sad that this stuff is still going on in this day and age.

    KillerB: Thanks so much for telling me about that site! It's awesome... I've already sent emails to Anthropologie and H&M... I'll have to go back and spend some more time looking up other companys and see which ones have responded to the emails and what exactly they're doing to ensure their clothes are made slave-free.

    Elaine: I haven't seen Food, Inc. but I have heard about it. I've heard it really makes you rethink the food industry. I really want to watch it. I watched a documentary called King Corn and it really opened my eyes to not only the corn crops being grown in America, but also the meat that comes from the cows that are fed on corn diets. It was really interesting.

    Melissa: Leave it to you to pick out something to make fun of me about, haha... I SHOULD have said "85% of the REST of my closet is from China"

    Kendra: I didn't know that about ModCloth, very cool. I like that they have a specific section of JUST Made in US stuff. I will definitely have to check it out, thanks!

  16. What I like most about this post... you didn't just write off a blurb about it. You took the time and effort to go through your closet and look (and document). Thereby not only making a point to yourself but to your readers as well. Well done! It's this kind of thinking, follow through, spread of information, and lastly, future actions that really make a difference in the world on big and small issues. :)

  17. One thing you could look into are fair trade clothing supplies. Fair Indigo is an excellent source of basic pieces for men, women and children and their clothing is also quite affordable. An article of clothing made in India or China wasn't necessarily made in a sweat shop. If the supplier is a company like Fair Indigo, you can guarantee that the workers in the 3rd world country were paid a fair wage for their work. Ten Thousand Villages is another fair trade supplier. I've blogged about both of these companies.

  18. I don't often check the tag to know specifically where my clothes are made, but I have thought about prices and fast fashion-- if I am buying a garment for less than $10, the person making it can't be paid well.

    I just found this list, which is certainly not exhaustive, but can help you to purchase from companies that do produce their clothes in the USA.

  19. btw, the link i provided is from a site that is geared toward men's style, but some of the brands do overlap such as llbean and earnest sewn :)

  20. Holy smokes! Such a great post! I think I might try and do the same thing for my blog, or at least to be able to visualized what my "American Closet" looks like.

    Last fall, I started a job as a full-time seamstress for a small clothing label ( Seeing the time and effort that I put into making my clothes, plus my fair pay and great working conditions, I could no longer justify buying clothes that are made in China or other developing nations. Why should someone else buy my American-made clothes if I won't even spend the money on them?

    Some of my cousins started buying only US made years and years ago (in solidarity with labor unions) but this year I'm aiming to go, if not fully US, at least no China/India/Taiwan etc. And shoot, it is hard. Even with the wonder of the internet to inform my purchases, I have to be way more intentional. On the other hand, it does justify going to the thrift store more often... a delightful silver lining, even when it smells like BO and mothballs.

  21. It's a good exercise, but just because something was made in China or Turkey does not mean it was made in a sweatshop. Clothing and other industries can radically change the quality of life for millions of women in some of these countries when it's a company that doesn't use slave labor or prostitution or abusive factory conditions, even for radically lower wages than people make in the US. And just because it's made in the USA doesn't mean it's not made in a sweatshop...

    Thrifting is good for other reasons, since you are recycling clothes and not contributing to continuous consumption.

    I recommend this book about the luxury goods industry, by the way "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost it's Luster"

  22. I just found your blog, and congratulate you on actually going through and demonstrating the percentages that I'm sure many many wardrobes consist of.

    There are a couple of points:
    1. having lived in Bangladesh, I know the garment industry is huge, and yes, the conditions can be quite horrific, but it is a form of employment for women who might otherwise end up worse off. I'm not excusing the people who subject women to these conditions, but in many cases, if there were no sweatshops, there'd be no employment. There are a number of organisations working with garment workers to improve their conditions and access to their rights.
    2. I don't know if the same exists in the USA, but in Australia there has been a long running campaign for "australian made" goods, with a logo and everything. It turns out (and this isn't well publicised) that "australian made" only means that the product was assembled in australia, the components could be from anywhere. For something to be truly australian, the label will read "product of australia".

  23. Just another thought to complicate the argument:
    A lot of good that are labeled Made in the USA are made in the Northern Mariana Islands, which are actually a set of islands in the Pacific Ocean. They are a territory of the US, so therefore qualify for the label, even though they use a lot of Asian labor.

    So Made in the USA doesn't mean that it was contructed in Ohio.

    I know a PP mentioned it, but I think that Fair Trade is a more accurate way to tell if a garment was constructed ethically or not.

  24. very true its not right something should be done!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:0

  25. This company allow you to find out where clothing comes from on interactive Traceability maps - checkitout

  26. Hi, sorry this is outdated (I just clicked on your blog yesterday), but this episode of This American Life addresses this issue somewhat:

    Act 2 is about garment manufacturing in Cambodia and their practices.

  27. This is quit helpful as im doing a geography project about clothes and where they come thank you x

  28. A continuous lean was a great resource, which I found as well...and noticed the same thing during an exaustive search for women's fashion...that were of similar quality and classic character. I guess it is all about the demand. I've found it hard as a working professional in the design industry to find youthful, non-disposable but current fashion. The likes of JCrew, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor have what I'm looking for in the style and cost category, just not much made in the USA. Wishing there was a directory of sorts. I are voting with your pocketbook, and completely agree with another poster, that if it makes you really think about your purchases differently, you may be consuming less in the end of these less responsibly produced clothing. I'm hoping to help support local economy as well, which isn't too hard to do in New England ...but again, the fashion angle isn't taken care of. Best of luck to you all in your search.

  29. Providing Bangladesh Garments Exporters, Bangladesh Garment Factory and Industry, Bangladesh Clothing Manufacturers and Bangladesh Textile Industry List.

  30. this is really nice to read..informative post is very good to read..thanks a lot!
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