Do You Still Get What You Pay For?
In today’s fashion industry, a polo shirt for sale at Target and one available at Bloomingdale’s might have been made on sewing machines in the same factory in Bangladesh. I reference both of these companies because they both have almost universal name recognition in the U.S. Target is a mass retailer know for great prices, and Bloomingdale’s describes itself as a ‘luxury department store chain’. If clothes at Bloomindale’s cost more but were made in the same factory as Target’s apparel, can we safely assume that Bloomingdale’s sells a better quality garment?
In fashion, it’s safe to say that the phrase ‘you get what you paid for’ no longer rings true. Even though it may still serve as a common phrase used to justify expensive purchases. But that exact phrase is uttered to explain away inferior goods and disappointing purchases too. So which is it? Does price still indicate what level of quality we should expect from a purchase?Researchers have shown that consumers’ beliefs and expectations influence their judgment of products. For example, consumers judge cheaper products as lower quality. But the reality may be, especially with clothing, that price is no longer the most accurate indicator of quality.
Quality is built into the price, right?
Most of us are probably still operating under the assumption that higher-priced garments are made from superior quality materials, justifying the higher price. This assumption would make it safe to say that a $100 t-shirt is made of the higher quality material than a $50 t-shirt. But there’s not much to substantiate that way of thinking anymore.
Pricier t-shirts aren’t necessarily made from better quality or more expensive materials. A quick look at some popular apparel websites (not naming names this time) quickly demonstrates that t-shirts made from synthetic materials and synthetic blends are being sold at the same prices as organic cotton tees. There’s still a large percentage of consumers that can’t afford a $100 shirt or rightly refuse to pay insanely high prices for essential clothing items. The truth is, a consumer spending less on a basic garment like a t-shirt may be getting a better quality garment at a lower price.
In 1997 (that’s 24 years ago), Consumer Reports conducted testing on knit polo shirts from several different brands and gave the highest quality rating to a $7 shirt from Target’s in-store brand, Honors. The other shirts reviewed were from Polo Ralph Lauren ($49), Tommy Hilfiger ($44), Nautica ($42), and Gap ($24). Fashion Journalist Terri Agins details the Consumer Reports findings in her book The End of Fashion. Agins notes that fashion’s shifting of manufacturing from the U.S. to lower-cost factories in the Far East ultimately allowed Target to provide better quality garments at a more attractive price point. The Christian Science Monitor also wrote about Consumer Report’s findings in an article in 2000. Noting the $7 Target shirt outperformed the $49 Ralph Lauren shirt, which faded after several washings. The Monitor also included comments from industry experts acknowledging that garment quality varies widely even within a single brand depending on factory locations. In fashion, brands commonly produce the same style of garment in different factories and countries. As a consumer, you may be able to spot this in your wardrobe. If you own multiple t-shirts, pairs of underwear, or even jeans from the same brand, the country of origin listed on the garments’ label may differ.
Of course, discount brands like Walmart (ASDA in the UK), H&M, Primark, and even Old Navy/Gap are always searching for countries with the cheapest labor and production costs to keep prices low. These brands manufacture a lot of the clothing they sell in Bangladesh. But here’s the kicker, in July 2013, The Wallstreet Journal published a story detailing how higher priced brands, including Armani, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, Michael Kors, G-Star Raw, and others, produce a portion of their garments in Bangladesh too. Some of the same factories make garments for both discount retailers and designer brands. One Bangladesh factory owner interviewed said that his clients are constantly pushing to lower costs and his profit margin is almost identical regardless of the customer. In short, the factory owner isn’t making more money for producing a Michael Kors garment than he is an H&M garment. And yet, Michael Kors is selling their clothing for much higher prices than H&M.
In 2013, the same year that WSJ article was published, one of the worst industrial accidents on record happened at a garment factory in Bangladesh. At least 1,132 people lost their lives, and 2,500 were injured. Unsafe working conditions, meager wages, and a push for rapid production timelines aren’t new to fashion, and they haven’t gone unreported. Before the Rana Plaza factory disaster (2013) in Bangladesh, there was the Tazreen factory fire (also in Bangladesh, 2012) and the Karachi textile factory fire in Pakistan in 2012. A century before all of these disasters was the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City. That’s more than a century of documented fashion-related labor disasters, all with a link to unsafe working conditions and fashion’s decades long push for faster production times and lower production costs.
Did your garment pass the test?
Fashion, like most industries, won’t keep itself honest and accountable without outside oversight. It needs third parties to set independent standards, monitor practices, and call-out potential wrong-doing. Fabric and apparel testing is an essential practice in the fashion industry. It not only ensures garment quality but also serves as consumer protection. Entities like the American Society for Testing Materials, a global organization, work on setting product standards that assure product consistency and, most importantly, protect consumers. One key example being flammability testing and regulations for children’s sleepwear; specific measures were put in place to hold retailers accountable if they sold clothing unsafe for children.
While testing at its most base function ensures things like colorfastness, a garment’s ability not to fade or bleed onto other clothes when washed, it also certifies things like fiber content and the absence of harmful chemicals. These factors end up being very important if you’re someone that’s allergic to individual fibers or if toxic chemicals like formaldehyde are present in a factory. Textile and clothing tests verify that the manufacturer is telling the truth and flag issues to alert the retailer.
