Why "country of origin" matters in ethical fashion


Every ethical business owner has her “ah-ha!” moment when she opens her business, and mine came from doing Made in a Free World’s Slavery footprint, a once-viral web app that calculates “how many slaves work for you” by using eye-pleasing flat design and numerical estimations based on general data.

We partnered with them in their 2015 hey-day for our Ethical Black Friday campaign for reasons that have little to do with the actual work they do, and everything to do with their marketing reach (at the time). That story requires its own strategic breakdown, and this article isn’t the place for it. Instead, I want to talk about my biggest takeaway from working with Made in a Free World: learning your raw material’s country of origin. I’m going to call-out a specific, popular “ethical” brand that played a huge role in my. . . errrr. . . “ethical awakening.”

Ethiopian Leather

Sseko wasn’t only one of our best-selling brands (before they ceased all wholesale and turned into an MLM), but I wrote a scathing response to Barbara Cochran about her refusal to fund them on Shark Tank. After our first year, I burned our Sseko bridge by cancelling an order with them 3 months before it was meant to ship. I’m not proud of it, and if I could time travel, I’d bite the bullet, pay the money, slash the prices before Christmas, and call it quits after that season, but I was more indignant back then (if you can believe it) and used my perceived, internal moral suffering as a way of justifying my poor manners.

Also, I sort-of lied to them about why were ending the partnership because I was a coward in confronting them about potential child labor in their supply chain. I said we were cash-strapped (which was true), and wanted to spend our autumn/winter budget elsewhere (also true). I didn’t mention child labor at all because I wasn’t ready to have that exchange with a much-loved “ethical” fashion juggernaut. I make mention of this because the conversation happened over email. The receipts exist and I don’t want you to believe I’ve always been an unwavering ethical fashion crusader.

In retrospect, I should’ve just sent them our report from Made in a Free World:

Sseko Slavery Report.JPG
Sseko Slavery Report 2.JPG

All of our Sseko items (and Raven + Lily’s leather products) fell under the “Very High Risk” category for child labor. Globally, sixty percent of documented labor for 5-17 years old is in agriculture, and 40% of agricultural jobs are in animal husbandry. Now, Made in a Free World wasn’t infallible because they also put two of our vendors — who I personally know and respect the hell out of — in “Very High Risk” because they use factory remnants of unknown origin. But Ethiopian leather isn’t of unknown origin, it’s from Ethiopia, where cattle ranching is in the top three sectors for child labor. See, once you know the country of origin, you can do a google search to compile data that will help you make an educated guess on how the company procured their raw materials and how much they really know about them where they come from.

My “Big Ask” on the Etsy Wholesale Team

Being a retailer (aka a “buyer”) inside the Etsy Wholesale Team gave me a weird sense of authority among the “makers” who wanted my money. I would usually lurk around and offer bits of advice to people wondering why they weren’t selling anything. One day, I felt especially empowered and posted my first topic: Please name your countries of origin.

It went fine, with a lot of people agreeing and others, well…

The weird thing here is she could’ve just said “I’ll make sure to include “vintage materials” in my product description,” but she had to ruin it with that last sentence.

The weird thing here is she could’ve just said “I’ll make sure to include “vintage materials” in my product description,” but she had to ruin it with that last sentence.

Enabling the belief that artists are the only link in a supply chain is an unfortunate consequence of Etsy’s decade-long “handmade first” marketing. While we’re supporting an artist’s child’s ballet lessons, we may be unwittingly supporting child labor in mining, agriculture, and textile production.

Here is the correct way to answer “where does your raw material come from?”

A convo with  Marcella Moda , who is still one of my faves.

A convo with Marcella Moda, who is still one of my faves.

Mica, makeup, and a small sacrifice

If you follow MadeFAIR on any social media platform, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of Fenty Beauty’s marketing, and I’ll often use it as an example of how diversity isn’t a detriment.

Here’s the problem: I can’t buy most of Fenty’s products because they openly flaunt their shimmering mica, which is from unknown origins. I emailed them about it and will update this if they reply, but let’s be real. They won’t reply so I’ll assume the worst.

Mica mining is one of the most prolific perpetrators of child labor in India, where children can work 20 feet underground and develop respiratory illnesses like asthma to earn about $.08 per kilo. You can read the entire report on the Jharkhand mines here. Mica is so shady that Lush phased it out of their product line before replacing it with a synthetic version 4 years after their initial press release.

Here’s an example of how Fenty should respond, from Omiana (note: they suggest sending a selfie so they can help you pick-out the right foundation hue, and my son photo-bombed my selfie):

They told me my skin tone is so lovely, oh my god take all my money.

They told me my skin tone is so lovely, oh my god take all my money.

It’s not perfect because as far as I know, Belgium, France, and the United States aren’t renowned for their mica industries, but at least they were willing to answer, know which countries have questionable labor tactics, and even suggested mica-free products. Turns out, my foundation tones are “Almond or slightly darker Pecan” in the summer and “Medium Olive or Medium Gold” in the winter. I don’t really know what that means. I want every company to abide by Fenty’s numerical scale, where I’m a 320.

Always Always Always Ask

It took me thirty seconds to write each email about my concerns on raw material sourcing, because I’m not sending them a diatribe on why I’m concerned. All I’ll ask is “What country does it come from?” If they can’t answer, then don’t buy the product. If they can, then hit-up Google to make sure there are no reports of child labor. Ta da!