How Sustainable is ‘Made in Italy’ Fashion?

made in italy

The “Made in Italy” tag has been synonymous with immaculate quality and traditional techniques for decades – but this globally recognized phrase has a rather different story behind it in the 21st century.

The influx of immigrants into Italy, the lack of supervision and factory audits, and a stagnant economy have allowed for situations where in fact your “Made in Italy” fashion items could very well be pieced together by underpaid, malnourished and illegal Chinese and workers.

Foreign immigrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe have been making their way to Italy since the 1970s, but the largest increases in immigrant populations have occurred in the late 2000s. The number of Chinese immigrants has grown more than those from any other country in the last 4 years, and they have mostly settled into the Tuscan town of Prato, which is now home to the largest Chinese population in Europe, and is a town that based its economy on the textile and fashion industries.

Since the 1990s the Chinese have been creating an increasingly growing community in Prato, even establishing a China Town complete with Chinese groceries, Chinese street signs and under-the-radar fast fashion factories. This ancient town in the heart of Tuscany has always been the center for high quality textile production, but the family owned artisan businesses and skilled workers have disappeared due to the influx of of high street and fast fashion retailers. These traditional businesses have been replaced by hard-working Chinese who work for or own more than 5,000 businesses in Prato that manufacture cheap, low-end fashion apparel and accessories. These products are usually made out of materials imported from China, to be sold at low to mid-prices through retailers around the globe.

This has caused major tension between the Italian and Chinese, as most of the money made by the Chinese through their low-cost ventures is sent back to their homeland – some estimates put the amount at up to $1.5 million a day. However, some have taken advantage of these willing and hard working Asians, renting out rooms and manufacturing space to them and employing them for wages well below an accepted livable rate. Many workers actually live in the factories, storing their belongings amid rolls of fabric, and subsisting on the 70 cents per shirt they make during their 14 hour days. Although their wages are often higher than if they were working in China, the situation is not much better. Many of theses factories are not up to safety codes, and somehow receive manufacturing permits although the Italian owners and Chinese managers are well aware of lack of meeting standards.

Lack of auditing has also allowed a phenomenon where these Chinese workshops often last two years, then closing and reopening under a different name to evade checks by tax authorities. Illegal immigrants that are found by the police are ordered to leave the country within five days, but no one actually monitors this either.

On December 1st, 2013, the risks that many of the Chinese and Italians in Prato have taken culminated in a horrible factory fire where 7 Chinese workers died in the flames. The windows of the factory were guarded with metal bars and the doors were locked, so there was no escape. This has caused the town’s officials to take the stance of eliciting further crack downs and deportation of illegal immigrants. But what will happen to those whose lives depend on their ability to sew these cheap clothes? What will happen to those whose lives are invested in the single sewing machine that they Italian police will confiscate and pitch at the dump?  There are many lives and souls at stake in this game of fast fashion, and the only way to ensure their safety is to withdraw support for its destructive effects.

Image: fashionbi

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