Skip to main content

Not All American-Made Apparel is Ethical

There’s more to Made-in-the-U.S.A. than meets the eye—and not all of it as rosy-hued as advocates would like.

Earlier this month, New York-based designer Nanette Lepore discussed how the fashion industry has changed over the past 20-plus years at an event co-hosted by Project Just and NY+Acumen at Parsons School of Design. And as an attendee pointed out during the Q&A that followed, Made in America does not always mean ethical manufacturing, as most conversations about the movement imply.

“I was talking to one of the Sri Lankan manufacturers for Victoria’s Secret,” the attendee said, “He was touring garment factories in Los Angeles and he said he was shocked. He said that the Western brands would absolutely cut him out if they ever saw what was going on in LA.”

It’s not the first time someone has called out the working conditions in West Coast factories. According to a report published last September by the Garment Worker Center, abuse is common in many of the LA facilities that supply Made in U.S.A. clothing companies and they employ mostly undocumented Latinos.

“I didn’t mean to make it sound like it is only okay to buy Made in America,” Lepore stressed, explaining that the ethical argument is just another part of the battle in bringing production back stateside. “But for me, we need Made in America for the future of young fashion designers. There’s more tied into it than that and I don’t mean to villainize every factory that’s not American because that’s absolutely not true.”

Lepore, who makes the majority of her womenswear collection within a few blocks of her offices on West 35th Street, smack bang in the center of Manhattan’s Garment Center, is nothing if not vocal about her support for the city’s apparel factories, suppliers and designers.

“I know they have way more high-tech factories outside of this country—because no one has invested in the future of American manufacturing,” she countered, pointing out that a lot of overseas factories are not paying high wages to their workers. “It doesn’t mean that if it’s not made in America that somebody is standing over people with a whip, but there’s more to the argument of Made in America because it just fundamentally helps our economy and our future.”

With regards to subpar conditions in U.S. facilities, she added, “People have to really ask when they move their work into a factory. It should be up to the brand that moves into that factory to make sure that the people are being treated carefully.”