There is a natural discourse that occurs when we come across ‘Made in China’ marked on the care labels of garments or the underside of paraphernalia found in boutiques and novelty stores. These three words come with strings attached. There is a misconception that ‘Made in China’ is synonymous with poor quality products, products that are untrustworthy, and unethical factories with mistreated workers. We think that it is harmless to keep this association because we are unaware of the implications behind this stereotype, because we are unaware of the history of colonisation that made it so, and because we think it is true.
So let’s break this down. If we want to understand the inaccuracy of this inference, we have to look at the way fast fashion brands operate. Fast fashion brands react rapidly to trends and offer new products almost on a weekly basis, they stand on one pillar and one pillar only: to maximise their profit and minimise their costs. It is their bread and butter. After all, quality is not a priority, nor it is a concern, especially not when quantity is where the money’s at.
“Some companies demand planned obsolesce from a factory. They say, ‘Sell me something for one dollar that will break in one year, so my customers come back to replace that product.” – Lecat
Creating quality products that last a lifetime, if not at least a few years, is the antithesis of the modus operandi across all fast fashion brands. Fast fashion brands know they have the ability to dictate low prices for low-quality goods. Consider this: when a brand with large buying power comes to a factory in China, there is a distinct disparity in the power dynamics. And if we dig a little deeper, consider that the reason brands choose to exploit these factories is because they know these factories can’t afford to say no. Your garment isn’t falling apart because it was made in China, it’s falling apart because that was strategically intended in its making.
This whole process is integral to the success of fast fashion, and it is a process heavily rooted in colonialism. Powerful countries taking resources from another and using it to increase their own wealth is a tale as old as time. Western countries are producing their garments in countries like China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, and ripping them off on labour because their position of power allows it. This international divide of labour can be traced all the way back to the Industrial Revolution; when Europe and America experienced vast economic development, the rest of the world paid the price as colonised territories were drawn into the service of industrial economies. Oh and by the way, this relationship of structural dependency is a foundation for the patterns of uneven development across the world now.
We should also consider the danger of the single story when discussing how products that are made in China don’t uphold to a certain standard. When news stories or misperceptions about products made in China are circulated, public opinions are directly affected, and beyond that, they indirectly influence the perceptions of the country where it’s made. So if the single story is that products made in China are poor quality products derived from unethical factories with mistreated workers, then we should consider the full picture. This isn’t the only reality of Chinese factories, or China by association, and this reality isn’t confined only to Chinese factories either.
“There is a new generation of Chinese factories that pay workers fairly, offer pleasant working conditions and reasonable hours, and produce beautifully crafted clothes, shoes, and accessories. Working conditions in Chinese factories have been on an upward trajectory.” – Keegan Elmer
Unfortunately, unethical production practices are a pattern established around the world, it is not just a reality confined to factories in China. Even the United States stands as a medium risk country. It’s also important to note that China is home to the most luxurious fabric of all: silk. A fabric so beloved and valuable that for a millennium, only the emperor, the imperial family, and the highest dignitaries had the privilege of wearing silk. Silk was a commodity exported to foreign countries and Chinese embroidery was a craft that easily complimented the lustre and beauty of the fabric. Even today, the meticulous and refined handwork of Chinese embroidery speaks to the skilful craftsmanship behind it. To pigeonhole China in the incomplete narrative of poor quality products is to miss out on the fullness of all the beauty and tradition the culture has to offer.
So what now? For this part, there is no clear guidance except to investigate each brand and company’s supply chain. ‘Made in China’ often has negative connotations, but increasingly, this labelling doesn’t always mean lower quality and unethical worker environments. At the same time, ‘Made in Italy’ doesn’t always mean much either, when you learn that Prato, the capital of Italy’s textile business, is significantly run and staffed by Chinese, with over 5000 workshops run by Chinese immigrants. The globalisation of production is a tricky thing, where most of our products are made in more than one place, it makes more sense to know the integrity of a company’s supply chain and transparency around disclosure, rather than judge it by its origin label.