Recently I have shown a few pictures of a design for some jeans which I have been working on with Chinese brand Sauce Zhan, I am understandably very pleased with them and proud of them as they are exactly what I asked for in terms of both design and materials, but for some there still seems to be a stigma attached to goods made in China. Hopefully anyone who has been reading or skimming this blog for a while now will know that ethical supply is something very close to my heart, I will not deal with sweatshop labour or the exploitation of workers by working hours, working conditions or pay in any form. Believe me that this is a global issue not something confined to SE Asia as it is often portrayed to be, it happens in the UK and US too. What I want to talk about in this piece is the other side to ethical supply, about how dangerous assumptions and judging with broad strokes can be as counter productive to ethical supply and local economies as shopping in the high street.
To state that all denim goods made in China are low quality is wrong, to state that all denim made in China is produced with exploited labour is a false assumption, it’s like stating that all Americans are fat junk food monsters, or all English people are football hooligans with a drinking problem, inevitably those problems do exist in these countries but to stigmatise the entire nation is incorrect and offensive. What I am seeing more and more regarding brands and artisans from countries with a tainted reputation for manufacture is that they have a to struggle not only against the mass of low quality wares produced domestically, but also against the perception of international customers who take the majority to mean all without checking their facts. It literally makes me cringe when I read a so called educated denim consumer say something disparaging about Chinese, Indonesian or Malaysian jeans without bothering to find out anything about the brand that they are talking about, it’s a damaging thing to say, it propagates myths, and it adds to the already considerable struggles of small artisan companies from these countries for no good reason.
The thing is that if you would rather buy Japanese or American jeans that’s fine, but don’t use your inherent and ill educated generalised prejudice against other countries as a public justification to do so, especially as Japan and America aren’t entirely innocent either. There are certain well known Japanese denim mills which also produce denim for cheap high street retailers who do have their clothing made in an exploitive environment, and there are certain American brands who have their “Proudly made in the USA” tags stitched on by migrant workers in sweatshop conditions in downtown Los Angeles, sounds perfectly ethical right? Levi’s were amongst the first to move their production abroad and I know that the majority of Levi’s sold in Europe are made in Turkey from Isko denim. Nothing wrong with that at all as Isko make some very nice denim, but if you’re sat wearing some European bought LVC whilst looking down on SE Asian brands you might want to think about it, along with all the manufacturing plants in Mexico, China and Vietnam. Levi’s has acknowledged that paying a living wage through their supply chain is a requirement, but they have also devolved the responsibility to provide that solely onto their suppliers whilst only offering support through “money management” courses for employees, which doesn’t really help anyone and is a little patronising (source: Labour Behind The Label).
Generally speaking, all the quality denim and clothing brands who are coveted in the market can be well trusted in what they supply, this is a market which doesn’t tend to tolerate mass production or worker exploitation, and that does extend to brands from China and elsewhere in SE Asia. Is it really so hard to believe that a country the size of China will not produce craftsmen with the passion, love and ability to make quality clothing the right way? Is it so hard to believe that China has cotton mills which are generations old and produce some of the finest and most diverse fabrics in the world? I sincerely believe that sometimes people have tendency to forget that a decent living wage in some countries would not keep the lights on in others. To simplify this somewhat, what $5 would pay for in China would require $10 in Japan, that doesn’t mean that the Chinese worker is getting a raw deal, it means that their economy works at a relative difference to Japans. People earn less but goods and services cost less. This is a generalisation and I know that exploitation is widespread in the SE Asian clothing industry, but it isn’t everywhere and everyone should not be judged to the lowest common denominator because that does as much damage as supporting the sweatshops.
The weakness of certain aspects of the Chinese denim scene, even those which are artisan produced, is that originality is sometimes lacking. A quick browse through Taobao will reveal some very familiar designs amongst the listings, designs which you might have seen from your favourite Japanese and American brands, and for once I am not just talking about Levis. Thankfully this is changing, Red Cloud have made strides to establish their own distinct identity, Sauce Zhan are doing likewise, but still companies like Bob Dong market a range of reproduction items from designs by brands like Mister Freedom. This does no one any good in the long term and only serves to damage the reputation of the whole scene rather than enhance it.
Personally speaking I think that the Chinese denim scene could become extremely exciting for a variety of reasons, the undoubted value of what you pay versus what you receive is second to none, the capacity to experiment with raw materials is extremely exciting as already seen in some of the denims produced by brands like Sauce Zhan and Red Cloud and the more favourable export conditions created by Chinese taxation on domestic goods make for less financial burden on retailers. These factors make perfect conditions for these brands to position themselves at the entry to mid level of quality denim, providing immediate competition in a section of the market with relatively few options. To add a little perspective here I am not saying that Chinese brands are producing jeans on a level to compete with the best which Japan and America has to offer, those jeans are still a couple of levels above what can be bought from China. What I am saying is that these brands offer ethically sourced and produced items to a high standard at a reasonable cost, and that has a place in this market.