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August 30, 2021

The Garment Worker Protection Act and What Does a “Made in USA” Label Actually Mean?

Confused about “Made in” labels when it comes to where your clothes are made? Yeah, you’re not alone. It is a convoluted schema of loopholes and corporate indulgences.

To understand where we are, we have to know where we’ve been. At the end of the 1800’s and into the 1900’s, long before western society became brand obsessed, there were tailors and tailors’ unions where labels were leveraged as an opportunity to exhibit their skill, strength and overall quality.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, factories stateside started to leverage this tactic as a branding strategy and the first branded clothing labels began showing up in the 1940’s and 1950’s. During this time, these labels were viewed as artistic elements furthering the garment’s prestige as designers, retailers and manufacturers often took great care and time creating their label design.

In the United States clothing retailers didn’t start importing clothing from overseas until the 1950’s. Along with the brand logo, clothing made stateside throughout this time period typically featured the city and state where the garment was made.

Surprising…no one really, clothing imports continued to expand. Enter the “Made in” label. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s clothing, particularly in the United States, started to come from (South) Korea sporting a “Made in Korea” label. At that same time, bulk manufacturers started to use inexpensive labels on their garments while couture houses continued to use more artistic, higher quality labels further separating the craftsmanship of the clothing they sold.

Requiring a “Made in “ label, signifying the country of origin, became a marker of class. It is common to think that the “Made in” label provides the consumer with a general idea of the working conditions, wages, safety and health standards of a certain country, brand or factory. In that same breath, some countries have become synonymous with sweatshops and abhorrent working conditions.

But really, at the heart of the matter, the significance of the “Made in” label has become overly complicated and convoluted. This is largely in part to the growth of the fashion industry through globalization. These countries that are often pegged as safe harbors for sweatshops and garment worker exploitation often have several brands and retailers working with cooperatives in those countries to produce ethically made goods that contribute to the communities they serve.

So, how do we really know when a garment is ethically made?  

For starters, we need more transparency. 

To be sure, the allure of cheap labor has led to sweatshops cropping up in more developed countries, only further complicating the “Made in” label.

Brands and fashion houses can significantly cut costs by producing high-end garments outside of the country of origin and then have them finished or packed in the country where the fashion house or brand resides.

Here in the United States, according to the FTC, the only requirement for a “Made in USA” label is that “all or virtually all” of the product must be made in the United States. But that too is a grey area because it is up to the individual manufactures and brands to determine. Here is a brief comprehensive summary of the FTC label requirements and here is a link to the FTC website for a deeper dive.

Confused yet, cuz it gets more complicated. In addition to several high end fashion houses producing their wares at a fraction of the cost in places like Hong Kong and China, they have also shifted their production to places like the United States. “Yay, Made in the USA!” Well, yes and no.

Largely, couture houses are better at maintaining strict production standards. But to keep up with consumer demand, they’ve been accused of cutting corners too. You can read more about that here and here.

It is common for a “Made in USA” label to invoke a sense of pride for many Americans. And why wouldn’t it? It creates safe, ethical, decent, well paying jobs, right? And materials are locally sourced and perhaps the carbon footprint is lower because garments don’t have to travel long distances…logical, yes?

Ok, before we dive headlong into the whimsy of what we think the “Made in USA” label tells us, let’s talk about the people who make our clothes.

There are garment manufacturing and assembly factories located throughout the United States. But, there is no higher concentration of garment industry workers in the country than in Los Angeles. A majority of these factories are located south and east of downtown LA where more than 40,000 individuals (mostly immigrant women), working for around 2,000 manufacturers, spend 10 to 12 hours of their day. These women work on all facets of production; sewing, dyeing and cutting, from designer label denim to fast fashion knockoffs.

In 1999, a landmark worker protection law was enacted. Assembly Bill 633 sought to end poverty wages (wage theft) in the garment industry. And it did! But, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the 20+ years since its creation, manufacturers and retailers have exploited the bill by engineering innumerable ways to dodge the law and skirk all liability. This led to the exploitation and wage theft of thousands of workers in California.

But there is still hope. Enter the California Garment Worker Protection Act.

So, what is the Garment Worker Protection Act?

The Garment Worker Protection Act (Senate Bill 62 or SB62 for short) is a California bill focused on improving working conditions for garment workers and, thereby, overhauling America’s largest garment-manufacturing district. SB62 aims to hold brands accountable by ensuring they take financial responsibility by providing garment workers with fair pay protected by law.

The Garment Worker Protection Act would protect garment workers in three crucial ways:

  1. Enforcing minimum wage by eliminating piece-rate pay
  2. Ensuring brand accountability for below-minimum wages in factories where garments are produced
  3. Implementing wage laws across supply chains

Here’s why California’s Garment Worker Protection Act is so vital

Perhaps it is naive, but I’d like to think that the garments produced in the USA are done so through an ethical lens, but for many garment workers, that isn’t the case. While Los Angeles is the largest apparel-production center in the USA, sweatshop conditions are rife. The individuals (again, mostly women) who make our clothes are often undervalued, overworked and underpaid with many in LA making as little as $5 an hour.

Some brands further this ethical disparity and greenwashing narrative by leveraging the “Made in USA” and “Made in LA” labels to suggest that their products are inherently ethically produced when this is rarely the case.

“The Garment Worker Protection Act will help protect the integrity of the “Made in USA” and “Made in LA” brands by ensuring products made here are in fact ethically made. Currently, the prevalence of sweatshops in Los Angeles undermines efforts to authentically promote “Made In Los Angeles” and “Made in USA” garments.” – PayUp Fashion

Perhaps it goes without saying, but as the largest hub for apparel-manufacturing in the States, the clothing produced in California has far reaching ramifications—much of that apparel is sold globally by major brands. This isn’t strictly an issue for Californians, the Garment Worker Protection Act impacts consumers across the globe. Many who oppose the bill claim that it will hurt brands and retailers, but that simply isn’t true. Here is a list of 140+ brands and organizations that proudly support SB62.

As of this writing, The Garment Worker Protection Act (SB62) is headed to the California Assembly floor. This is the final step before it hits Governor Newsom’s desk.

For far too long the garment industry has gotten away with worker exploitation, it is time we change that. All of this seems daunting, yes. But let’s start with a think global, act local mindset. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we can make a difference.

Here is a link to a petition for citizens to show their general support for SB62.

This article, by PayUp, has been cited throughout this piece and contains additional resources and writings to further support and understand The Garment Worker Protection Act and why it is so desperately needed.

For even more information on The Garment Worker Protection Act, use these resources:

  • SB62 The Garment Worker Protection Act Official Website: www.garmentworkeract.org
  • Follow on Instagram: @garmentworkercenter @remakeourworld @payupfashion
  • Hashtags: #GarmentWorkerProtectionAct #SB62 #GWPA #Payup #PayHer #OneLegalWage #MinimumWageNow #EssentialWorkers #EssentialProtections
  • Spanish Hashtags: #Paguenos #UnSueldoLegal #TrabajadoresEsenciales #ProteccionesEsenciale

“No industry is more rife with employment violations than the garment industry.” – Garment Worker Protection Act Official Site Statement

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