As we sped toward downtown Hangzhou, past hulking construction projects that could each rival the skylines of most American cities, my cab driver seemed stumped. "Shengzhou? Where is that?" he asked me, amazed to encounter an American who hadn't come to Hangzhou for its Buddhist temples or pagoda-lined West Lake. I had flown into his cosmopolitan city instead for its bus station, from which I would take a two-hour trip to a nearby town he'd never heard of. "What on earth are you doing there?"
The answer was complicated, a bit too much so to explain in my rusty Chinese. Had I been honest, I would have told him that I had arrived in Hangzhou on a journey of last resort.
Encased in Ziploc at the bottom of my shoulder bag was a Donald J. Trump-brand necktie with silver checks that I purchased just days earlier for $60 in the lobby of Trump's flagship skyscraper on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Made in China, the tie had now traveled twice across the Pacific Ocean and, as Trump had just weeks earlier secured the Republican presidential nomination, it now carried more political weight than ever.
For more than a year, Trump's opponents had continually seized upon his foreign-made goods to call out the hypocrisy of a campaign centering on a pledge to repatriate jobs that, in Trump's telling, global trade had wrongfully taken from American workers.
The ties in particular had become a fixation of Hillary Clinton. Just days after slamming Trump for making neckties in China on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, Clinton hoisted a glittering red Trump tie over her head while addressing a group of workers at a factory in Colorado. "I'd really like him to explain why he paid Chinese workers to make Trump ties," Clinton said, gripping the folded garment.
Although the Chinese provenance of his ties had formed a primary line of attack against Trump, nothing much else was known about them. And Clinton wasn't the only one with questions. During the preceding year, a variety of labor groups had quietly tried and failed to find the Chinese factories that manufactured the candidate's apparel lines. On shipping records collected by the US government and compiled by databases like ImportGenius and Panjiva, the Donald Trump name was almost totally absent (with a few older exceptions, all in smaller countries), causing researchers to throw up their hands.
Over the summer, I too had searched fruitlessly for Trump's Chinese factories.
As I groped for clues, I sent Trump's former apparel agent, Phillips-Van Heusen — a massive yet little-known intermediary often referred to as PVH that links mostly American brands to foreign factories — a series of requests asking whether it would provide me with any details regarding the factories. Although my queries seemed straightforward enough, the company had steadfastly refused to respond. The one entity on earth that I was certain held the complete set of clues to Trump's manufacturing puzzle seemed intent on keeping me in the dark.
This is not surprising. American corporations have mastered the art of supply-chain secrecy. And, as the election neared, it seemed that the Chinese factories that made Trump's ties would remain another closely guarded secret relating to his fortune.
That is until, in early August, when a supply-chain researcher gave me a startlingly simple piece of advice: Go to the Trump store and take a look at some of the fine print on the labels.
A tidy shelf of neckties at Trump's retail store on Fifth Avenue, which sells an assortment of Trump-branded souvenirs and grandfatherly outerwear, contained a veritable, if indirect, clue. In tiny font, the label on each tie read RN# 121148. This is the US government's unique identifier for products made by PVH Neckwear Inc. Although it was known that Trump did much of his outsourcing through PVH, the ties appeared particularly consistent in their PVH affiliation and country of origin, with their uniform registered identification numbers and "Made in China" tags.
I had just narrowed down my search for Trump's factories from the 3.7 million square miles of the People's Republic of China to just a handful of industrial parks in the obscure necktie capital of the world.
After returning from the Trump store, I zeroed in on PVH's necktie operation. As I scrolled through digital reams of the company's import records, I noticed something. All of the factories from which PVH ordered ties — to the tune of more than 20 million pounds since 2007 — were situated in one small Chinese city called Shengzhou sitting in a valley in a mountainous region within Zhejiang province. Very little information about Shengzhou was publicly available in English aside from the fact that it is the international epicenter of necktie production, with estimates asserting that the city produces at least half of the entire globe's ties.
If my reasoning was correct, I had just narrowed down my search for Trump's factories from the 3.7 million square miles of the People's Republic of China to just a handful of industrial parks in the obscure necktie capital of the world.
On the road to Shengzhou, the garden-lined boulevards of Hangzhou quickly gave way to an expanse of rice fields, which ended in an abrupt outcropping of lush, jagged mountains dotted with rustic agrarian communities. As our bus cut through the steep topography on a highway meandering along the fast-flowing Cao'e River, I pored over my list of factory addresses with my interpreter Jackie.
I knew no one in our destination town; my only task for the next four days would be to visit PVH's top tie factories scattered throughout the city, and try, somehow, to find out whether they had in fact produced Trump's ties. According to US customs data, each of these factories relied on PVH as its biggest buyer. As I would soon learn, we were not heading to a city where PVH is simply another major foreign customer. In recent years, PVH had become by far the largest buyer of the town's specialty product, according to the Panjiva database, giving the Manhattan-based firm a profound degree of power over the fate of the Chinese city.
As abruptly as they'd risen, the mountains emptied us into a valley that had been presaged by an increasingly thick mantle of smog. We had arrived to the outskirts of Shengzhou. Almost immediately, it became clear that this was anything but the quaint mountain town I'd envisioned.
