Where Do Our Clothes Come From?

We all want cute, affordable clothes, but we don’t want to support unethical labour practices. Here's how some of Vancouver's favourite fashion brands stack up.

September 25, 2017

By Christine Beyleveldt / Photo: Pexels

The Rana Plaza Garment Factory in Bangladesh collapse in 2013 opened the world’s eyes to the dark side of fast fashion. Since then, many retailers have claimed to adopt more ethical labour practices. But in a globalized industry it’s not always ease to know what’s going on behind closed doors—even for retailers that are trying to be transparent.

Jacinta FitzGerald from Project JUST, an online guide to responsible and ethical fashion, told us it’s difficult for brands to have full accessibility to their suppliers. We spoke to a number of brands about where their clothes come from. Many of them told us they conduct regular audits of their suppliers, but despite that, we still found information on their supply chains hard to come by. That’s not uncommon, FitzGerald says, because it’s difficult for brands to maintain a regular presence on the ground. Many global retailers have hundreds of suppliers. She suggests a more wholesome approach, which would include giving garment workers representation through unions and providing opportunities for employees to raise concerns independently of audits.

But here’s what we could find out about some of Vancouver’s most popular brands.


1. Aritzia

Where they’re made: Canada, U.S., China, France, Italy, Peru, Romania, Turkey, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam

Monthly minimum wage (CAD)*: Canada: $1,850 to $2,150; U.S.: $1,666.72; China: $190 to $420; France: $2,225; Italy: no minimum wage; Peru: $330; Romania: $415; Turkey: $650; India: $555 to $1,470; Sri Lanka: $80; Cambodia: $195; Vietnam: $210

What they say: The brand conducts routine inspections of the factories they do business with, and according to an Aritzia spokesperson those inspections include confidential interviews with workers.

What the expert says: This is the kind of thing brands should be doing, FitzGerald notes. Although, workers should have access to the necessary channels to report their concerns at any time, not just when inspectors ask them.


2. Herschel Supply Co.

Where they’re made: Mostly Asia

Monthly minimum wage: Vietnam: $210; China: $190 to $420

What they say: The backpack and tote company works with various suppliers throughout Asia whom the brand won’t name. What we do know is that most of Herschel’s bags are made in industrial urban centres like Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City. A Herschel spokesperson told us that all factories manufacturing their products are regularly audited for sustainability and regulatory compliance. “In addition to conducting our own supplier audits, we enlist the help of independent third parties to annually provide unbiased monitoring and assessment of our suppliers to ensure they are maintaining workplace best practices and compliance with workers rights and occupational health and safety,” she said.

What the expert says: FitzGerald stresses independent supplier audits are key to knowing what’s really going on inside factories. Although Zara (see below) learned the hard way that suppliers don’t always comply with the codes of conduct they’re expected to abide by.


3. La Senza

Where they’re made: China, possibly Thailand and Vietnam

Monthly minimum wage: China: $190 to $420; Thailand: $255; Vietnam: $210

What they say: Not much. We couldn’t trace La Senza’s supply of materials, which is just as important as knowing where the garments are made. The lingerie brand’s U.S. sister, Victoria’s Secret (both are owned by parent company Limited Brands), was found in 2011 to be sourcing cotton from Burkina Faso, a country that has been highlighted by global non-profit Vertité for using forced labour in cotton production.

(Other countries listed by Verité are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Egypt, India and Kazakhstan.) Most of La Senza’s undergarments are made in China. Exactly where, the brand won’t say. But according to the India Times likely they come from Gurao, locally dubbed “Town of Underwear.” However, due to rising labour costs in Gurao, Victoria’s Secret and La Senza may have outsourced their manufacturing to Thailand and Vietnam where labour is even cheaper.


4. John Fluevog

Where they’re made: China, Vietnam, Portugal, Poland, Mexico, Peru

Monthly minimum wage: China: $190 to $420; Vietnam: $210; Portugal: $975; Poland: $680; Mexico: $125; Peru: $330

What they say: Manufacturers in Europe generally receive higher wages and have better working conditions than their counterparts in developing countries. All of the factories John Fluevog sources from are expected to comply with Labour Law of the PRC (Worker’s Rights Act of 2007) that brings factories in line with undefined “western” labour standards.


5. Naked and Famous

Where they’re made: Canada, Japan

Monthly minimum wage: Canada: $1,850 to $2,150; Japan: $1,675

What they say: “My team loves to joke about brands who claim to be ‘proudly designed in Canada’ but produce all their goods in Bangladesh,” laughs owner Brandon Svarc. These Montreal-based designer jeans are made in Canada using denim sourced from Japan, perhaps the only country in the world more obsessed with denim than Canada. Most of the cotton comes from Australia and the U.S., and for every line produced, 300 custom pairs are made in Okayama, the “denim capital” of Japan.


