Can we really trust the 'Made in...' label?
It's common practice for a 'Made in...' label to appear on a product — sometimes it's a legal requirement — but what does that label actually tell us?
The 'Made in' label originated in England, 1887, when a law was passed forcing foreign companies — namely those who were making copycat British products — to make the origins for their products clear. However, a lot has changed since then. Cheaper production costs can be found elsewhere and 'Made in England' doesn't always mean made solely in England.
In Europe, companies now apply origin labels only if they want to (food brands excluded). Which means if a company makes a product in Asia, where there are cheaper labour costs, and the final details are added in Germany, they can still use the 'Made in Germany' label. Brands are highly aware of the impact a particular 'Made in' label will have on the buying decision and how we trust certain countries to do certain things well. According to a study by Statista German goods seem to be most respected.
Sadly, what used to be a well-meaning nod to the country and people that crafted a product into being, has become a label with little meaning at all. Due to the fact that products are rarely made in one place anymore, it's often impossible to say which country should get the credit so businesses pick the one that sounds best — now, it's used more as a marketing tool than anything else. The lack of clarity is frustrating for buyers and for small brands like us who are trying to do the right thing by using that label as a way of being open and honest with customers. But those who lose out most are the craftspeople who have spent years building the 'Made in XXX' reputation.
Giuseppe Iorio, when talking to HIGNSNOBIETY for their 'The murky business of fashion's cash cow: the logoed t-shirt' piece, said...
“The tragedy isn’t that these brands charge $500 for a T-shirt, The tragedy is that they’re killing the Italian manufacturing industry. They could create a million jobs in Italy if they wanted to. It would still cost them only €8 to make a T-shirt wholly in Italy, and they could still sell it for $500. The Italian artisans who for decades have built the perception and prestige of the ‘Made in Italy’ label are the ones who have suffered the most."
Luckily, not ALL ‘Made In’ labels are deceiving. There are some fantastic brands out there taking brand transparency to the next level with the way they label their products. Brands such as Asket, Patagonia, Paynter and Finisterre are all great examples of using 'Made In' with honesty and pride. The hardest bit though, even when you are being honest and transparent, is that a lot of the associations most of us have with particular ‘Made In’ labels are deeply engrained and not always right. Countries such as China get a bad rap, rightly so a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean that everything they produce is unethical. Unfortunately, a lot of us are preconditioned to think that 'Made In China' means cheap and low quality, traits we'd then associate with the brand we're buying from, even if incorrect. For brands like Finisterre who do have factories in China, it's about using storytelling to open up those conversations and change the way their customers see their 'Made in' label.
As founder of a brand that prides itself on transparency and values its provenance, this is a topic that’s been on my mind for a long time and something I continually revisit. That's why I wanted to get my thoughts down on paper and open up the discussion. I'm keen to hear how other businesses deal with their 'Made In' explanation and what it means to you, as a buyer or business owner.
WHY THIS IS SUCH AN IMPORTANT TOPIC FOR ME AS A FOUNDER?
When I started MONC and began production research, my eyes were opened to the complicated and devastatingly flawed world of manufacturing. And with that came the realisation that every item we purchase has a journey that goes far deeper than we are generally aware of — a lifecycle that doesn't just end with us as the consumer and often doesn't begin where we thought it did.
My first experience in craft was as a child, using glue, wood and rope to make a simple marble game for the local village fête. I presented my 'invention' and had people lining up to have a go. The game involved rewards (sweets) for the player based on where the marble ended up after running through the roped circuit. In this first instance, I witnessed the excitement and joy my design had brought to the people using is — I was hooked. As I grew up, I became more obsessed with the functionality and form of products, and how things were made in general.
When you begin a design career, you're introduced to the full life cycle and journey of a product. It's a completely new way of thinking. Each time you design, you're considering everything that takes a product from idea to reality. One thing I came to discover is that within each of these disciplines there are always people. People sourcing materials, people manufacturing the products and people using the end result.
As a consumer, I always wanted to know more. I was intrigued by the fact that a product could be designed in such a way that it would last a lifetime, yet as consumers we were constantly met with inferior options. A lot of these options were made from cheaper materials and poorly designed but I started to notice that it wasn't just the materials that made a difference to the cost and the buying decision, it was the way something was made, who it was made by and, significantly, where it was made.
More recently, I've been asking myself - is the 'Made in' label is enough?
IS 'MADE IN' TOO SIMPLE?
The 'Made In' label notifies a buyer, supposedly by law, that a product has been manufactured in a particular country. But what does knowing which country something was manufactured in really tell us? Not much to be honest. It's an overly simple answer to a weighted question that simply does not suffice anymore. If a product was almost entirely produced in China but was then assembled elsewhere, that could be enough to warrant a 'Made In Italy' or 'Made In France' label. The words 'Made in' have been manipulated, exploited and hidden - much like the workers they represent - to convey a different message to consumers.