Every retailer has a standard Garment Package Test (GTP) and standard Fabric Package Test (FPT). The garment and fabric test sequence is determined by federal and international guidelines and the retailer’s internal requirements. A retailer shares their garment and fabric test standards with both the fabric and garment manufacturers they work with. All testing is typically conducted by a certified third-party laboratory, ensuring that manufacturers and retailers can’t manipulate test results. Not all retailers have the same test packages for their garments and fabrics, and some retailers have higher test standards than others. During my time working in the fashion industry, Target and Walmart were known to have some of the industry’s highest testing standards. They required a slew of FPT and GPT tests and had very narrow margins of error for passing/failing garments and fabrics. If a textile or garment fails, a retailer will often allow a manufacturer to make changes to the material or apparel and submit it for a retest. But the retailer has the right to refuse both fabrics and clothing that has failed their fabric and garment tests.
If we return to the Target and Ralph Lauren polo shirt comparison, the Ralph Lauren polo faded after washing and the Target shirt didn’t. It’s entirely possible that Target and Ralph Lauren’s testing protocols played a role in Target winning Consumer Reports best in quality for polo shirts. In this scenario, Target and Ralph Lauren may conduct similar but different tests for garment and fabric colorfastness. Another possibility, Target required a better testing result than Ralph Lauren for a garment to meet the standard and be approved for sale. There is a difference in meeting and exceeding a standard. Another plausible reason is that Target was producing a larger volume of polo shirts than Ralph Lauren and secured a better price per yard on higher quality fabric.
There are close to a dozen standards related to colorfastness in garments and fabric. The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) provides detailed standards that must be followed to conduct these tests correctly. A standard test is the accelerated Colorfastness to Laundering test method. This test is performed on textiles that are expected to be laundered frequently. It tests colorfastness (color loss) and tracks textile surface changes from exposure to laundry detergent and different laundering types either by machine or by hand. Other standard tests include colorfastness for dry cleaning, home laundering, and crocking. Crocking is the transfer of color from apparel or textiles onto another surface like furniture upholstery or another garment. You’ve probably experienced this at some point, especially with dark wash jeans. Many dark wash garments come with a special tag alerting the customer to potential color transfer and recommending that you wash your new clothing separately or avoid contact with light-colored fabrics and upholstery.
Ultimately testing serves as a way for retailers to protect themselves from recalls, liability, and lawsuits. Due to the volume of clothing and products both Target and Walmart sell, it’s in their best interests to overtest garments. Testing at discount retailers ultimately protects the consumer from harm and provides them with the bonus of a better quality product at a lower price point. To do business with Target and Walmart, brands absorb the cost of increasing the number of tests they run on fabric and garments. The increased testing costs are far outweighed by the large volume orders brands secure from these multinational retailers.
In the US, we also have regulated garment labeling standards. Both imported and domestically made clothing must contain labels that state the country of origin, fiber content, and washing instructions. There are penalties for retailers selling clothes that don’t meet labeling standards, and clothing shipments can be held by US customs if not appropriately labeled. Labeling errors do happen, and most companies have channels for handling these situations.
In my experience, customs brokers are an invaluable resource to fashion brands. A broker has expertise in customs law, tariffs, and rules and regulations for import and export quotas. They serve as the intermediary between a company and a country’s customs entity and typically have offices at major ports. Even the most reputable manufacturers encounter customs issues. I worked for a Hong Kong-based cashmere company that manufactured bridge level cashmere sweaters and knitwear for many well-known companies (including Bloomingdale’s and Ralph Lauren). One season we had sweaters land in the US from HK with incorrect labeling. Our textile test records provided the documentation we needed to prove our sweaters were 100% cashmere. Without the testing records, our shipment would have been seized and held. Our customs broker facilitated a suitable resolution at the port, and the sweaters were sent to a local sewing room. We had new labels made, and the sewing vendor swapped out the new labels for the incorrect ones. The corrected labels made our garments suitable for sale in the US.
Thanks to Consumer Reports and The Wall Street Journal it’s clear that garment quality is no longer determeind by price. That being said, I’m not advocating for discount purchases only. That’s not the permanent solution to fashion’s pricing and quality issues. As consumers, any clothing purchase we make from large and or publicly traded companies (across all price points)will almost certainly be linked to some questionable fashion industry practice, either related to labor or the environment. That is the reality of the time in which we live.
The majority of fashion companies producing clothes do not own their factories. This fact, paired with the sheer number of garments produced annually, doesn’t allow them to maintain complete control of their supply chains. Additionally, the speed and price they require clothing to be made are often at the expense of fair pay and reasonable work hours. Companies are responsible for these poor practices, but as consumers, we need to be informed and understand that we have the right to question the companies we buy from.
The brands we know and love may or may not deliver a quality product for the price we pay. As consumers, we must understand this. You can still have an affinity for Ralph Lauren and buy their clothes. And I’m not suggesting that you have to give up Target purchases to be a good consumer. I am proposing that each of us think more extensively about the clothes we are buying and wearing. Our clothing is linked to an entire supply chain made up of raw materials from our planet and actual human factory employees across the globe. As end-users, when we purchase clothing, we’re immediately connected to the supply chain.