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The "Made in China" Bias: Is Made in the US/UK Lingerie Always Better?

Today's guest post was written by Emma Parker, Founder and Director of Playful Promises, a UK-based lingerie label known for trendy designs that manage to be vintage-inspired yet thoroughly modern.

Playful Promises Anastasia - Autumn/Winter 2013

Playful Promises Anastasia - A/W 2013

Some time ago there was an article on the Lingerie Addict that raised some concern in me. It was well-meant and intended to help people make better ethical choices when purchasing lingerie. However to me,  it read as a list of ‘Made in the West’ brands, which I worry is a way of US and Europe-based brands exerting a type of cultural superiority over skilled workers in economies like India, China, or Mexico.

Going further, I believe it's false to assume Made in the UK or Made in the US garments are inherently better, and that this idea helps maintain a status quo which asserts an inherent inferiority to non-US, UK, and EU produced goods.

The 2013 disaster at the Rana Plaza Factory was tragic. It was a textbook case of greed over humanity, and rightfully chills most of us to the core. It made many people aware of the need to ask about ethical production in fashion. However, great care must be taken to not say clothes produced in Global North are good while those produced in the Global South are bad. The real situation is far more complex.

Playful Promises Blush - Spring/Summer 2011

Playful Promises Blush - Spring/Summer 2011

My brand, Playful Promises, has been manufacturing in China for around ten years now. My company also designs and manufactures undergarments for numerous "high street" or mass market retailers. At Playful Promises, we take strong action to ensure the factories we use operate within acceptable ethical guidelines. The main code of practice for these guidelines is the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Base Code.

The ETI Basecode is based on the International Labour Organization's Conventions and Recommendations, and it covers such things as fair working hours, rates of pay and the right to form unions.

Third party companies such as Intertek and SGS perform ethical audits to make sure factories are compliant with the ETI Basecode, thereby ensuring these reviews are independent. The main purpose of these audits is not to pass or fail factories in a way that could shut them down and take take away people’s livelihoods, but to work with factories on benchmarks and plans that will help to make them better employers and suppliers.

Playful Promises Silk Corsage Set - Spring/Summer 2012

Playful Promises Silk Corsage Set - Spring/Summer 2012

My main production experience is in China. And making garments in China does not mean they're inherently "bad" or low-quality. Playful Promises does not own the factories we work with. Instead, they're owned by Chinese people, and we sub-contract our orders to them. Most of our factories are smaller, with a staff of less than 40 workers.

For the last 12 years, I and my team have traveled to China regularly, usually between 3-6 times per year. In addition to the fun things like designing, sampling, and sourcing, we also review factory audits and make sure our factories are complying with extra health and safety measures such as providing metal gloves for workers who cut fabrics and having a metal and needle policy on-hand (so that you, the consumer, do not accidentally receive sharps in your undergarments).

Whilst I generally believe the ETI Basecode is a force for good (and for big factories, it usually is), it can also feel like an exercise in the most awful form of cultural imperialism to be marauding around factories in China telling them that they should run their companies the way we would be required to in the UK. Many of these external regulations take no account of differences in working patterns. Nor is there any attention given to differing cultural attitudes around work commitments and employment contracts. I’ll give a couple of examples to highlight these points.

