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Transparency is one of those sustainability buzzwords that is much simpler in theory than in practice. Most brands don’t own their own factories and instead produce clothes via a complicated web of manufacturers — some create materials and components, some dye the materials, and then finally some stitch together the final garments. It can be tough for brands to even identify all the players involved in their supply chain, let alone control the conditions or practices at every stage.
One way that brands can achieve more insight into and influence over the way workers in their supply chain are treated is by owning their own factory. But this is rare. Setting up a factory requires a significant up-front investment of time and money — you have to build or buy a facility, purchase all the equipment, and build a team of managers and workers. maller brands probably don’t have the volumes or expertise in manufacturing to go this route. And bigger brands prefer to work with a range of factories that specialise in certain techniques or products. This stops their business from being too dependent on any one region or team and usually means they can make products more efficiently and cost-effectively.
But brands that own and operate their own factories have an ethical edge for a few reasons. First, the brand knows who made your clothes (or bags, or shoes) and how they are treated. It will know what the wages are and what working conditions are like. Second, because hiring a workforce and building a facility from scratch isn’t an easy or cheap task, brands that go down this route have probably done it because they wanted to build a better supply chain. They are more likely to offer higher wages, comfortable work environments, and better benefits than conventional brands that take the easy route.
If you’re interested in buying from brands that have their own factory in order to invest in workers and their communities, here’s what to look for and where to shop.
What to look for in brands with their own factories
Living wages: If a brand directly operates its own factory, it has control over how much it pays the people employed there. Check to see if the brand has committed to paying living wages, and better yet — if it publishes information about exactly what those wages are.
Thoughtful benefits: Similar to setting wages, brands that produce via their own factories or workshops have full control over exactly what benefits they offer their employees. Look for mentions of health benefits, education and training, wellness programmes or intentional measures to make the work day or environment more comfortable.
Environmental tech: If a brand has built its factory building from the ground up and is committed to sustainability, it will likely have built in some on-site renewables like solar panels or even wind turbines. And, since all processes and equipment are set up for that brand specifically, there are more opportunities to build in measures or systems that reduce waste so see if a brand calls any of these out specifically.
Certifications and commitments: Check to see if the brand itself has any certifications like B-Corp certification, if it has signed on to commitments like 1% for the Planet, or if it has a third-party assessment of its practices by an organization like the Fair Wear Foundation. These associations suggest the brand is committed to positive social and environmental practices.
Additional transparency: Just like they hire factory workers directly, brands with their own factories also need to partner directly with secondary suppliers to purchase materials and components for their products. So, if you’re looking for information about what goes into your product, you should be able to find that too.
Now that you know what to look for, here are our top picks when it comes to brands that own and operate their own factories.
American Giant’s comfy hoodies, sweats, and t-shirts are entirely American-made. Clothes are made from US-grown and milled cotton and made in a North Carolina factory where sewers work in teams and learn a range of different skills rather than performing the same single task over and over. Though the brand doesn’t share detailed information about its working conditions or wages, it states it supports and strengthens the towns and communities involved in its supply chain with skills and opportunity.
Indian brand The Summer House makes all its flowy dresses, skirts, and blouses in its own ‘well lit, happy studio’ in Bangalore. The brand says its team earns fair wages and are provided with training.
Dutch brand studio JUX produces the majority of its clothing (everything except its knitwear and jewelry) at its own factory Studio Nepal in Kathmandu, Nepal that runs on Nepali hydropower. Studio Nepal employs 40 workers and pays living wages — between 13,000 and 38,000 rupees compared to the Nepali minimum wage of 8,200 rupees. Workers are also salaried, which stands out in a region where workers are often paid per piece.
American brand Todd Shelton’s basics are made-to-order in its New Jersey factory. The seamstresses employed are paid living wages and the brand invites customers to visit the factory to see for themselves how the clothes are made and by who.
