Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Article With J.Crew's Jenna Lyons & Production

A big "thanks!" to Tastymoog (check out her great blog, "Common Wealth Girl") who shared with us an interesting article over at USA Today (to read the article in its entirety, click here):

A 'thimble-ready' cause: If Michelle Obama really wants to influence the world of fashion, she should tackle sweatshop conditions abroad while steering the industry back to our shores.
By Mary Zeiss Stange
April 28, 2009

It may or may not be true, as the old saying goes, that clothes make the man. But judging by the international fascination with every outfit that Michelle Obama has donned since her husband's election, they definitely make the first lady.

Michelle Obama has a great sense of style. Her support of younger American designers, and her mixture of couture with off-the-rack items that are at least in theory available to the average woman, is timely and refreshing. She and her daughters are the best thing to happen to J.Crew in years. But therein lies an issue that has received surprisingly little attention — and one that Obama might fruitfully address.

Most of J.Crew's apparel is made in China and its Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong. When questioned about this fact shortly after the inauguration, company creative director Jenna Lyons explained to the Chicago Tribune: "If we could make more things in the U.S., we would. We are a large company, and one of the problems is that there is no place to go in the U.S. We make all of our denim and belts and (swimwear) in California. But nobody in the U.S. makes shoes; no one makes sweaters. There are a few (manufacturers) in Brooklyn, but they couldn't handle our volume."

Of course, the U.S. once was a major producer of shoes, and had its fair share of knitting mills as well. All that changed in the latter half of the 20th century, with the outsourcing of production to cheaper facilities abroad. China is today the world's largest manufacturer of apparel. ...

The real slaves to fashion

Workers, most of them women, are prone to repetitive stress disorders, back injuries, headache, respiratory disease and eye strain. The product description of Obama's Hong Kong-made "crystal constellation" cardigan, which sold out within hours of her wearing it in London, speaks volumes: "Each and every cluster of sequins, glass beads and rhinestones on this shimmering sweater is hand-done, a process that can take days."

To the company's credit, J.Crew has implemented a Code of Vendor Conduct that, spokesman Walt Winfrey assured me, is "a stringent policy that incorporates International Labor Organization core labor standards and that emphasizes ethical and responsible conduct in all operations and respect for the rights of all individuals." ...
Yet they are just as surely largely unenforceable. Good intentions are not enough. Experts consistently point out that government support and regulation have been conspicuously lacking in China and Hong Kong. ...

What are your thoughts on the article? Disagree or agree with Jenna Lyons? Does the location of production (e.g. made in China or the U.S.A) factor into your purchasing decisions?

UPDATE: This post turned quite ugly towards the end so I disabled any future comments. :(


  1. It absolutely factors into my purchasing decisions, but very few clothing manufacturers make production decisions that are green, politically clean, or US-based - there's American Apparel for sweats, and a handful of boutiques, but not much else. Until women are willing to put things back on the rack, clothing manufacturers are going to continue as they are. Jenna can talk all she wants about how no one here can handle the volume - the truth is that having all the factories in China means that they can maximize profit by sourcing sweatshops, which is what nearly every company would prefer to do. The only truly clean way to buy clothes is to buy them used (and to give them nine lives after they develop holes) - which is the only truly green way to buy ANYthing.

  2. Jcrew should stop outsourcing to southeast sweatshops in southeast china. Those weatshops have been exploiting workers from inner china, where economy isn't under developed and peole are desperate to look for jobs outside. They were the ones beading hundreds beads for each "ringspun cotton beaded dog tee" and only got paid $4 a day. Jcrew still made profit even selling those tees at 9.99.

    If jcrew has to outsource to control its production cost, why doesn't jcrew outsource its production to mid-east china where economy is more developed and factories use local workers, treat them more reasonably

  3. Instyle magazine (UK version and maybe US for all I know) has a great article on green and fair trade clothing that is cute and well made...it takes a little hunting but the stuff is out there. My mother works in a fair trade store in fact....so I do know a bit about this topic.

    Obviously, with all the defects people are reporting the work conditions are not good. Tees and sweaters with holes...over worked and tired women making very little with no pride in workmanship.

    I buy very little from JCrew anymore. I like the jeans made in the US, etc. and I do check tags. Limiting to the wardrobe--a bit but where there is a heart and a will there is a way and I am trying to not buy clothing made in China...esp. when it is a want and not a need.

  4. I also shop second hand and find some high quality items and feel good about that as well...better for the earth and my wallet. I have found top designers and JCRew items in excellent condition.

