Made in NYC vs. Working Overseas: An Eco-Fashion Debate

Of the many debates within the sustainable fashion community, one that I find particularly interesting focuses on the merits of producing goods locally, versus working with non-profits and co-operatives in the developing world. With local production, designers retain more control over production and benefit from a reined-in supply chain, plus they’re able to support American businesses and create local jobs. But by working with overseas fair trade organizations, designers are able to leverage the western world’s tremendous purchasing power to bring about economic development and social change in communities that need it. Buy local, and you support the people around you. Buy fair trade, and you support a group of people halfway around the world.

So which approach is more ethical and sustainable? There isn’t an easy answer. But over the weekend, a handful of eco-fashion pioneers gathered at the Pratt Institute’s Sustainability Crash Course to engage in a dialogue on the subject. The panel, titled “Eco-Fashion: Made In NYC,” was organized and moderated by NYC-based fashion designer and Pratt instructor Tara St James and featured representatives from across the eco-fashion spectrum: Amanda Judge, founder of the Andean Collection; Annie Millican, director of Awamaki Lab; Auralis Herrero-Lugos, a sustainable fashion designer who produces in New York and Puerto Rico; and sisters Patty and Christine Yoon, founders of BHON, a women's apparel line produced in China.

Each panelist brought a different perspective to the discussion. Judge and Millican come from international development backgrounds, and they highlighted how their work in Ecuador (for the Andean Collection) and Peru (for Awamaki) has had a direct impact on the people in those communities. Herrero-Lugos made a case for working with people in her own backyard, both here in New York and in her home of Puerto Rico. And for the Yoons, who admittedly don’t consider sustainability in their production, it’s a pure numbers and costs game.

The conversation settled on the cost issue for a while. In New York City's Garment District, it can be up to 5-10 times more expensive to produce samples and small lines than in China and other countries with established garment industries. For up-and-coming designers those prices are simply unfeasible, especially if you’re trying to make affordable clothing, said the Yoons.

And while producing locally can afford the designer tighter control over the production process, it can also be much more time-consuming. Overseas, it’s common to sign “package deals” -- that is, the designer provides the sketches and technical specifications, and the factory provides the rest. Designers producing in New York City, on the other hand, often have to provide their factories with all the patterns, materials, and trimmings, down to the last button.

But though it's cheaper, producing conventionally overseas isn’t an option available to everyone. The Yoons were able to secure a factory in Shanghai that would produce a limited amount of units through a connection from Patty’s previous corporate job. But most factories require minimum quantities that are out of reach for many starting designers.

And what about working overseas with fair trade groups? Both Andean Collection and Awamaki Lab required significant amounts of time, money, and effort in order to set up programs that were both socially responsible and mutually beneficial. Quality control continues to be an issue, but Judge said that the establishment of a field office in Ecuador has had a significant impact. Plus, though workers are paid higher compared to others in their community, it is still cheaper to produce overseas in most cases.

It’s near impossible to come to conclusions in a discussion like this, since business decisions will inevitably come down to company priorities. The Andean Collection and Awamaki Lab were founded primarily to alleviate poverty. Auralis is a fashion line that incorporates both sustainability and artisan techniques. And Bhon is a business whose approach to sustainability is that they just want to sustain the business. Every approach along the locally made-fair trade spectrum will have its pros and cons.

Jessica Marati is a writer, content manager, and community builder interested in sustainability, social change, fashion, travel, and design. She runs a blog about socially responsible style at http://toutlemon.de and this summer will launch her own line of handpicked ethical fashion finds from Cambodia. Connect @jessmarati.