Playful Promises Love Collection - Autumn/Winter 2012

Playful Promises Love Collection - Autumn/Winter 2012

  1. In the US and Europe, companies close down for only a few days national holidays per year. Employees take their annual leave at different times, but the company as a whole stays open. In China's garment factories, the factory itself closes for a set period of time, and everyone takes their annual leave at the same time, usually for an extensive period. This means employees tend to work longer hours per week, but they also have longer holidays. During Chinese New Year, for example, most garment workers take 4 weeks of leave. There are also Spring and Autumn Festivals, and most factories close around 3-7 days for each. In addition to these closures, there are another 4 days national holidays when a factory will close for 1-2 days at a time. All together, this works out to roughly 2 months of leave per year, which is much  higher than US or European factories, but is "balanced out" by longer work weeks.
  2. Another example is giving notice when it's time to leave a job. In US and European companies, extensive notice is typically given, so one's old employer has enough time to find a replacement. In China's garment factories, this concept is quite different. Factories ensure workers give notice by taking a financial deposit from them (usually equivalent to one month's wages), and returning this deposit if they gave one month's notice to the company before leaving. However, because guidelines insist that Chinese factories use European-style work contracts (i.e. no deposits), it means employees often leave without giving notice. European brand don’t understand why a factory can't know how many workers they'll have from month to month (especially after a major holiday, like the Chinese New Year). I believe it would have been a better solution to remove the policy of deposits, but to get someone on board who understood local culture for a better solution.
Playful Promises Jessica and Kylie Bodysuits - Autumn/Winter 2016

Playful Promises Jessica and Kylie Bodysuits - Autumn/Winter 2016

On a more personal level, it is quite insulting to Chinese factory owners to suggest they would abuse their staff if I or another Western company wasn’t there to monitor them. I often find myself apologising and attempting to explain that it's part of my responsibility to my customers to make sure the work place is safe. Yet I can't help but imagine how I would feel if I was selling my goods to a company in China and they kept stopping by to check my office every 3 months to make sure I wasn’t abusing my employees and colleagues. I would be outraged - as would most Western companies.

The next point this leads me to is pay. In the factories we work with, everyone earns above the national minimum wage set by the Chinese government (which is a living wage that varies by region of the country). The lowest paid workers (those earning exactly minimum wage) are performing relatively unskilled tasks like attaching hang tags to garments and packing them in polybags. Most sewing workers earn around two to three times the minimum wage and a skilled pattern maker or production manager earns 4-6 times the minimum wage per month.

Playful Promises Louise Bra Set - Competition Winner Spring/Summer 2016

Playful Promises Louise Bra Set - Competition Winner Spring/Summer 2016

Interestingly, lingerie manufacturing has evolved very little in regards to automation and all goods are made literally by hand. The definition of handmade at this point is a marketing term that simply means one person finished the garment from beginning to end, often on a sewing machine.

However, all lingerie is - even garments from China - is made by hand by skilled individuals with sewing machines. And while I'm not suggesting ‘Made in China’ lingerie is equivalent to artisan-made lingerie, there is still an undeniable level of skill involved.

Also, it is worth remembering that garment employee experiences in the West are not universally positive or ethical either. A recent study found garment workers in Los Angeles made as $3.80 per hour, which is almost a third of what is required by law in the state of California.

Playful Promises' Peek & Beau - Spring/Summer 2016

Playful Promises' Peek & Beau - Spring/Summer 2016

At the end of it all, what I'm trying to say is that it's worth questioning yourself if you blindly put faith in the ‘Made in the UK’ or ‘Made in the USA’ labels. There are good and bad employers in every country. There are many skilled workers in every country. And skilled garment workers in companies like China don’t deserve to be considered inferior simply because they're located in China.

Perhaps the best way forward is encouraging more transparency in the supply chain so that we as consumers can know which brands and manufacturers are committed to producing quality goods with workers paid a fair wage - no matter where in the world they are produced.

Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

19 Comments on this post

  1. Jackie says:

    I want to briefly note that there are other reasons for avoiding items made in China, besides workers’ rights (which we absolutely should pay attention to). One, shipping goods across the ocean is very bad for the environment. Two, doing business in China ultimately supports the abhorrent Chinese government. There are countless examples of Chinese businesses applying pressure on American (or other) companies to conform with government positions, for example.

  2. Novalinnhe says:

    I am incensed that this propaganda piece for Playful Promises was allowed to be published under the guise of real conversation surrounding the negative ‘Made in China’ stereotype. I’d clicked thinking I was going to get nuanced and interesting discussion, and have instead been forced to read through a white woman intellectualising what appears to be her hurt at not getting included on an ethical buy list. Yet simply by reading her own words here, I can very plainly see why that may be – and blaming it all on the fact that her garments carry ‘Made in China’ labels isn’t going to cut it for me.

