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Is 'Made in America' Fashion Inherently More Ethical?

We asked experts who produce inside and outside the U.S. for their thoughts.
An American textile factory in the 1920s. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An American textile factory in the 1920s. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There's no occasion quite like the Fourth of July to celebrate all things American. Here at Fashionista, we'll be spending the week examining the fashion industry in our own backyard, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed over 1,000 Bangladeshi garment workers in 2013 was a wake-up call for many Western consumers. Suddenly, people who had never thought before about where their clothes were made or who was making them were asking questions. And as evidence of laborer and environmental abuses in countries like China, India and Bangladesh continued to surface over the next few years, many conscious shoppers gravitated toward clothing made in countries like the United States, where manufacturing problems weren't making headlines every week.

But does "Made in America" really deserve its ethical production reputation? According to Iris Alonzo, co-founder of Los Angeles-based brand Everybody.World, the answer is yes — at least in part.

"In the U.S., there are national, state and local laws in place that regulate how workers are treated (i.e. minimum wages, overtime, safety) and how resources are used (i.e. water usage and recycling, waste processing, use of chemicals) that keep things in check," Alonzo says via email. "There are several processes that can't even be done in the U.S. (i.e. vulcanized rubber commonly seen on tennis shoes) because they don't meet [Environmental Protection Agency] standards."

These higher baseline standards are part of what motivated Alonzo and her partner Carolina Crespo to keep almost all of their production entirely on American soil, "from fabric to finish." But simple proximity — being able to personally keep an eye on, and build relationships with, their factories and factory workers — also played a large role in their decision. 

"We know our workers, they know us; it's a very humane interaction, and we are as sure as one can be that these people are treated well and the production methods are ecologically sound," Alonzo says.

While American brands like Everybody.World have foregrounded environmental concerns in addition to laborer rights since their founding, there are other American labels that see sustainability as more of a secondary issue. American Giant founder Bayard Winthrop, whose company went viral for creating the "world's greatest hoodie," emphasizes the alleged superiority of American-made quality first and foremost. Winthrop isn't blind to the sustainability implications of making clothing that doesn't fall apart easily.

"If you are making T-shirts that are built to last for a season that you're going to buy and then dispose of three or four wears later, that's terrible, right?" Winthrop asks over the phone. "So one part of what we do is make things durable, so they'll last a long time."

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The second aspect of sustainability that's baked into American Giant's mode of operating comes from its supply chain, which is completely domestic from the cotton up. "We move fabrics about 40 miles up from South Carolina to North Carolina to sew, not 2,000 miles on railcars and boats and trucks," Winthrop says.

For all the potential boons of producing in the U.S., it's far from a silver bullet when it comes to ethics. Laborer issues are not uncommon in manufacturing hubs like Los Angeles, where investigators found abuses in 85 percent of the factories reviewed in 2016, according to the LA TimesAnd though environmental protection standards may be higher in America than in many other nations, there's still no guarantee that Made in America brands are actually eco-friendly.

"You can be Made in America and still make products out of polyester, rayon and other chemical-ridden fabrics that are bad for the environment, and you can run your brand in a way that is wasteful of resources and leaves a large environmental footprint," notes Jessica Kelly. As the founder of Thr3efold, an organization that exists to connect (usually Western) brands with factories outside the U.S. that are ethically certified, Kelly strongly believes in overseas manufacturing for the positive impact it can have on developing nations when it's undertaken properly.

Kelly's theory, and the theory on which Thr3efold was founded, finds justification in the existence of organizations like Thread. Based in Haiti, Thread is a company that recycles plastic bottles collected by locals from trash heaps to produce fabric. That fabric can then be made into fashion products, like the shoes in Thread's recent collaboration with Timberland.

"Based on the knowledge of our supply chains, sustainability and environmentalism is something that everyone's paying attention to globally. Environmental awareness is certainly not just limited to the U.S.," says Thread impact and sales director Kelsey Halling. "We started in Haiti in particular because we saw such a need for jobs in the country."

From Thread and Thr3efold's perspective, producing outside America isn't just a potentially equally ethical option. It can actually be more ethical, because production can be used as a development tool that creates desperately needed work opportunities and even minimizes environmental threats in some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.

Alonzo, despite her own company's commitment to being made in America, echoes this sentiment. "It would be unfair to paint everything made outside of the U.S. with one 'unethical' brush," she says. "We're definitely not nationalistic and are open to exploring working with great people all over the world as long as our ethical and ecological standards align."

In short: Made in America has an ethical leg up in that it requires all brands, whether they position themselves as "ethical" or not, to have a high baseline standard for labor and environmental rights. But for brands that make doing good core to their operations, it's just as possible to make eco- and worker-friendly items overseas as it is right here at home.

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