  5. Michelle O will probably leave JCrew behind. I know I would if I were her and wear American designers. Why would any one buy JCrew if they were the First Lady!!! (let alone the bad pr from wearing things made in China!)

  6. J Crew going green? Are you kidding me, they produce more disposable clothing each season, tissue tees that come apart in the wash, holes in sweaters, sheer fabrics that have to be handled with kid gloves so they do not come apart in the wash, what a joke.

    I really do not care what Jenna thinks.

  7. The now defunct manufacturers in the USA weren't exactly models of fair labor either, just because they are in another country they aren't automatically "sweatshops"... "BUY USA" is usually a slogan masking protectionism and does not always mean the USA counterpart is a better option.

    Long hours, low pay, child labor, and other low labor standards seem to be endemic to textiles, regardless of the country of origin.

    The only way to change that is to give authority to an international organization to enforce intl standards, something no country is keen on doing (yes, even the US- it's a free market country).

    I agree with other posters, thrifting is about the only way to avoid supporting subpar labor standards.

  8. If JC made their clothes in the U.S. (which is pure fantasy), they would be SOOOOO EXPENSIVE!! We'd all have much smaller wardrobes! :(

  9. We all look down on and condemn "sweatshops", but the truth is that they are a way of life for a lot of people, and many families RELY on this type of work to get by. If we were to move all production to the US, or only hire skilled laborers, then not only would you see prices dramatically increase, but you would be putting thousands, if not millions, of impoverished people out of a job. It's easy for us to get on our soapbox and condemn sweatshops, but in reality, those jobs are important to the people and the economies of the countries where they are.

    In addition, don't feel too bad for all sweatshops - where do you think the near-perfect knock-offs come from (especially in the luxury bags industry)? Factories stay open for an extra hour (since there is no US company rep on hand to supervise), and they churn out plenty of bags to sell as knock-offs.

  10. The article is right about workplace injuries in the U.S and that it is cheaper to go overseas. There are many sweatshops in downtown L.A and other parts of the U.S which is unfortunate. Sweatshops will always exist somewhere in this world because many would starve without them. :o( I have no answers to that problem.

  11. It IS a real turnoff that JCrack has all their stuff made in China.

  12. I have always worn a sweater and Jacket daily without any quality issues. I guess I don't wash or wear my JCrew clothing enough. I have yet to experience a hole or fallen button on their items.

  13. Anony@8:16
    And I don't see that as a bad thing.

    I am sure many people on this blog have way more clothes than they actuallyl need or wear...many talk about closets full of unworn clothes and are still buying more....

  14. Ok - So I am guessing by the comments of people who want only fair trade and more textiles produced in the US, that these are NOT the same people continually complaining about J. Crew's prices. Like Soon to be PhD said, the US was not always a model of propriety for manufacturing either, hence the beginning of labor unions. If you really want more things to be manufactured in the US, than there are two changes we, as a country, must prepare ourselves for. Muc higher prices and the return of a lower middle class/blue collar workforce. Since no one seems keen on either one of these variables, I am guessing production will stay in other countries for good.

  15. I'm really interested in hearing all the responses to this topic!

    It's a tough call; at this point it would be unrealistic for JCrew to pull out of developing countries entirely. I agree with those who say foreign workers would starve if they did not have jobs at those factories. However, it would be wise to expand domestic manufacturing. Can you imagine all the positive press JCrew would get from opening just *one* American production facility? I think Americans would pay more if they knew the product was providing fellow Americans with jobs, positively stimulating the towns in which those factories are located, and that those workers were protected under our more stringent labor laws.

    It's also a matter of conscience, but not just about taking some human rights moral high ground. Lots of people mindlessly consume with little care or idea where/how the product originated. It's not just clothing, but food, construction (esp. housing), transportation, etc. This is changing. Look how popular organic food and the local food movement has become. People are willing to pay a premium for those products, and seek out farmer's markets and other local food producers. Slowly, as it is becoming more realistic to grow your own food and buy local/organic, some people are also learning to sew again, or buy from retailers who are not as exploitative (to people and environment).

    Let's be real-- not everyone in the US goes to college (even then that ensures very little these days), we don't all become scientists or teachers or CEOs. There are people who learn trades, there are people who earn a living doing semi-skilled or even unskilled labor, and working at a factory used to be a perfectly respectable way to earn a living. It still can be.

