As we’re becoming more aware of the carbon impact of our consumption, we, illuminated souls, are trying hard to make more local buying choices, “Honey, Peruvian asparagus? Seriously?”
In France this new tendency has turned the “origin” of a product into the 3rd decision factor behind a purchase, after price and quality (Le Point, 2013). Furthermore, according to the French government’s labeling guide of 2018, 3 out of 4 French consumers are willing to pay more for a good of French origin.
A consequence of this shift is that a lot of marketing and communication is being invested by industrials to tell consumers loud and clear that their product is local. When wandering a Parisian supermarket the signs “Made in France” or “Origine France Guarantie” are hailed as trophy banners on packaging, teasing the mindful consumer. In fact, a 2019 supermarket study from Ipsos showed that labeling is a criteria for 92% of shoppers, amongst which 89% cited location, and 86% “Made in France” as labels that had determined their purchase.
We, evidently, applaud the fact that quality, social and environmental awareness are becoming decision factors for consumers, and we must admit that when it comes to food the E.U’s origin labels are more heavily regulated than elsewhere. That being said, in numerous cases marketers are taking advantage of your good conscience. It is essential to go beyond labels and take a real good look at what you’re buying. For example an apple said to be from France is probably French. But if you’re buying something that has been assembled in some sort of way, you should look again carefully. An Apple computer is designed in California but manufactured in China. A Renault car, although manufactured in France, is made of world imported components: the electrical harnesses come from Poland, the steering column from the Czech Republic, the hardware from Japan… When it comes to textiles, especially cotton garments such as jeans and underwear bearing the label “Made in France”, you must know that…well…you’re being fooled.
Have you ever seen cotton fields in France? Or in many European countries for that matter? Now think of all the fashion brands that label themselves as being 100% French (Sézane, Le Slip Français, Vilbrequin, Vacances Françaises, to name but a few). Odd, given that the closest cotton fields you’ll find are in Greece and Spain’s Andalucía. Unless specifically made in these countries, their main raw material -cotton- is imported from outside the E.U.
Outsourcing is the dominant rationale in most industries, especially major companies in developed countries that can easily get cheaper costs elsewhere. If advertised otherwise, suspicion is quite legitimately in order.
According to French custom law, a regulation of “non-preferential origin” must be applied to textile garments where different international factors of production intervene in the fabrication, notably: components, raw material, and other manufacturing steps. Considering, that the only textile component that can be grown in France is linen, this is the law applied to the vast majority of textile goods in the hexagon. In such cases the final item can legally bear the label “Made in France” if the item “underwent its last substantial transformation in France”. A “last substantial transformation”, can refer to “a change of tariff”, “the added value criteria” (a certain percentage of added value must have been achieved in the manufacture of the finished product), or “the criteria of specific processing” (a well-defined operation must have been carried out during the manufacture of the finished product). If a combination or a single one of these transformation took place in France the final product can legally become French.
Technically this means a shirt assembled in Bangladesh from Indian fabric, that had its buttons sewed in France can bear the label “Made in France”.
In such conditions, does the French “made in” label really mean anything if it consists only in naming a country out of the 2, 3, maybe 4 countries involved in fabrication?
Fortunately, technology is catching up with this important problematic. There is currently much talk and exploration, especially in academia and industry, on the use of blockchain technology to trace any supply chain (more on this here).
The successful implementation of blockchain technology would make it feasible to know where all the components of an item come from, what was their mode of transportation, where they’ve been assembled, and what the real carbon footprint is. This would provide an opportunity for brands to make informed production choices and gain in credible transparency. Consumers, on their end could have access to verifiable information that surpasses marketing maneuvers. Although much remains to be done, there is great hope that the visibility of ‘the big picture’ would shed essential light on the obscure assertions behind a “Made in” label.
While technology catches up what you can do is buy less and better, and look for information on the product you’re about to make yours - past labels.