When It Isn’t ‘Made in Brooklyn’: West Elm’s Ambiguous Branding

When It Isn't "Made in Brooklyn": The Implications of West Elm's Ambiguous Branding

West Elm, at the moment, will not find many fans in Brooklyn thanks to its ‘Made in Brooklyn’ snafu. 

Under fire for its “Made in Brooklyn” line of products, the retailer was recently outed for misleading consumers with products that, in reality, are not produced in Brooklyn. One item, West Elm’s “Made in Brooklyn Market Beanie,” is actually made in China.

This ambiguous labeling, which was revealed by The Brooklyn Paper earlier this week, carries significant repercussions for artisans and purveyors who specifically choose to conduct business in Brooklyn. Love it or hate it, Brooklyn is officially the it-girl of the five boroughs. It’s a proud moment for those who call it home and have built an enterprise on the foundation of its local economy, many of whom perceive West Elm’s “Made in Brooklyn” line as both a financial and personal blow. Such vendors are said to have largely influenced the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s Brooklyn-Made certification program.

“As baseline criteria,” read’s the program’s Web site, “only legal businesses headquartered in Brooklyn making one or more physical products will be considered.”

West Elm, which has since removed the China-made beanie from its online store, is attempting to discreetly sidestep the impact of its “Made in Brooklyn” line on businesses that have actually met Brooklyn-Made’s certification requirements. Rather, the language is described by a company spokesperson as “a fun nod to the potential contents” of products like its beer growler.

The Williams-Sonoma-owned franchise is hardly the first of its kind. With Brooklyn having earned such an esteemed reputation in recent years, dozens of brands are rushing to put its name on various items of clothing. Last November, the New York Observer ran a piece on the desperation among big-name companies to be hip enough to fit in with the borough. Such outlets “can’t just waltz into a neighborhood anymore, least of all a Brooklyn neighborhood,” writes Kim Velsy. “No, now you must be yourself but also ‘Brooklyn.’”

The prevalence of evasive product-naming and Brooklyn-branding was a hot topic among panelists at the recent Social Retail Summit in the borough’s DUMBO neighborhood.

“I know for a fact that it’s very widespread,” says Gaia DiLoreto, founder of By Brooklyn, a Cobble Hill boutique strictly carrying products from local producers. “I’m always challenged with how to confront it. My mission is to promote and protect the brands…that I’m working with.”

DiLoreto, who advised the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce in developing Brooklyn-Made, cites the example of the Brooklyn Candle Company, whose candles, she says, are actually made in China.

The commonality of this practice raises the broader question of corporate transparency. Arnon Rosan, co-founder and CEO of referral platform LocalMaven, points to Chipotle’s recent elimination of pork products from the menu, due to the inhumane treatment of pigs by some of its vendors. These stories, he says, are “a lesson to all retailers.”

Rosan isn’t the only one who sees positive outcomes from West Elm’s actions. Its public nature, adds DiLoreto, will “make people think twice” before buying something mistakenly identified as local.

Consumers are far from powerless in these situations and can follow some general guidelines to ensure that their purchases are, in fact, local.

1. Check the label. In the case of West Elm’s “Made in Brooklyn Market Beanie,” all it took was a re-examination of the product’s tags.

2. Do five minutes of research. The Brooklyn-Made program follows in the footsteps of such similar efforts of SF Made and Portland Made. A quick visit to the Web sites provides a listing of the businesses that have met each program’s certification requirements.

3. Talk to retailers. Ultimately, business owners and managers are the most knowledgeable when it comes to product sources. Brooke Richman, founder and CEO of Coop & Spree, makes a point to know her vendors. “I’ve had the opportunity to actually go to the factory and see where everything is physically made,” she says. “I know that the integrity is there.”

Related on EcoSalon

Sweet, Sustainable Looks From an Ethical Fashion Week in Brooklyn

Behind the Label: West Elm Green

Got Local Liquor? Our Growing Thirst for Craft Distillers

Image: Jeremy Keith