French brand Saint James makes its classic breton striped t-shirts in avillage of the same name in Normandy. The company has been committed to preserving the craft of knitting in the region since 1889 and was awarded with a ‘Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant (EPV)’ mark from the French government to acknowledge their efforts. Customers are invited to visit the atelier to learn more about the way the clothes are produced and repaired.
Welsh brand Hiut was established with the express purpose of reviving denim manufacturing in the town of Cardigan. Cardigan was once home to a denim factory that employed 400 people and produced 35,000 pairs a week. The factory closed, leaving skilled experts in denim-making who had nowhere else to go. These ‘grand masters’ are now employed with Hiut.
Australian denim brand Outland has grown its Cambodian factory from five aspiring seamstresses to over a hundred staff that come from varying backgrounds of vulnerability. The company pays living wages and trains each seamstress in every element of the jean-making process as well as providing education programs on topics like budgeting, women’s and infant health, computing skills, English, and self defense.
Founded in 2016, Blackhorse Lane Ateliers makes selvedge & organic raw denim jeans from a workshop in Walthamstow London. The company employs local machinists, offers shared ownership, and pays living wages. The atelier also serves as a community space, housing a space for art restoration, a popup restaurant, and two weaving machines.
San Francisco-based brand Rothy’s owns and operates its own factory in Dongguan, China. The brand’s customised equipment knits shoes from thread made of recycled plastic to the precise size and shape needed, dramatically reducing waste on the production line. The brand explains that it fosters a healthy, inclusive, and positive work environment for its team members around the globe, but doesn’t provide specifics about wages or benefits available to its factory workers.
Nashville-based Nisolo produces 70% of the leather shoes it sells at its own factory in Trujillo, Peru’s shoemaking capital. The brand pays living wages and publishes its lowest wage: $276 a month, higher than the $269 a month a third-party determined to be a local living wage. Nisolo also provides its producers at the factory with financial literacy training and salary advances as needed to cover costs related to health, education, or emergencies. Any shoes not produced at Nisolo’s factory are produced by partner factories that pay a minimum of 14% above a living wage.
New York-based behno makes it’s beautiful leather purses at a solar-powered factory in Gujarat, India called MSA ethos. Workers at MSA Ethos receive fair wages as well as access to health clinics, family planning services, and education for their children. The site the factory is on is run by nonprofit Muni Seva Ashram (MSA) and is also home to an orphanage, nursing school, and organic farm. behno doesn’t have direct ownership in the factory but it and MSA Ethos share investors and the brand a role in the factory’s initial set up and established the standards for working conditions there.
Washington DC-based brand Quavaro produces its travel bags and totes at its factory, Quavaro Artisans, in Guanajuato, Mexico. There, the work day starts at 8:00 AM and ends at 5:30 PM with 45-minute lunch breaks and 20-minute breakfast breaks — this stands out given 11 hour workdays aren’t uncommon at factories. Workers are also provided with full healthcare benefits for their entire family, on-site child care, and two weeks’ extra pay at Christmas.
Boma Jewelry is a family-owned fine jewelry brand headquartered in Seattle with its own factory in Thailand. It is a registered B-Corp and a signatory to 1% for the Planet. Boma pays its factory employees a local living wage and shares its lowest wage: 325 baht—about $10.50—per day. Additionally, it provides 90 days of paid maternity leave, an employee-led credit union, education scholarships for the children of its workers, and wellness programs. The brand is proud of its retention rate — some factory workers have stayed with the company for over 25 years.
Brooklyn jewelry store Catbird produces its own line of jewelry at its jewelry studio in a LEED-certified building in Brooklyn Navy Yard. All its employees receive benefits like health insurance and a retirement plan as well as profit sharing options and professional development classes. The brand is also committed to using eco-friendly materials, including recycled gold and lab-created diamonds.
Kenyan jewelry brand Soko partners directly with over two thousand independent artisans via its ‘virtual factory’ app which allows artisans to receive orders and payment while they work from home. Soko doesn’t have direct control over working conditions for the artisans it partners with, but provides them with support and training (including health and safety training). Soko does control wages directly and reports that its artisan partners earn nearly 5X more than an average artisan workshop.