    The article starts off strong, getting straight into the meat of the issue (“it’s false to assume ‘Made in the UK/US’ garments are inherently better, and… this idea helps maintain a status quo which asserts an inherent inferiority to non-US, UK, and EU produced goods”). However this is the only time that the issue itself is actually touched on, and the rest of the article is filled to the brim with ‘not all’s, ‘but I don’t’s, and cherry-picked, exceptional examples used to prop up the author’s outrage at her brand not getting a shout-out.

    Indeed, the very first paragraph after the introduction reads like a hard sell – “MY brand, Playful Promises, has been manufacturing in China for around ten years now… at Playful Promises, we take strong action to ensure the factories we use operate within acceptable ethical guidelines.” And I’m sure, but we aren’t discussing YOUR brand. We are supposed to be discussing how factories in China operate in general, and this piece doesn’t offer anything OTHER than how the author’s own brand operates – a droplet in an ocean of factories, big and small, which operate within the country.

    Some of the information the author uses to tout her own ethical credentials – because let’s be clear, that’s what this piece is – can also be proven patently false, the best example of this being a comment left below from EH who is able to call into question the author’s understanding of Chinese holidays altogether. Chinese workers do not get the number of days holiday the author states as they are forced to come into work on their weekends to make up for some of the factory closure days, effectively pushing their next working week to 7 days or longer, and cancelling out the closure days they “received”.

    The author also boasts that the longer working hours Chinese workers are subject to “make up for” the lengthy, luxurious “holidays” they get – but being forced to work 12+ hours day in day out to make up for government imposed closures does NOT sound ethical to me, at all. And what of personal holiday? If a Chinese worker wanted to take five days off for themselves – to travel, be with family, spend time at home with themselves or loved ones – what then? What are their rights? What is the process? This article doesn’t even attempt to touch on it, and given the author’s patchy understanding of something as basic as how Chinese national holidays work (she misnames some and leaves out others altogether), I doubt she would be able to recall these laws in the same way she could the working laws of her own country. Which speaks volumes for somebody who is supposedly running an ethical front.

    While there is certainly a huge colonial (and frankly racist) connotation which comes from the ‘Made in China’ vs ‘Made in UK/EU’ labels, one thing that a buyer can be certain of when purchasing from these places is that there are laws in place which force even the most unscrupulous of manufacturers to adhere to good working practices. In the UK where I live for example, all workers must have 28 days of paid annual leave for them to take off at their will, and businesses found to be shirking these rules receive hefty fines, can be taken to court by their employees, and can even face closure. I have deliberately not included the US as I don’t know how things work there in terms of enforcement, but as an ethical consumer, I can with confidence purchase things made in the UK & EU because there are nationally enforceable policies in place which protect the people who make what I am buying.

    There are also manufacturers outside of the Western world who go above and beyond (and above and beyond the ETI Base Code) for their factory workers, ensuring that local customs are followed and things such as personal holiday, maternity leave and so on are given to the workers they employ. The author here does a lot of hand-wringing and pointing to the ETI Base Code as to why she hasn’t been able to do X, Y and Z, but the reason it’s called a Base Code is because it is just that – a base. You as a manufacturer, business owner etc have full agency to move beyond the code to give your workers the rights they want and deserve. Again, the author’s complaints do not cut it.

    Finally, I would like to point out something which struck a particular cord with me. The author boasts that her workers receive at least the “minimum living wage” within the country of China. But what IS that wage? Have you noticed that it is not printed anywhere in this article? Governments impose all sorts of things – maternity leave guidelines, immigration policies, wars. And as many of us the UK know all too well, adding the word “Living” to a horrid wage does not automatically mean you can live off it (here’s looking at you, Theresa May). So I will say again – what is the wage the workers are being paid? Is 10p the living wage their government has set? 5p? We only have the word “living” upon which to judge what this company’s workers are receiving. This was a HUGE red flag for me, and once again may demonstrate why this particular company was not put onto the ethical list she linked to at the start of the article.

