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Ethical Style: How Ethical Is 'Artisanal' Production? Are 'Artisanal' Products More Ethical?

"Artisanal” no longer necessarily signifies hand-made, skilled craftsmanship. It means whatever a company says it does.

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Consumer demand for “artisanal” products has gone mainstream—so mainstream that major corporations are now applying the label on their most mass-produced stuff. The fast food market is dotted with artisanally-marketed fare not made by artisans: Domino’s dishes out “artisanal” pizzas; Tostitos, “artisanal” tortilla chips; Starbucks, “artisanal” sandwiches. Like the watered-down ethical buzzwords “green” and "sustainable" and “organic” before it, the term “artisanal” no longer necessarily signifies hand-made, skilled craftsmanship. It means whatever a company says it does.

That’s bad for conscious consumers, because truly artisanal products present several ethical upshots. When we buy items hand-crafted by skilled laborers, our stuff lasts longer, reduces waste, supports local workers, and promotes transparent supply chains. It also costs a lot more and takes a lot longer than the mass-produced stuff. Some companies have compensated by cutting corners and slapping on an “artisanal” label to smooth over the rough edges.

The fashion industry is also adept at exploiting such labeling loopholes. Take a look at what happened to one high-in-demand bit of artisanal insignia: “Made In Italy.” The label conjures the image of clothes worked by hand, from start to finish, by devoted artisans in full command of their craft: a cobbler molding the finest calfskin leather to wooden shoe forms; a seamstress painstakingly embroidering tulle and organza by hand; a weaver spinning wool into a luxurious sweater fibers.

For decades, Italy’s fashion industry has been run by a conglomeration of small artisan workshops, each staffed with skilled craftspeople who develop the yarns, fabrics, leather goods, and detailed manufacturing processes that define the Italian look. It’s this focus on hand-craftsmanship that helped elevate Milan to a fashion mecca that rivals Paris, London, and New York. And the artisanal tradition runs strong throughout the country: One of the world’s largest textile producers, Marzotto S.p.A. has called Veneto home since 1836. The city of San Maoro Pascoli produces 15 million pairs of “Made In Italy”-stamped shoes each year. Prato supplies the world with both quality textiles and the machines that make them.

But these days, “Made In Italy” doesn’t always mean all that. Counterfeiting runs rampant. The phrase can be seen stamped on goods that are largely produced abroad, where labor is cheaper, then merely finished within Italy’s borders. Your “Made in Italy” bag could be cut and assembled in Romania, then shipped to Italy to affix the final clasp.

Brands that have built their reputation on the “Made in Italy” label, under pressure to drop prices while keeping manufacturing at home, have even resorted to importing their cheap labor from elsewhere. Increasingly, the “Made in Italy” clothing produced within the country originated not from craft workshops but from factory assembly lines.

Today, Prato’s population is made up of 12 to 25 percent Chinese immigrants, both documented and not. Many of them work in immigrant-owned sweatshops, making “Made in Italy” goods on the cheap, sometimes for only two euros an hour over 14-hour workdays. Some of these workers even sleep in makeshift quarters within the factory. And they are supplying some of the most iconic Italian fashion houses, from Dolce & Gabbana to Prada.

Cue the artisanal backlash. Centopercento Italiano—literally, “100 percent Italian”—is a consortium of 70 labels dedicated to restoring completely local production processes to “Made in Italy” goods. That means cracking down on counterfeits, eliminating foreign interference in supply chains, and promoting transparency from source to distribution. It also means promoting the “culture” of an entirely Italian-made product—and that’s where the vaulting of artisanal production gets tricky.

The Chinese immigrants working in Prato aren’t just suffering from low wages and long hours—they’re also the target of harsh cultural backlash. Among the historically homogenous Italian population, resentment runs deep for immigrant laborers whom natives see as upending their traditional business models. For many Italians, it’s not enough that goods be “Made in Italy”— they also want them not to be made by Chinese immigrants in Italy. The result is that these workers’ labor is even further devalued. Combating the substandard working conditions of Chinese laborers is not a central goal of Centopercento.

Like “green” and “organic,” “artisanal” and “Made in Italy” are imperfect labels for assessing the ethical bonafides of a piece of clothing, even when they’re applied with the rigor of an organization like Centropercento. The reality is more complicated. Organic cotton still wastes water; vegan shoes can poison the atmosphere; local artisanal products can reinforce cultural hegemony. But the market power of the "artisanal" label still reigns—just ask a fashionista who stumbled on a pair of vintage "Made in Italy" loafers.

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Photo via (cc) Flickr user romaryka

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