WHY DOES THE 'MADE IN' LABEL MATTER?
Maybe it doesn't? It's been so poorly used over the last 30 - 40 years that perhaps now that it's lost all meaning, it's not as important as we think? A point VERY much up for discussion that I'd love to hear your thoughts on.
For me, it's more about how we use it and the honest stories we willingly share that back up our claims. Because 'Made In' is about more than just what sells more products, it's about people, respect and credit where credit is due. Usually, as a founder you are directly involved with all of the people who helped bring your product all the way from just an idea to customer delivery. Well, at least you should be. Sadly, it's too easy these days to be completely disconnected from a lot of the people involved in that process which means a lack of information around where and how your products are actually being made. When that 'Made In' claim is false it lacks respect for the actual makers of the product and for the trust of your customers.
IT'S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT LOCATION
There are good and bad products made all over the world. You hear the good stories of family factories in Portugal working closely with honest, British brands like Paynter Jacket, and the not so good stories such as the lack of regulations at Leicester garment factories and Adidas' Asian 'sweatshops'. 'Made In UK' doesn't mean ethical and 'Made In Asia' doesn't mean unethical, it's far more complicated than that and as consumers it's important that we demand more from the brands who only give us a simple answer to the 'where was it made?' question. I believe that, as designers and business owners, we owe it to our manufacturers to show our customers the facilities and people making their products. We should be proud of where our products are made and if not we have deeper moral questions to be asking ourselves.
the eyewear industry is the perfect blurry example (ironically)
Eyewear manufacturing is synonymous with 'Made In Italy', yes there are other countries that produce beautiful eyewear but Italian manufacturing has that desirability a lot of buyers look for in a pair of glasses. Having 'Made in Italy' printed on a product suggests fine quality, authenticity and a sense of style internationally praised. However, for many brands out there that have the 'Made in Italy' stamp, this is far from true. They'll often have been made in Asia for a far lower cost and simply assembled in Italy. Yet the fact that the products have been made elsewhere isn't always reflected in the price, which means many brands are misleading customers in order to sell products for the premium that consumers are willing to pay for Italian products.
Horrific, I know. How can brands get away with that? How can they claim their products are made in Italy when they're not? Unfortunately, according to Italian and many International laws, this is in fact legal. There are no limits to how much of a product must be made in Italy to earn the 'Made in Italy' mark, so a lot of brands source and produce their products overseas, then have them sent off to Italy for final assembly. By Italian law, that’s enough to earn the 'Made in Italy' badge.
The more research I did before starting MONC, the more I came to realise how dishonest so many eyewear brands were. I felt ashamed to be lumped into the same industry category as many of them and feel proud to say that MONC operates very differently. For us, the goal is to make the best product we can and do it in the most responsible way possible, whilst being totally transparent around our production processes. We hold ourselves responsible, which is also why we see it as our duty to decide what happens to our products at the end of their lifecycle too — we're working on a few ideas here (keep your eyes peeled/glasses on). Still, circularity and its necessity in the modern world is another topic, for another article, for another day.
SO, WHY ITALY?
When it comes to labelling our products we wanted 'Made In Italy' to really mean it. The decision to manufacture our products in Italy was driven by the country's history of extraordinary craftsmanship and material innovation as well as the fact that our raw materials and components were from Italy too. We made a choice to make our products in a geographical network that is as close to home as possible (there are no acetate or eyewear component manufacturers here in the UK).
WHAT SPARKED THIS CONVERSATION?
As I mentioned, this is a topic that's been on my mind for a long time BUT it was The Impact Receipt that Asket released a few weeks ago that convinced me to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. The Impact Receipt tells you how much CO2 was produced, how much water and energy was used and how many wears you can get (minimum) out of a particular product. That got me thinking. Every buying decision we make has an impact, whether it's environmental or societal, but a lot of the time we make those decisions based on little or no information. If you had more information, would you make different choices?
HOW DO WE GO BACK TO 'Made in' doing what it says on the tin?
As consumers and business owners, we have a right to know where the things we buy come from, and that the people making them are treated properly. We can make our own decisions based on what information is presented to us - but the information has to be correct, not blurry. That doesn't mean we expect every brand to be perfect, no brand is, but honesty about our imperfections is far better than misleading labels that demand a high price tag for a cheap product.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
With 'Made In' in mind, over the coming months we're going to be celebrating design and craftsmanship, starting with Britain. Our frames are designed here in the UK and throughout our journey we've met some incredibly talented makers and designers who we believe more people need to know about. We'll be interviewing some of these people and delving deep into the beginnings of their products as well as their feelings on the 'Made In' dilemma. I hope you'll join us on that journey.