A Guide to Reading Clothing Labels

I’ve got a severe nut and shellfish allergy. I’ve had a lot of big scares over time, usually after eating something with “may contain trace amounts of ___” on the label, which ended up having a hunk of walnuts, peanuts, pine nuts, or any other kind of nut allergen. I go into anaphylactic shock and I can no longer breathe. It’s terrifying to know that something so small, so common, so subtly mentioned on a label, can have such an adverse effect.

What if this is also true for the ingredients in our clothing, like cotton, polyester, wool and other textiles? We might not have an anaphylactic allergy to eating cotton, but these materials can have equally terrifying downstream effects. What would it be like if we read clothing labels and online descriptions as we read our food labels? 

Our clothing market has quickly transitioned to a fast-fashion market where we “buy two suits, get the third one free.” All we see on labels is “Made in ____” and “$_.” For most of us, the more important factor is the dollar amount. It’s hard to argue that a three-pack of t-shirts for $10 isn’t a ”good deal”—but we have to assess who it’s a good deal for. It’s time we start reading labels differently.

When it comes to food, I’ve learned that different labels correspond to subtle differences in food processing. “Made on shared equipment” means something different than “processed in a shared facility.” It’s the same with “May contain ____” vs. “May contain trace amounts of…” The distinctions in clothing labels also carry important implications.

If you were to go into the fast-fashion retailer Muji and grab a pack of white t-shirts, you’d find that they are super soft, vibrant white, and a pretty good deal at about $9.99. But what’s inside of them? “Size M, Made of 80% cotton, 20% polyester, Made in Vietnam,” the back tab reads.

I wanted to uncover the full “ingredient” list — what’s going on behind the scenes. What are the processes, products and treatment of the people involved in making the t-shirt? Just five minutes of Google research — I searched for “Made in Vietnam products,” “Does cotton grow in Vietnam,” and “Vietnamese textile factory wages” — reveals some interesting facts. Here are the results: 

  • “Made in Vietnam products.” There are a lot of fake or mislabeled products branded as “Made in Vietnam.” This could be related to negative stereotypes associated with Chinese products. If a garment is constructed or finished at least 30 percent of the way in Vietnam, it can be labeled as “Made in Vietnam” and exported to the U.S. 
  • “Does cotton grow in Vietnam?” Vietnam has a strong agricultural ability to grow and process cotton. From 2017-18, Vietnam saw a 15 percent growth rate in its year-over-year cotton production capabilities. While the U.S. still has just over the majority of global market share— slightly less than its share the year before — Vietnam is expected to gain more global market share.
  • “Vietnamese textile factory wages.” Textile exports account for 16 percent of Vietnam’s GDP and production economy. As a result, the industry involves about 1.5 million workers to hit its producing power. A worker would need nearly a 25 percent raise to meet the lowest consensus living wage estimate. An ILO study estimates that the average garment worker in Vietnam earns $248USD per month, just half of the country’s average wage. 

This information helps us to understand the bigger picture. Most stores that sell t-shirts at bargain prices do so in order to sell them in higher quantities, focusing on volume over margins. This strategy often works for retailers and they end up making a lot of money. But where does that money actually go? 

Considering that wage workers in Vietnam are among the lowest paid in the world, it’s certainly not going to them. The supplier can continue to cut costs in their factories while paying workers just enough to keep them dependent on the manufacturing job for income. It’s also not likely to go to cotton farmers. Meanwhile, Amancio Ortega, the multibillionaire behind fast fashion giant Inditex (which owns Zara among other brands) is the world’s second-richest man. 

My first two searches revealed the brand’s lack of transparency with the consumer. This transparency gap causes us to not only be ignorant about where our clothing comes from, but also perpetuates a cycle of fast fashion. 

Carefully reading a food label has helped to prevent me from having to use my Epi-pen and take an ambulance trip to the hospital. I’m realizing that if I were to apply my label reading practice to other consumer goods, starting with the clothes I buy, it makes a difference. In the past four years or so, I’ve shifted almost entirely away from shopping major brands like H&M, Zara, and Muji. I do my due diligence and read before I buy. 

Clothing, for me, has always been a form of expression. I used to choose a color or cut to match the occasion, my mood, or my fiancée’s outfit. Now my consumer behavior has shifted to express a more ethical way of purchasing, centered around sustainable textiles and production practices. However, it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible for me to strictly purchase garments from high-end brands with back tab labels reading “100% handmade in Italy,” although I can be assured of their full transparency and ethical production. I focus on finding brands that pay fair wages to anyone who touches the garment. 

I also want to reduce my carbon footprint when I purchase my clothing. I want to buy clothes made from excess fabric or produced using partially or fully recycled/repurposed material(s). Labels like this tell me that the garments were not only made ethically, providing fair wages to workers, but with sustainable efforts to cut down on production byproducts.

Right now, one of my favorite brands is Joyce INTL out of LA. They use excess or surplus fabrics to produce garments one at a time or “made to order.” Sure, the price point is higher than most and a pair of pants will set you back about $200. It’s not for everyone, and there are alternatives. Take Everlane, for instance: a pair of jeans runs at about $70. Made with recycled denim, the jeans are produced in brand-owned factories overseas that pay workers in places like Vietnam a fair wage at the national average.

Yes, there’s a catch to this approach: it’s going to take more than a few minutes to buy a t-shirt. And you might pay more for less clothing. But we’re seeing positive signs: in the past year, consumer demand has helped to shift the clothing world towards more transparency. In 2020, I expect we will see more everyday brands ramping up their ethical clothing lines and ethically-driven brands gaining more market share. A 2019 report predicts that secondhand shopping will overtake fast fashion within the decade.

No, you are not very likely to have an allergic reaction to your mass-produced t-shirt (although such allergies do, in fact, exist). But there are still drastic, even global, consequences for ignoring labels. By taking a few minutes to read labels and run a Google search or two, we can make more informed purchases and move beyond fast fashion. 


Jeff Headshot.jpg

Jeff Camp is a business advisory analyst at Slalom Consulting, based out of their Chicago office. He spent his final semester at Wheaton College living and working in Chicago’s South Side, which shaped his passion for reconciliation and conversations on race and social justice. Jeff works to have a minimal wardrobe by purchasing simpler clothing items with 1 in 1 out mentality (only purchasing clothing as needed to replace an existing piece).







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