Top Apparel Brands – The China Report Card

Top Apparel Brands – The China Report Card

The most popular clothing retailers and China

In the last few “report cards” for clothing brands we’ve focused on different categories, from sportswear to luxury fashion to shoes. This last “report card” in this series will focus on the general clothing retailers in the industry. These companies all sell multiple types of clothing with mass market appeal.

Of course, there are hundreds of these companies, but I just focused on the top ones. For this list I looked at the list of the top Clothing retailers in the world, as measured by sales revenue. Their goal, especially the “fast fashion” companies, is to come up with a design, find the cheapest possible way to manufacture it, and get it to store shelves before the design gets old.

You won’t find any company here that makes things in the USA. That’s just the reality. There are plenty of high quality US manufacturers still around (and if you know of any, please share them in the comments here or on the forum). But when it comes to mass market companies, the best we can hope for are companies that don’t allow China to monopolize their supply chains or bully them around by threatening to block access to their market.

You’ll notice that most of the companies get “blah” scores. They follow a similar pattern:

  • Most started manufacturing their own products, but have since switched to a pure outsourcing model where they contract out to factories (on the “honor system” that the factories will not steal their intellectual property).
  • Many were on a path of outsourcing everything to China as recently as a few years ago
  • The 2019 tariffs were a wake-up call to change their ways and diversify their supply chain
  • The 2019 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute was a further wake-up call to not be locked into business with China, especially since many of them were called out by name
  • The 2020 backlash from CCP-orchestrated trolls on social media to boycott them was meant to scare them into renouncing any negative thoughts they had about the CCP and proclaim their allegiance to China–weak companies like Nike kowtowed to China’s pressure, while smart ones continued to diversify their supply chains.

Best Clothing Brands Not Made in China – Quick Ranking

1. Zara 🇪🇸 – C+

Zara has had a long history of bending to bullying from the Chinese Communist Party. In 2021, their parent company Inditex deleted a statement that stated that they have a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor and that it did not have any relationships with factories in Xinjiang after Chinese Communists threw a hissy fit. In 2018, they were commanded by China authorities not to represent Taiwan as a separate country on their Web site, and they complied–to this day they shamefully refer to Taiwan as “Taiwan, China” on their Web site.

Such is the cat-and-mouse game that the CCP plays with every Western brand that wants access to its market. Pledge your loyalty to the Communist Party and enjoy the riches of the country. Show the slightest amount of disrespect and be shamed into submission (not coincidentally, in June 2021, Zara was attacked by the Chinese government as being “unsafe”, a move aimed at diminishing Zara and propping up local China brands, many of whom no doubt are using the same factories that Zara outsourced to).

As for where Zara sources from, they’re very good at hiding this information online. This information isn’t readily available on their Web site, and when I asked them what percentage of their products are made in China, they said they didn’t know. But their customer service folks were very good when I asked them to look up specific products for me to see where they were made. I asked about five of their best sellers, which I chose randomly. One dress was from Turkey, one pair of pants was from Myanmar, two dresses were from China, and one top was from Morocco.

Officially, the Web site of their parent company Inditex has some data on where products are made. Today, 53% of their factories are located near their headquarters in Artexio, Spain. They use over 1,800 supplies and 8,543 factories worldwide. Looking at their annual report, they do have 12 manufacturing “clusters” (Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Argentina, and Brazil), but it does look like China is the single largest. So it looks like their supply chain is fairly diversified, which is not a bad thing.

I’m going to give them a “C+”–they do seem to make a lot of the products outside of China, but they make it difficult to find out where. And their kowtowing to the CCP doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies that they really care about principles.

Hints for avoiding made in China: If you must buy online, contact a Chat agent and ask if the specific product you want was made in China. Otherwise, go to the store and check the label.

2. Uniqlo 🇯🇵 – D

The good news is that Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo, does a decent job of showing transparency in their supply chain. They publish lists of the sewing factories and fabric mills they outsource production to.

