For a long time, labels like “Made in Italy”, “Made in France” and “Made in the UK” have represented a mark of quality for shoppers – and signal that their clothes and accessories have been ethically made. But the recent revelation that “Made in the UK” labels were put in Boohoo garments that had actually been made in Pakistan and other south Asian countries has once again raised questions about the value of “Made in” labels.
“It’s relatively meaningless,” Paul Roeland, transparency co-ordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, tells Vogue. “It’s probably not what people want to hear, but you actually cannot make more sustainable choices based on the ‘Made in’ label.”
One of the reasons for this is a lack of regulation, particularly in the EU, where the labelling requirements centre around the material composition of the garment, rather than where the item was made. Over in the US, clothing is required to have a “Made in” label – with the rules noting that the country of origin should be where the components of the product were “wholly assembled”.
Given fashion’s complex supply chain, the rules are open to interpretation. “There are loopholes, where the most labour-intensive part of production – examples are elaborate embroidery, sequin [embellishment] – are done on panels and then the panels are assembled in the ‘Made in’ country,” Roeland explains. “That most applies to luxury.”
While this falls within the US guidelines, there have also been examples of brands stating that products were made in countries where just the finishing touches were made. In the Boohoo case, the brand notes that the pieces were printed at its Leicester factory. (A brand spokesperson said in a statement, however, that the mislabelling was “the result of human error” and “impacted less than one per cent of the group’s global garments”.) Meanwhile, back in 2017, it was discovered that some Louis Vuitton shoes, stamped as being “Made in Italy”, were made in Romania, while only the soles were added in Italy. (A LV spokesperson emphasised at the time that its factories offered good conditions for workers.)
Even when “Made in” labels do accurately represent where the majority of an item was made, the country of origin doesn’t necessarily give you the whole picture about the treatment of garment workers. In the UK, reports have found that garment workers in Leicester are still being paid below the minimum wage. Meanwhile, in 2019, the owner of a factory in Naples was arrested after dozens of undocumented workers were found making leather goods, allegedly for several luxury brands, in sweatshop conditions. “Exploitation and abuses go on everywhere,” Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label, says.