    In conclusion: this article pissed me all the way off, and I have spent nearly 40 minutes now typing up why. Do not allow companies such as this one to greenwash their way into your bank balance. And if you need any further proof of what exactly has gone on here, please take a look at the photos this article uses. Have you seen a single photo of the Chinese workers who make these undergarments? Have you seen a single Chinese person IN any of these undergarments (either on this page, or on the entirety of the Playful Promises website)? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no – and instead, we have slender, white, cis-gender women from a Western country happily modelling the hard work of the invisible Chinese people the author is “fighting for” – or rather, wants to make sure you feel warm fuzzies purchasing while asking as few questions of her as possible.

    Thank you.

  3. Natalie says:

    Thank you for opening up this conversation and bringing points to attention that people might not have considered or known.

  4. J.J. says:

    Thank you for a thought provoking article – I might struggle to keep the essay now swimming around in my head to a couple of (hopefully) coherent points.

    Leaving aside a _lot_ of misgivings about the global economy and China’s human rights record, there is definitely a strong bias against goods manufactured in certain countries. I currently work as a customer assistant (lingerie department, of course!) for a large, well known UK retailer. I regularly hear “oh, I bet it’s made in China”. Sometimes it’s a lament that we don’t produce as much as we used to in the UK. Sometimes it’s a comment on the quality, or an assumption about the working conditions. When it’s the latter, I struggle to smile and let things go, and have on occasion, suggested to customers that, while we still have some textile manufacturing of which we should rightly be proud, they might want to go home and google “UK sweatshop” before taking the moral high ground.

    One of the things that your article doesn’t really seem to address though, is the historic aspect of this. With particular regard to China, the bias is not necessarily the result of “cultural superiority”, but historical fact. If you went back 30 years or so, “Made in China” or “Made in Taiwan” were bywords for cheap, badly made, substandard [email protected] There may have been some quality manufacturing _in_ China and Taiwan* at that point, but those were generally not the goods being imported into the UK. If you notice a stronger bias among some of your older customers – this may partially explain why!

    (* I acknowledge that the political distinctions between the two are complex)

  5. EH says:

    Sorry to be fussy, but there are quite a few inaccuracies here regarding Chinese state holidays. Spring Festival is what we call Chinese New Year. There’s not a month for New Year and then an additional week for Spring Festival….There’s a national holiday of five days for Spring Festival/Chinese New Year but most factories with migrant staff close for 4 weeks. There is no week long holiday in spring apart from/in addition to Spring Festival/Chinese New Year. (The next festival is Grave Sweeping, which is 1 day, and after that, Dragon Boat, also 1 day).
    Equally, there is not an Autumn Festival, but there is a Mid-Autumn Festival (generally one day) and ‘Golden Week’ (5 days holiday in October).
    The writer fails to mention that generally, workers are required to work a Sunday or Saturday (or both) to ‘make up’ for these holidays — the weekend is effectively ‘moved’ to lump all the non-working days together and Saturday/Sunday become a Wednesday/Thursday/Friday/etc. E.g. with ‘Golden Week’ — people get a week off work, but are required to work Saturday and/or Sunday of the week before/after in order to make up for the extra two days, as the actual national holiday is only 5 days… This means that often, workers don’t actually get as much holiday as it might first appear – they “make up” for it at weekends. There isn’t actually any week’s holiday in the Chinese calendar, as the writer states. Chinese workers may have a week off work (which they do – twice a year, generally — for Spring Festival and Golden Week) but these holidays always come with “make up” days because the national ‘allowance’ is never for 7 full days off.

    • Emma Parker says:

      Hi EH
      Thanks for your comments.

      Maybe I wasn’t clear but I understand that these holidays are not what is allocated as national holidays but from my experience what most factories/workers take as holidays. For example I know that the holiday to celebrate Chinese New Year isn’t a 4 week national holiday but you would be hard pushed to find a garment factory open during that 4 week period and I have never come across one.

      Sorry if this wasn’t clear.