The bad news is that 167 out of 333 of their “sewing factories” are in China, as are 46 out of 84 Fabric Mills. While it is nice to see some countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam on this list, China is easily the country on which they rely the most–ironic, given how on their Web site they claim to value “good labor conditions, human right, and the environment”, three things that the CCP has had a terrible track record of enforcing.

Worse, they do not disclose country of origin online, other than a generic “Imported” on all their products (I’m on the US site, and since they don’t manufacture anything in the US, every single product is marked as “imported”, which is oh, so helpful). What I end up doing is going to their India site and trying to find the same product on that site, where Country of Origin Online Labeling is mandatory. But of course this isn’t foolproof, as some products may be made in more than one place.

I do like that a certain amount of products that I personally use weren’t made in China (I’m a fan of their Chino shorts, made in Bangladesh, and of their HEATTECH T-Shirts, made in Vietnam). But until I see them less reliant on their factories in China OR clear country of origin labeling online, I can’t give them a very good grade.

Uniqlo made the headlines when the US customs agency blocked a shipment of their cotton shirts in May 2021. They appealed the action but withdrew the appeal, which at worst signals that they were complicit in using Uyghur labor, and at best signals that they completely lost control of their supply chain. Like every clothing company they have pretty words on their Web site touting how they stand for human rights, but they need to do better.

Hints for avoiding made in China: Check the India site for “hints”, and call or chat with Customer Service to confirm that a given product is not made in China. Otherwise, go to the store and check the label.

3. https://www2.hm.com/en_us/index.htmlH&M 🇸🇪 – C

The good news is that Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) is very transparent about their supply chain on their corporate Web site. The not-so-good news is that the China is by far their largest production market. Specifically, they use 235 suppliers in China and 570 factories (the next largest manufacturing country is Bangladesh, at 136 suppliers and 242 factories). When I contacted them via chat, they gave me different numbers, but basically said that 80% of their clothes come from China.

So while it’s possible to find stuff not made in China, you’re going to need to check every label to be sure.

As happened to Zara, H&M faced the full ire of China Internet trolls after it released its statement following reports of forced labor in Xinjiang. In the case of H&M, they posted a message to their Web site citing “deep concerns” over the reports, and announced that they has stopped buying cotton from growers in the region. This launched a coordinated attack against H&M clearly aimed at making an example out of them. Communist Youth League trolls on Weibo organized relentless mobs to insult H&M. Soon, H&M product disappeared from China’s top e-commerce platforms. Mall operators shut down H&M stores. In the ultimate irony, the China government issued sanctions against H&M, accusing them of poor safety standards in their products. H&M affiliates within China suffered from penalties to their “social scores” (yes, they really exist) which is further going to make their lives difficult.

Clearly, the “insult” of even mentioning the situation in Xinjiang was enough to put a bullseye on H&M to be made an example of to other brands. To their credit, H&M didn’t grovel to China begging for forgiveness, which shows that at least have a backbone. Unfortunately for them, China is likely not going to China hurt them–China fell out of their top 10 markets served.

So H&M is a tough one to score. I appreciate how they resisted the urge to prostrate themselves before the altar of the CCP to try to save their market in China–especially since they had been one of the high flying brands in China. That said, I don’t like how they still have so much of their supply chain wrapped up in China. Let’s give them a “C”.

Hints for avoiding made in China: Avoid buying online. Go to the store and check the label.

4. Old Navy / Gap / Banana Republic – C+

The Gap, which owns Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic, stated in their 2020 annual report that 32% of their merchandise came from factories in Vietnam, while 16% came from China. As I mentioned in the athleticwear article, their executives did say that they’re trying to reduce reliance on China’s supply chain, and this is a good indication that they’re succeeding.

Their Web site doesn’t have any information on country of origin other than to say a product was “imported”. So it’ll be up to you to go to a physical store to check the label to make sure it’s not from China.

Hints for avoiding made in China: Avoid buying online. Go to the store and check the label.

