‘Made in China’ is a phrase steeped in stigma. When shoppers see an item which seems less than top quality, they invariably mutter ‘must be made in China’. Companies have been offshoring their CMT for years, due to lower rates, and higher levels of skill. However, with growing levels of consumer interest in the origins and ethics of their garments, sometimes the perception surrounding place of origin can devalue the clothing and cause negative views about the company.
As a result, many brands are moving away from contracting to the world’s manufacturing centre and relocating production closer to home. ‘Nearshoring’ is gaining momentum and seems to allow brands to avoid the taint of manufacturing in countries which have a bad reputation, while potentially gaining more control over the manufacture of their goods. However, does a different location mean better output, ethical standards and level of control? Or does it simply appeal to the consumer’s perception of the brand?
Vicki Taylor has been designing her brand, Taylor, for the last eighteen years, and produces the entire range in New Zealand. When looking for a manufacturer, Taylor’s first concern is the quality of the garment, especially for more complicated designs. Additionally, there is a specific time frame when CMT specialists are needed, so often there isn’t much selection when manufacturing onshore due to the limited amount of manufacturers who are in high demand. Taylor sees garment construction as an art form and points out the high level of skill of onshore machinists, which enables her to retain a production base here. Along with this talent comes a high cost, and according to Taylor, “many consumers just see a jacket and need to start thinking about the craft that went into it to understand the retail price.” Unfortunately, with the growth of overseas manufacturing, the New Zealand manufacturing base has shrunk, to what Taylor estimates is half the number of machinists from when she launched her brand in 1999.
“All the designers want their collections in store at the same time, so they want garments manufactured at the same time, and the local machinists get overloaded. They have busy spells then big lulls, so there isn’t a lot of stability for these companies” says Taylor. In regards to the future of manufacturing, Taylor points out that consumer preference is the basis for the direction of the industry. Taylor hopes there will always be a manufacturing sector in New Zealand, and acknowledges that large minimum order quantities from China cause designs to become generic, as designers take a risk by ordering large amounts of trend-based styles. Taylor explains “the average consumer increasingly wants something unique” which New Zealand manufacturers can produce more readily, and in smaller quantities, than larger offshore manufacturers.
When launching her label Julian Danger, designer Amy-Rose Goulding spent a lot of time in China searching for the perfect manufacturer. Her search was mainly based on three criteria; high-quality craftsmanship, good working conditions for staff, and ease of communication with the pattern maker and company director. For Goulding, the working conditions are not limited to factory facilities, but also wages, holidays, accommodation, and food provided for workers. Finally choosing a small, family-run factory in Shenzhen, Goulding has built up a substantial personal and commercial relationship with the factory and its workers. So much so that she now spends four to six weeks with the factory staff every year during her visits. “There is a huge level of trust and understanding between us now, and it makes doing business a real pleasure,” says Goulding. Manufacturing offshore has had its difficulties, the most prominent being communications; “when I started manufacturing in China, we were relying mostly on email communications and phone calls. This sometimes meant waiting a day or so for a reply which made the process quite slow. Now, with modern technology, like video call, I can be in constant communication with our suppliers, we send videos backwards and forwards to each other all day long when developing new products. Freight can also be a headache. It can be challenging with shipping logistics and delayed stock when I am trying to meet delivery deadlines.” However, there are clear advantages which attracted Goulding to offshore manufacturing, such as the level of skill and variety of products and fabrics available which are difficult, or impossible, to find in New Zealand. For Goulding, customer perception is critical. “We like to be as transparent about our manufacturing practices as possible. We are very proud of the strong relationships we have built in China, and we love telling our customers about this.” No doubt exacerbated by online stories of faulty offshore manufacturing, there is a somewhat erroneous perception that offshoring will reduce the designer’s control over the final product. Goulding has total control, “I travel to China every season so oversee all sampling and bulk manufacturing. Julian Danger has a strong focus on natural fabrics, so I also go to the fabric markets while in China and select the materials we use. I work with some great fabric suppliers that are sustainability conscious”.
Australian designers, and sisters, Mindy Halabe and Jessica Tilley, looked instinctively to Fiji to manufacture their intimates brand Bimby + Roy. Fiji was both the place they grew up and the place their parents currently owned a large solar-powered garment manufacturing factory, so the choice to nearshore there was simple. But aside from the family presence, Halabe also mentioned a slew of other advantages they discovered when they started production. “It’s only three hours from Australia, so if we need a rush order, we don’t have to wait. Fiji is also English-speaking, which is a massive advantage as we have clear and fluid communications.” The only disadvantage is apparent when Halabe and Tilley go on their annual holidays; “we don’t want to come home!” Regarding control, they are squarely in the driver’s seat. Creating entire garments from scratch works well for them due to the factory’s multitude of departments, which enable them to finish the whole product in one place.
The largest challenge is ensuring printed colours match colours shown by graphic designers on-screen. However, this risk is circumvented by express posting samples between Fiji and Australia, which happens often, according to Halabe. Sustainability is incredibly important to Halabe and Tilley, and their manufacturing process supports this. “We’re super proud of the factory, it’s nearly entirely solar-powered, the only factory in the Pacific which can claim that! We are also really excited because they are currently building a creche which is attached to the factory so the mothers who work there can have great, cheap childcare options while they work. Our packaging is also really sustainable; we don’t wrap anything in plastic, it’s all bamboo based materials and locally-sourced tissue paper, so everything is environmentally friendly.” Although Bimby + Roy only started late 2016, social and environmental sustainability underpin their business model, and their manufacturing supports this.
When choosing a manufacture location, there are options abound for young and established designers. Increasingly, there are also a bevvy of ethically and sustainably minded manufacturers who are working to improve the conditions faced by workers and environmental impact of their businesses. However; it would be remiss not to acknowledge that there are vast amounts of factories which are not ethical or sustainable and have masses of environmental and human rights issues. This highlights the responsibility which designers face when creating their brand. It can be tempting to choose the lowest price and maximise profit or attract more customers with low retail prices, but there are implicit costs to society which outweigh the value of a quick buck.