  6. KN says:

    Thank you for writing this. I think you’re that people use ‘Made in US/U.K.’ as a shortcut for ethically made or for a high quality product. I know that I am guilty of it.

    However, there are two reasons that I’ve seen people use to justify choosing to purchase items from a specific country, or range of countries. One is the desire to buy local or support smaller designers. The impetus to buy American or buy British is very strong.

    The other issue is the one you raise at the end of this article, the one of transparency. It’s easier to do due diligence on brands made in America than in China. I’m not saying America is perfect, far from it. But I am more familiar with manufacturing practices here. So thank you for writing this article. It certainly has given me a lot to consider.

    • Emma Parker says:

      I agree it is important to support local business and independent designers. I think this is an excellent reason to buy local. With my article I really wanted to address bias rather than refute other very valid reasons to support small local brands,


  7. What a great and eye-opening article! I grew up as a Westerner in China and definitely experienced the attitude that “made in china” had little value, not just around my peers but from the Chinese. There was definitely problems with both ethical and fair factory work and quality of goods, I won’t deny this, but there was also many local products produced by highly skilled workers, usually following some tradition passed down from generations before. We had fantastic cobblers and tailors in our neighbourhood, capable to mend and create things of great quality, and on their own terms. I’m glad to hear that things are improving in factories, and was interested to hear about the cultural clashes that need consideration. To judge an entire nation is reductive and punishes them for falling to pressures we put on them to begin with to produce larger quantities and cheaper goods for less money. These days you have to do your research, no matter where you buy from as these issues are no longer acceptable to ignore, even if it does say “made in usa”…

    • Emma Parker says:

      Hi Frida
      Thanks for the comments. That must have been wonderful growing up in China and getting to experience that at such a young age. I think China has come a long way in recent years and there are some great suppliers there as there also are in the US but it is about going in with an open mind and not letting bias guide us.

  8. Tracy says:

    Bravo! I hate hate hate it when (Western) people equate ethical = Western-made. It’s such lazy and sloppy advocacy. It sounds more like washing one’s hands of the issue than being part of the solution.

  9. Flora says:

    I don’t think it’s unusual for any contracted company (overseas or local) to be regularly reviewed and inspected by the company they are contracted to. I think that’s normal. If I pay you to do a job, I’m going to make sure you are doing it the way I expect you to. Interfering in holiday and resignation policies seems odd, but everything else seems pretty part for the course.

    • Emma Parker says:

      Hi Flora
      The difference is in auditing for quality assurance and auditing for ethical reasons. ‘Quality assurance’ is very normal auditing and ‘ethical auditing’ only really done by Western companies on companies in developing economies.

      If you look up the ETI basecode on google (sorry can’t link). You can see the type of things ethical auditing covers and the difference in the two.

      Fully agree that quality assurane auditing is normal and we do this on every order

  10. D says:

    As much as I agree that being made in China does not equal sweatshop, I do not agree with the issues about auditing equaling imperialism. I am not in the clothings trade, but I work for a company in the UK for Asian clients, and we are required to follow their quality procedures and we are audited every few months. Nobody feels bad about it, that is standard when subcontracting services anywhere.
    (I do think however interfering in how they normally contract people and require notice is weird, mostly because it is efectively the same everywere else: you dont give notice you lose part of the money)

    • Emma Parker says:

      Thanks for your comment – my experience relates to producing consumer goods and garments in China. You mention being audited for quality – this is a very different from auditing for ethical reasons. We follow the normal AQL auditing process for every order as pretty much everyone in the garment trade does globally and this is a quite different point.

      • D says:

        Ah I see your point. So you have to audit how many hours the employees work and their salaries?

        • Emma Parker says:

          Yeah when we ethically audit we check things like:-

          -How much workers paid
          -That they have IDs that prove they are not minors
          -The hours
          Freedom to form unions or have a worker representatives

          For the AQL auditing which is normal quality assurance which we do for each order we check:
          Garment is to spec measurement wise
          Labelling is correct
          Bulk colours are as approved


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