The Made In Canada Myth
When I started out in fashion, I thought, “Made in Canada means the product didn’t infringe on any human rights, it meets a higher standard of quality, ethics and supports our country’s economy and local jobs. Ideally we should buy stuff Made In Canada.”
When L/L started, I refused to manufacture anywhere other than Canada. I bought into the nationalism marketing of Made In Canada brands as many proud Canadian’s do. It’s a great story, with a catchy line and one we’ve certainly capitalized on as well.
But is it really the best for people and planet?
Is what you're buying really Made In Canada?
Does Made In Canada mean, 'better than imported'?
After years of experience manufacturing here and abroad, I can tell you that there's usually a long untold story behind that Made In Canada label you see... one that the brands prefer not to share with you.
Before we dive in, I want preface this article by making it clear that I am not bashing Made In Canada products. That being said, there is a lot behind that little sewn in tag that customers should understand.
Our mission here at L/L is to redefine the apparel industry, wade through the bullshit and teach you what we learn as well as bring a better product out the other side of that process. The truth behind Made In Canada is something rarely discussed. So here it is...
What does MADE IN CANADA mean?
In order to print “Made In Canada” on a garment you need to meet three qualifications. This is straight from the competition bureau. (source).
- the last substantial transformation of the good occurred in Canada;
- at least 51% of the total direct costs of producing or manufacturing the good have been incurred in Canada; and
the "Made in Canada" representation is accompanied by an appropriate qualifying statement, such as "Made in Canada with imported parts" or "Made in Canada with domestic and imported parts". This could also include more specific information such as "Made in Canad
a with 60% Canadian content and 40% imported content”.
Let’s take a look at an example of a Made in Canada product.
An item meeting this qualification could be a blank t-shirt completely constructed, imported from Bangladesh for $2.50. (If you're importing in bulk, that’s a doable price.)
In Canada the company screen prints its logos, art and size label on the t-shirt for $1.50. This accounts for the first requirement, the last substantial transformation of the garment has happened in Canada. Then it sews on two tags, the labour associated with the sewing costs the company $1.50. Now it’s met the second requirement, more than 51% of the direct cost occurred in Canada.
The new “Made In Canada” t-shirt now cost the company $5.50 and certainly is not what the customer thinks they are buying. In some cases companies will even add in development costs associated with Canadian labour of a designer etc. making this even more diluted.
The third requirement is often ignored. It was introduced in 2008 and when we first started dabbling in the rag trade in 2016 we realized the manufacturers we worked with didn’t even know this! Most of them still don’t implement this, so even as a brand when you buy a blank shirt that says Made In Canada - you may not even know if it has imported contents.
If it does say imported contents, this could mean the entire garment, it could mean just the raw fabric. Who knows.
via: the globe and mail, allegations against Canadian jacket company
In the fashion sector, fabric is almost never made in Canada. In the best of cases, companies will import the yarn and mill the fabric in Canada. This is increasingly rare though as there is only a handful of mills left here on home soil. Canadian mills advertise Canadian cotton because it's milled here... when was the last time you saw a cotton field in Canada?
Cotton is still the dominant fabric in clothing, polyester a close second. Cotton doesn’t grow here so it’s never Made In Canada. The synthetic fibre industry (polyester) in Canada is tiny, only employing less than a thousand people [source]. According to IBIS, most companies have moved overseas in recent years due to industry pressures. So it’s very safe to say nearly all the fabric you have in your closet was made elsewhere, regardless of what the label tells you.
Most of the time Made In Canada only means fabric was imported and then sewing and labelling occurred in Canada. In the worst cases, just labelling happened in Canada.
My favourite is, “Designed In Canada” which is often on neck labels while the obligatory “Made In...” phrase lives inside on a wash tag. This has absolutely nothing to do the manufacturing of the garment but it’s become a clever way to get the word Canada on a label without actually making anything here. This is up there with advertising your cotton t-shirts as vegan...
The Supply Chain Problem.
The supply chain refers to the path of goods from raw material to finished product. Ultimately, you're trusting your favourite brands to know their supply chain and ensure every segment is managed ethically.
Supply chains in fashion are deep and murky. As we just explained, even if the product says, Made in Canada, in most cases the fabric, dyeing, yarn and raw materials are coming from somewhere else.