6. Calvin Klein / Tommy Hillfiger – B

Calvin Klein and Tommy Hillfiger both fall under PVH (the Philips-Van Heusen Corporation).

In their 2020 Annual Report, they clearly stated that one of their goals is to reduce reliance on China. That’s good news.

We continue to explore new areas of production that can grow with our businesses. Our country of origin strategy provides a flexible approach to product sourcing, which enables us to maximize regional opportunities and mitigate our potential exposure to risks associated with new duties, tariffs, surcharges, or other import controls or restrictions. While China remains an important sourcing country for us, we have been reducing the amount of production we do in the country over time in favor of production in other parts of Asia and in Africa that better serve our sourcing strategy. Many of these efforts have been with our existing partners, but in facilities and countries that offer us production or cost advantages over those in China.

In 2020, they said that 20% of its global sourcing is from China, with about 10% of that coming to the US. So your chances are probably very good at finding something not made in China. In fact, at one point they revealed this information on their Web sites, but they too made the foolish decision to hide country of origin and just say “imported”.

Hints for avoiding made in China: Avoid buying online. Go to the store and check the label.

7. Ralph Lauren Polo – C+

Ralph Lauren is an interesting one. If you view their most expensive offerings, such as the $1000-4000 dresses in the Ralph Lauren Collection, you’ll see country of origin marked clearly. Made in Italy, Made in Portugal. But once you go to the sub-$1000 products, that’s where you’ll just see “Imported”. And of course, all of their iconic Polo shirts are marked “imported”.

As with most other brands on this list (including Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Gap, H&M, Uniqlo, and Zara), Ralph Lauren Polo was named in the now infamous report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute of having Xinjiang cotton in its supply chain.

Ralph Lauren seems to follow the pattern that a lot of luxury brands do. Continue to manufacture the ultra-high end products out of Europe or the USA, while pouring “low end” products–in the case of Ralph Lauren this means sweaters, Polo shirts, and footwear”–to China to be mass produced.

In 2019 the CEO Patrice Louvet did say that Ralph Lauren Polo had reduced its dependence on Chinese manufacturers from 33% to 25% because “we don’t want any market to represent 30% of our sourcing”. That seems to be a wise move. I wish they would be more open about country of origin for their “cheap stuff” on their Web site, but it seems there’s probably a decent chance of finding a Ralph Lauren piece of clothing that’s not made in China if you look hard enough.

Hints for avoiding made in China: Avoid buying online. Go to the store and check the label.

8. American Eagle Outfitters – C

American Eagle Outfitters claims that their products are made in China, Guatemala, India, the USA, and Vietnam, but this blogger did a nice job in 2014 of demonstrating that most of their products are actually from China or Vietnam. As of 2019, Barrons reported that about 30% of their products are made in China. On their Web site, they make it clear without sugarcoating that they prohibit the manufacture of any product or the use of raw material from Xinjiang.

Not surprisingly, like everyone else American Eagle Outfitters simply puts “Imported” on their Web site product pages. You can go to their India site to get some idea of where their products are made, assuming the products that go to the India market are the same that go to you market. For example, this product on the US site has no information about Country of Origin, but this one would suggest that it was made in Bangladesh. But of course, visit the store or contact customer service to be sure.

Hints for avoiding made in China: Avoid buying online. Go to the store and check the label.

9. Abercrombie & Fitch – B

Abercrombie & Fitch is another brand that is relatively transparent about its supply chain, and the good news is that they seem pretty well diversified-they do have about 50 factories in China, but they also have over 70 in Vietnam.

As of 2020 they seemed committed to reducing their reliance on China, aiming to decrease the total goods made in China from 42% (in 2017) to 22% (in 2019), with the amount of China goods imported into the USA to just 10%. Again the 2019 tariffs seem to have done their job–let’s hope the current president will keep them in place.

Hints for avoiding made in China: No surprise that Country of Origin is not accessible online–again, contact a customer service rep or visit a store in person to check the label.

Any clothing brands you want reviewed for how much in the tank for China they are? Let us know in the comments!

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