"Made in Italy"

The cost of cachet.

Posted Jul 29, 2018 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

 Anna Utochkina/Unsplash
Source: Anna Utochkina/Unsplash

Italy had always been dear to my heart as I love art, fashion, and culture. When it comes to design, aesthetics, and hand-made craftsmanship, the Italian heritage had no equal. Authenticity, quality, and prestige were part and parcel to the “made in Italy” moniker. But this legacy is being challenged as the global appetite for luxury goods increases and companies strive to meet these demands by any means necessary.

Gone are the days where Italian handbags, shoes, belts and other specialty items were produced by local, Italian artisans. Instead, the reality of a label stating “made in Italy” has numerous implications. On the most egregious end, it may be a product made in another country. 

When I visited Florence, I noticed many of the open-air markets selling “Italian leather” were run by Bangladesh immigrants to Italy. While the leather goods all had a “made in Italy” tag, I was told by Italian shop owners that these were not made in Italy. Further research, revealed these goods may not even be real leather. But even if it was real cowhide, the leather most likely originated from a leather tannery in Bangladesh. Not only do Bangladeshi suffer poor working conditions through exposure to hazardous and noxious chemicals, but the exploitation of child labor is also rampant in their country’s leather industry. This should give all of us pause when thinking about our purchases and the cost that comes with cachet.

But I also learned that “made in Italy” could still equate with abhorrent working conditions in Italy by hiring from a Chinese labor pool. Some immigrated legally, some smuggled illegally, while others are trafficked (i.e., they had no choice in the matter) subjected to work in the garment industry or prostitution. Part of the reason clothing manufacturers including Gucci, Prada, and other luxury brands can use a “made in Italy” label through Chinese labor is due to the country of origin laws.

Because the country of origin for labeling purposes, according to the European Union’s rules of origin, is where the final production process is carried out and does not take the national origin of the craftsmen, these big brands are in the clear legally. (Fashion Law)

Initially, Italian-owned textile and manufacturing mills discovered the riches of having a workforce that labored long hours (sometimes between 24-36 hours non-stop), couldn’t understand the culture (i.e., unaware of how to file complaints), and was willing to work for low wages (mostly under-the-table). Eventually, Chinese business owners invested in Italy and became proprietors running their own mills, landing lucrative subcontracting work from major Italian brands, and employing thousands upon thousands of Chinese through a complicated network of human trafficking, purportedly tied to the Chinese Mafia.

In 2014, an Italian artisan spoke to the investigative television journalist Sabrina Giannini. Gucci had given him a big contract, he said, but the pay was so low—24 euros a bag—that he had subcontracted the work to a Chinese mill, where employees worked 14-hour days and were paid half what he made. When the bags made it to stores, they were priced at between $800 and $2,000. An inspector for Gucci told Giannini that he saw no reason to ask employees about their working conditions. (The New Yorker)

In Prato, one of the commercial manufacturing hubs of Tuscany, more than 50,000 Chinese are estimated to be working in the textile industry. The city itself is believed to have more than 4,000 Chinese-run clothing factories. While some are legal residents of Italy, many enter illegally through human traffickers who work like slaves in the garment industry. 

In March (2013) the city of Prato opened a wide investigation to better understand working conditions in the factories after a young Chinese worker, believed to be around 16 years old, turned up at an emergency room malnourished and severely injured after a factory machine malfunctioned. He told authorities that he worked seven days a week for around €1 an hour, and his shift generally began at 7 a.m. and ended at midnight. He slept in the factory, and a portion of his wages paid for room and board. (The Daily Beast)

So in places like Prato, Milan, and Naples you not only witness deplorable and unconscionable working conditions but you also see the beneficiaries of this economic change.   

“You take someone from Prato with two unemployed kids and when a Chinese person drives by in a Porsche Cayenne or a Mercedes bought with money earned from illegally exploiting immigrant workers, and this climate is risky,” said Domenico Savi, Prato’s chief of police until June. (NY Times)

“Exploitation” is the key term here. This is not a blanket indictment against Chinese business owners or Chinese workers. It’s not an indictment against globalization and the competitive marketplace which drives companies to find cheaper sources of labor. But what we are against is the exploitation of humans. When health and safety in the workplace are disregarded, when wages are sub-standard, when human life is not given a sense of dignity, we should all be appalled when we are aware of these conditions. Better yet, we should be more than appalled; we should take a stand in our convictions to not make purchases that go against our conscience.