When you’re selecting your next piece of clothing, you may well pay attention to the label. But there’s another label that may also feel relevant: not the brand, but the one that tells you where the garment was made. Making a show of the country of origin has become something of a marketing trend over the last decade: the UK has seen its Best of British show, the US its MadeInUSA programme. There’s even been a multimillion dollar ad campaign to encourage Nigerians to buy Nigerian. And why not? From the perspective of the state, for consumers to buy goods made at home is a boon to the national economy.
Research suggests that over a third of UK consumers now equate quality with a British-made product, even putting country of origin on a par with brand – offering the kind of emotional connection, or expression of identity, that brands, in their sheer reach and ubiquity, may be failing to provide.
Truth be told, Brits may well be inclined to buy British primarily when that association with quality still rings true. And it’s certainly there when it comes to some matters sartorial: thanks to a long history of manufacturing – and in some instances invention of the processes involved – rainwear, formal shoes, bespoke tailoring, luggage and leather-goods are among those products for which ‘Made in the UK’ continues to be a stamp of quality. But not exclusively.
Though marketing types may talk of the ‘patriotic purchase’ – in which we deliberately choose a homegrown product over a comparable one made abroad – certainly we’re likely to find ‘Made in Italy’ just as convincing when it comes to clothing, especially suiting and higher fashion products. When it comes to more rugged, outdoorsy clothing, ‘Made in the USA’ rings true. Likewise ‘Made in Japan’ for denim or workwear. It’s a helpful shorthand.
Such countries all carry a certain reassurance, and a certain cachet. It’s a stereotype perhaps – one which relies on history, and one which might not always remain valid today – but we do this with lots of products: ‘Made in Germany’ speaks to quality engineering, ‘Made in France’ to quality foodstuffs, and so on.
It also depends on what it’s applied to: ‘Made in Switzerland’ works for watches, less so for sushi. And it’s not always reliable – loose laws mean a product can be mostly made in one country, but finished in another, and thus claim to have been made there. The stereotyping works in reverse too: for decades ‘Made in Hong Kong’, or ‘Made in China’ was to suggest the cheap and cheerful. According to one study, even the Chinese aren’t sure about Chinese-made goods.
But are those stereotypes holding true? In a globalised world, products are now made all over the globe, sometimes chasing the cheapest labour, but increasingly training that labour up so that its manufacturing expertise is often as finessed as most other places in the world. Major brands now make in China without any perceived impact on quality – indeed, the loss of manufacturing to China is a political hot potato in many western nations.
Look at the labelling in your menswear and it’s increasingly likely that it’s made in Portugal or Turkey – countries with some history of textiles manufacture that have managed to parlay that into making too, finding that sweet spot between quality and price that helps make the brands that make there successful.
Arguably this is slowly wearing down the long trusted connection between country of origin and certain standards, such that future generations may no longer assume that, say, a pair of Goodyear-welted shoes made in Northampton is necessarily any better than a pair made in, say, Austria or the Czech Republic, both countries with much less heritage when it comes to shoemaking.
It’s a slow process, though. Such is the German consumer’s specificity regarding buying home-grown goods that, more than 30 years after reunification, only six East German brands have gained recognition response rates above 50% in the West. Similarly, a third of consumers in the East now rate their local brands as just as attractive as those from the West.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t also an economic dimension to the country of origin label. If there’s value in certain countries’ manufacturing of certain kinds of goods, then there’s profit in it too, and you likely pay a little more for it. There’s certainly an ethical dimension too – if we’re getting used to green agenda ideas the likes of ‘food miles’ (or, equally, ‘clothes miles’), maybe you want to deliberately eschew certain countries because of their human rights record. ‘Made in China’ no longer has the negative reputation it once had – just look at the amount of premium technology that is now made there – but clearly the big picture is much more complicated.
Sadly, most people couldn’t care less about such things, if they get what they want at the price they want to pay. Just look at the booming fast-fashion brands and ponder the prices being charged, then consider how worked into that must be design, materials, machinery, labour, transport and so on – it’s clear that the people on the factory floor are being paid a pittance. At least relative to their western counterparts. But that’s another debate entirely.
Certainly those countries that believe they make great products are hanging on to those ‘made in…’ labels. Attempts by the EU to replace country-specific labels with one generic ‘made in Europe’ label have been vociferously opposed by manufacturers in the likes of France, UK, Germany and Italy. And they do this most enthusiastically with regards to craft goods. Why? Because when something is machine-made, we often don’t care where it’s made. The product has to speak for itself. But when we splash out for something that is handmade – like those shoes, that bespoke suit, that wallet – we’re also indulging in a touch of romance. We like the idea of it having been made by specific people and, just as importantly, in a specific place.
Provenance, it seems, isn’t just for art.