    (sorry that was long! I might be repeating myself, since I recently wrote about this)

  16. Doesn't matter if JCrew makes it in China or in the US, the quality is still sub-par. My patent leopard belt is so cheaply made and quality control is non-existent. The plastic foam padding inside the belt wasn't completely cut/removed from the buckle-prong-thing area. I saw it and sighed, thinking of the hassle involved with returning it, and kept it. JCrew is at about six strikes for me at this point. I'm looking around for another retailer to get my $$$. And all ths snottiness/policy changes of late? How much of this has to do with their knowing they have Michelle O. wearing their stuff?

  17. I found the article interesting, since I have noticed Made in USA labels in my J. Crew jeans and swimsuits and wondered if it was actually US made or Northern Marianas. I'm all for re-use and thrifting, but all of you who are talking about it as the only green strategy are posting on a new clothes blog. So that should tell you how realistic it is. Everyone I know who does it as a major part of their wardrobe spends a lot of time in the shops or altering things.

    Garment workers in the US made living wages for a small part of their history -- the part where they formed their own unions. When we help make it possible for more workers to do that, they'll raise their own standards. Meanwhile, watch out for the sweatshops right under your noses.

    If anyone wants to see a GREAT documentary, get hold of "Made in LA" and learn some of the human stories behind the Forever21 label.

  18. Have you all noticed that J Crew prominently advertises the "made in Italy" aspect in their catalogs. "Made in Italy of the finest blah, blah, blah." Everything else is merely "imported" (ie from China, the Phillipines, etc). Who do you think makes the clothes in Italy? Yes, immigrant workers. Italians can exploit cheap labor just as easily as the Chinese can, or even the Americans for that matter. Don't be fooled by J Crew's subtly racist advertisements. When was the last time you saw a "handcrafted in China" advertisement in their catalog? None I suspect. Yet how many "made by Borgee Guarveri", "made from an exclusive Italian cashmere mill", "refined Italian jersey made exclusively for us by Lomellina", etc, etc. My favorite J Crew cashmere sweater (the pre non-pilling variety) was made in (gasp!) CHINA. J Crew's marketing department employs the best/slimiest to get consumers to believe the are buying luxury and therefore justifying the higher price tag.

  19. So many great comments to respond to here! What a great thread.

    First of all, I don't think it's unrealistic to put one's shopping focus on thrifting. I did it about six months ago, and in that six months I have bought every single thing I've needed - including a bridesmaid's dress - at the thrift store. Let's not forget buying used things on eBay - it could do so much for the growth of a partnership culture that values sustainability over replaceability.

    Second of all, sweatshop communities might depend on these factories for work, but I don't think it's reasonable to use that reasoning to feed an argument about why the system shouldn't be changed. Manufacturing jobs should go where the skills are. If you're not willing to pay your workers enough to motivate them to hold to your standards - which is what I suspect is the main problem at J Crew these days - the system will digest you accordingly. Let's not forget that sweatshops don't have to be sweatshops. You can pay your workers a more decent wage under more decent conditions, and still turn a profit - it's just that the garment industry has learned over the years that it can take advantage of the system and take all the profits for the people behind the desks. Again - a crisis condition remedied by partnership culture thinking.

    It's nice to know that there are so many thinkers on this blog, even in the morning!

  20. I was never into thrift store shopping but my sister is big time. She used to go often but doesn't anymore but she got to know the local owners and there were 50% off Fridays once a month. Since moving to the UK and passing 4 thrift stores--each 4 times a day on my "rounds". I have stopped in and found amazing deals on department store designer labels for just a few dollars. Just today I found a House of Fraser designer label Linea cream cotton sweater that is gorgeous for 3.50 pounds.

    My sister finds great designer and new with tags clothes in Chicago thrift stores as well.

    For all the people out there on shopping bans that want to shop still why not try a thrift store for a change of pace. It is a nice way to mix "finds" with new JCrew pieces.

  21. To add to all the wonderful comments here, I'm stating my preference for handmade jewelry and accessories from Etsy and other independent places. One of a kind items that support creative people in their many endeavors that are reasonably priced! I love finding things that don't feel mass produced. And even when buying other new items, it's best to search out locally owned stores. It's better for the community to support its own members. A good option for compassionate buying from a chain is a chain of stores called Ten Thousand Villages. They sell art, toys, jewelry, some clothing,and home decor. Their "vision" is : One day all artisans in the developing countries will earn a fair wage, be treated with dignity and respect and be able to live a life of quality. (quoted from their website.) They have stores all around the country and Canada. There is a whole host of responsible shopping options out there, and sooner or later these larger companies will be forced to change their business models.