6. Joe Fresh

Where they’re made: Bangladesh

Monthly minimum wage: $80

What they say: Not much. Perhaps the retailer’s biggest disaster was the Rana Plaza Garment Factory collapse in Bangladesh. Joe Fresh labels were found in the rubble of the eight-floor building that came crashing down on April 24, 2013 killing over 1,100 people. If it weren’t for those labels, we wouldn’t have known Joe Fresh even had suppliers in the country, since they don’t publicly list their vendors. But their parent company, Loblaw Co., continued and even doubled production in Bangladesh in the year after the disaster. They paid three months worth of wages in compensation to the survivors of the disaster and signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions that pushes both towards providing safe and sanitary working environments.

What the expert says: Policies aren’t as important as looking at a company’s strategies for improving labour conditions, FitzGerald says. It’s fine and well for a brand to be public about having signed an agreement to improve practices, but it has no impact if they’re not put into effect. Three years after Rana Plaza, the Toronto Star reported that little had changed and many Bangladesh factories producing clothing for western companies were still operating in abysmal conditions.


7. Lululemon

Where they’re made: Mostly Bangladesh, Cambodia, China

Monthly minimum wage: Bangladesh: $80; Cambodia: $195; China: $190 to $420

What they say: Lululemon, unlike Joe Fresh and H&M (see below), did not sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster. Instead the brand says their Vendor Code of Ethics serves the same purpose, and they’ve also established a Foreign Migrant Worker Standard to protect the most vulnerable class of worker. “We take a zero tolerance stand on any form of forced labour,” they say, and report their actions for better transparency under the Modern Slavery Act and California Transparency in Supply Chains Act.


8. Zara

Where they’re made: Mostly Spain, Europe, Turkey, Morocco, Brazil

Monthly minimum wage: Spain: $1,240; Europe: wages vary from $415 in Romania to $3,000 in Luxembourg; Turkey: $650; Morocco: $405; Brazil: $375

Zara ran into trouble in 2011, when the Brazilian Ministry of Labour found Zara clothing manufacturer AHA (Indústria e Comércio de Roupas Ltda), which oversaw 90 percent of the brands production in Brazil at the time, had subcontracted work to another factory in São Paolo employing Peruvian and Bolivian migrants. Fifteen women were working 16-19 hour days for as little as half of Brazil’s minimum wage. Indebted to traffickers, they lived and slept in the windowless factory. The Ministry of Labour charged Zara with 52 infractions even though parent company Inditex said they had no knowledge of the factory or its conditions.

What they say: Inditex has since instituted traceability systems. “Our suppliers are obliged to declare all the facilities and processes they use to make each garment: from the facilities in which they cut, make, sew, finish and trim to their laundering, printing, dry-cleaning and spinning facilities and beyond,” says an Indetex source.


9. H&M

Where they’re made: Mostly Europe, U.S., China: India: Cambodia: Vietnam: Ethiopia, Tunisia, Kenya, Pakistan, *South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand: Indonesia, Turkey

Monthly minimum wage: Europe:  $415 to $3,000; U.S.: $1,666.72; China: $190 to $420; India: $555 to $1,470; Bangladesh: $80; Cambodia: $195; Vietnam: $210; Ethiopia: $50 to $55; Tunisia: $175; Kenya: $125; Pakistan: $180; South Korea: $1,280; Taiwan: $880; Thailand: $255; Indonesia: $315; Turkey: $650

The Swedish clothing giant came under fire in 2012 when Daewoo International, a factory in South Korea manufacturing H&M products, was revealed sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan. The government of Uzbekistan is complicit in forced labour–shutting down schools and offices in the autumn months and sending labourers (many of them children) to the fields to pick cotton for a single dollar per day, far below the legal minimum wage of just under 1.55 million So’m ($460) per month.

What they say: H&M is one of few companies that make its supplier list public for better transparency in 2013. To go one step further, their list includes countries where their materials are sourced. From this we learned that H&M has manufacturers over 30 countries in Europe, Northeast Africa and the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. Though for the most part women in Bangladesh make H&M fashion. Eighty percent of the country’s exports are clothing and H&M is the largest purchaser of Bangladeshi-made clothing. After the Rana Plaza disaster, H&M was the first of several clothing retailers to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.


*Wages were converted into Canadian currency on August 30 and rounded to the nearest $5. Mexico and Thailand’s minimum wages are daily, and converted into a monthly wage on the basis of 22 workdays in a month. Canada, U.S., Japan and South Korea’s hourly minimum wages were converted into monthly wages on the basis of eight hours per day and 22 days a month.

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