Here’s an example of what a supply chain can look like for fabric:
Grower/Raw Yarn Producer > Fabric Mill > Wholesale Dealer > Sourcing Agent > Manufacturer > Reseller > Brand > You
The further you are down that supply chain, the harder it becomes to ensure each step was done right. You as the customer are in the toughest spot.
Many of the best producers in Canada insist on full service manufacturing or they won’t work with you. That means they source and control your fabric, patterns and materials sourcing. It’s become so tough to make money manufacturing here, many factories refuse to do just do the cut/sew production portion of the supply chain - it's just not worth it financially.
As a small brand, you start off ordering white label products (blanks) because you can't yet make 300-500 units per colour/style which is a general area you need to be in to make manufacturing here feasible - or for the manufacturers to consider working with you. In both these cases you know the manufacturer or reseller onwards in the supply chain.
If you care, you ask to see where they got all the raw materials but they are hesitant to share because they fear you cutting them out and going direct to source to cut your cost. In most cases it’s an act of self preservation, not in order to hide unethical sourcing - but there's no way to differentiate that.
We once had a Canadian production partner refuse to even provide invoices for purchases he made on our behalf because he feared us cutting him out - even with a contract and non-disclosure in place. He first redacted invoices and then refused to provide them anymore. He also knowingly mislabelled a ton of shirts to make extra money and tried to ship them out without us knowing, so poor ethics exist here too. We fired him instead of cutting him out.
Many times the manufacturers may not even know the source themselves since they are buying from a dealer. If asked, the dealer isn't excited about sharing his sources for fear of losing his role in the supply chain. Fast fashion has caused such a race to the bottom for price, everyone holds their cards incredibly close to their chest just trying to survive.
Sometimes shortening this chain and going directly to the person producing the raw materials is a much better option than getting it locally because it allows a better understanding of your supply chain. You can be sure that the product you are producing is ethical because you know who made it - start to finish.
Grower/Raw Yarn Producer > Fabric Mill > Your own factory > Your store > Customer
In some cases, manufacturing outside of your home country can actually mean you have more control over your supply chain. The goal of every brand should be fully understanding, vetting and controlling every level of their own supply chain.
Ask your favourite brands about their supply chain. If they manage all this themselves, they'll be very eager to tell you. If they're not too eager, it's likely because they have no idea where their stuff is really coming from.
L/L Supply Made In Canada Crew Neck
So where’s the best place to produce?
That all seems kind of grim, I know. I don’t want to paint every Made In Canada label with a shitty background because in many cases it’s great. There’s just more behind it than brands lead you to believe. We're included in that, our Made In Canada products didn’t come with a 2000 word back story either (until now I suppose).
No matter what the tag says, you’re ultimately putting all your trust into the ethics of the people running the brand you’re buying from.
My curiosity for overseas production was originally sparked by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. Patagonia does not produce locally, they manufacture almost exclusively overseas and they do it in an ethical and environmentally beneficial manner. They are extremely transparent about their production facilities and believe brand own factories are the answer to human rights violations. Yvon argues by eliminating outsourcing the responsibility lies with the brand, they can’t turn a blind eye or claim ignorance if they own the facility. TenTree is following their lead and recently published a comprehensive list of every manufacturer they use abroad.
There’s no right answer here. You have to approach it on a per-product or per-brand basis - different items will make more sense in different locations. Going overseas to skirt environmental regulations and save money is wrong. Going abroad for a better understanding and control your supply chain - well, that’s a different story.
The main point I’m trying to make here is that this fierce rhetoric around buying local isn't always actually "buying local" and it doesn’t always result in the greatest net gain for mankind and the planet. It’s really dependant on what we’re talking about, and there’s always more than meets the eye.
An L/L Supply tag being sewn on in our Nicaragua factory
So what can you do?
From a consumer perspective, you’re a little bit in the dark.
Do your research and buy from brands you actually trust. Buy from brands that are transparent and willing to talk about their sourcing methods.
I’m an not saying don’t buy products that say Made In Canada.
There a lot of amazing brands that manufacture here. But it’s also important for consumers to understand that “Made Elsewhere” isn’t inherently bad and “Made in Canada” isn’t always what you may think.
With this bit of understanding, ask your favourite brands about their supply chain - many will have a great story... and some won't answer you - and that itself is an answer.
Like everything, there are benefits and drawbacks to both. Understanding both, questioning the brands you buy from and making an educated decision based on that info is the best you can do.
Do your research, ask questions, and keep exploring.