  22. There's a good fair-trade catalog out there called Fair Indigo that offers (among other things) fair-trade cashmere and denim jeans. The Viva Terra catalog occasionally has something interesting that's a 'clean buy' too, though that's more accessories than clothes. I second all those who are pointing to the thrift stores. This winter alone I've scored the following:

    -Golden Bear leather jacket
    -Ann Taylor suit jacket and pants (NWT)
    -several cashmere and silk/cashmere sweaters that look like they've been worn maybe once
    -ten excellent pairs of jeans
    -five pairs of Naots/Dansko shoes, all EUC
    -a vintage cashmere full-length winter opera coat
    -a handful of blouses in excellent condition from BR, Anthro, & Eileen Fisher

    All for under $5 apiece; often for prices closer to $1 each. Having found these kinds of treasures, I just cant' justify buying new clothes anymore.

    I have a friend who found her dream wedding dress at a thrift store in California for $25. All she had to do was take it to a seamstress and have a few beads replaced.

    Plus, if there's one hting to recommend thrift shopping, it's the fact that you don't have to go anywhere near a mall, and leave feeling bad about yourself!

  23. I am really enjoying reading this post. More than any other post here in a very long time. This is such wonderful information and everyone is doing a great job sharing.

  24. Well, 2:31 posted at the same time as my compliement...."we" almost made it.....

    I agree too with the statement that you can leave a thrift store feeling good about yourself (and the environment) and staying away from the malls.

  25. We can't forget all the resale stores! I was an avid, OK rabid thrift store stalker awhile back. Once my daughter learned to run, I had to cut down going to places that don't have wide aisles- which also cuts out many department stores too. Luckily in Ann Arbor there are two GREAT baby/ kids resale stores, Children's Orchard and Once Upon A Child. They carry everything from slings to art supplies, and always have extra coupons that go out in local mailers. There is a female based chain resale store called Plato's Closet that is affiliated with CO. Although the prices can be slightly higher than PTO thrift stores or Goodwill, you have the advantage of items already being "edited" to a degree. Since they pay you for your old things, they are only going to take reasonably stylish items in good condition. Less hunting is involved this way! As far as donation vs. reselling, I guess I get a warm fuzzy and a small tax write off from donating, but getting cash in this economy is pretty good. And let's not forget to give Alexis her props for posting the exchange every week! Ok, let's give each other a pat on the back while we're at it for selling to or trading with each other rather than buying new! Yea, JCA!

  26. hey, anon 2:31

    enough with the personal attacks, mmkay.

    PS tights are not that expensive... usually about $10 each, sometimes less. I bought another Hue pair this weekend on sale for $4.80. Oh and they are made in the USA. JCrew tights are made in italy, and they're pretty good, too. :P

  27. hey tastymoog/heather: Get off your soapboax is not a personal attack, maybe you are a tad bit sensitive?

  28. 3:13,
    I don't give a crap about the soapbox comment. The tights thing I took as personal, because, uhhhmm, it was.

  29. You mean the same way you personally attacked people who buy clothes manufactured overseas by accusing them of mindless consuming?

    The phrase "personal attack" is such a crutch on this blog, whenever someone doesn't like what someone else says.

  30. anon @ 2:35pm,

    I agree! Hopefully, more people will weigh in with their insights. I'll do my part and not respond to any more anon snarkiness. :)

  31. 5 yr olds are the best!May 5, 2009 at 4:01 PM

    I think the 5 year olds did a fabulous job of sewing on those sequins on my sweater...

  32. For the comment about Chinese cashmere, please remember that some of the highest rated cashmere in the world comes from Mongolian and Chinese goats. Some of the world's best cotton also comes from rural provinces in China. While J.Crew may not be the epitome of employing American union labor, try not to assume that all things that come from China automatically equate poor quality.

  33. Getting back on track, Jenna Lyons should stick to her picks and not allow herself to be drawn into controversy. The writer of the article has an agenda and used Jenna's comments to forward it.

  34. Have we got Jenna fatigue yet?

  35. Oh yes, we are sick and tired of Jenna, her picks, celebrity pandering and now labor commentary.

  36. Tastymoog rocks.

    I find it telling that she & soontobephd were THE ONLY ONES to post under a username. So kudos for that.

    I appreciate the thrift store comments. I haven't been in any for some time. Good reminder.