Its pollution was denser than Hangzhou's and its six- and eight-lane thoroughfares were lined with seemingly interminable high-rise apartment complexes at varying degrees of completion. There were many more people in the city — hundreds of thousands more — than I had been primed to expect. Shengzhou exuded the ambitiousness of a boomtown, its layout interrupted by sprawling construction projects adorned with bold-face Chinese lettering encouraging residents to help make it China's best, cleanest, healthiest city.
It seemed that Shengzhou's industrial secrets could prove as impenetrable as the Rolodex of PVH's sourcing department.
That such a teeming metropolis could exist with such anonymity, not even known by its closest neighbors in Hangzhou, astonished me. The city's size also caused me to fret: In focusing on Shengzhou, I turned out to have narrowed my search to a far larger haystack than I'd wagered on. During the waning hours of daylight, my fears grew as I began to immediately fail in my attempts to gather information.
After visiting the address of a factory that had been shuttered for months, I spent hours with Jackie wandering around a working-class neighborhood filled with residents less than excited at the prospect of chatting with a note-taking American about his necktie. As we finished our first day, it seemed that Shengzhou's industrial secrets could prove as impenetrable as the Rolodex of PVH's sourcing department.
The next morning, the city's smog had intensified, turning the surrounding mountains into burly apparitions. According to my iPhone, the temperature would reach 102 within a few hours. After breakfast, Jackie and I ordered a cab to the next address on my list, a facility called Maidilang, which sends PVH tens of thousands of pounds of ties each year.
Like every one of the PVH-connected factories I would later visit in China, Maidilang was a fully walled facility with a front entrance featuring a shiny, retractable metal gate that moved on wheels controlled from an adjacent guard booth. The view from outside suggested Maidilang's factory complex was formidable. Gray high-rise dormitory buildings and boxy factories rose above the wrought-iron fence surrounding the campus.
During our cab ride, Jackie had mentioned that Shengzhou's larger factories, including this one, kept necktie showrooms within their security perimeters — perhaps our best hope at getting a foot in the door.
"Hi, sir! Could we have a look at your showroom?" Jackie asked the guard, who without hesitation waved us into the compound and pointed toward a set of sleek glass doors leading into an office building. Within its gates, Maidilang had an almost collegiate feel, its bulky buildings connected with garden-lined pedestrian walkways.
Groups of non-uniformed workers traveled between the buildings. Pairs of women huddled beneath neon-colored parasols with locked arms and men strolled along the sidewalks unhurried, their heads exposed to the intensifying sun. It was Saturday, and, having just finished their morning shift, the workers were off for the weekend.
Through the double doors, we found ourselves alone in the Maidilang showroom, its white walls glowing blue from the heavy colored tinting of its windows. "Is anyone here?" Jackie called out as I stepped toward the closest display of neckties. After a few seconds, a woman with a prim, short haircut and a sleeveless apricot dress emerged from a side door. She introduced herself as Ms. Lu, the showroom's manager.
Somehow unfazed that I had arrived as a writer instead of a buyer, Lu took us around the showroom. Maidilang's corporate customers prohibit it from directly selling their branded ties, so the showroom's ties had been shorn of identifying labels, but still, none of them bore the garish checks or the almost rubbery under-fabric of my Trump tie. Corroborating what I'd seen in import records, Lu mentioned that PVH was Maidilang's primary buyer. The company, she said, even had its own headquarters in Shengzhou.
Glancing at her watch, Lu informed us that Maidilang's lunch hour was nearly finished and invited us to accompany her to the company's cafeteria. On our way out of the showroom, she offered us parasols for the half-minute walk.
The cafeteria was an echo-y room with bare concrete floors and steel-framed tables with porcelain tops. Most of the room's blue-tinted windows were slid open and three-bladed ceiling fans spun at widely varying speeds, none generating much wind.
Lu explained that Shengzhou's economy was in the midst of profound change. "Orders for neckties have been decreasing," Lu explained. Over the next few days, this would become a familiar story. Shengzhou's economy was being roiled by the steady rise of business casual in the West. The city's industrial specialty was going out of fashion. In the face of sliding demand for formal work attire, many of its tie factories had already shuttered, and those that remained were retooling. Maidilang, for instance, had started making scarves and silky bed sheets in large quantities. "Everyone here is shifting their production," Lu said.
"Orders for neckties have been decreasing. Everyone here is shifting their production."
As we finished lunch, I presented Lu with my shiny garment and asked her if she'd seen it. She didn't recognize the brand label but pulled out her iPhone and placed a call to a manager. After several quick bursts of speech in Shengzhou dialect, she spelled out the English letters of D-O-N-A-L-D-J-T-R-U-M-P, and, a moment later, placed her phone back in her purse and gave us the news.
"Yes!" Lu told Jackie. "We have made these ties here."
More than a decade before Trump entered into the necktie business, on a brisk January afternoon in 1993, Bill Clinton gazed over Washington, DC's National Mall and recited the oath of office to become the 42nd American president, his daughter Chelsea and wife Hillary at either arm. For the solemn occasion, Clinton had worn a white button-down, a black blazer, and a shiny blue-checked tie that had been made in the town of Como, Italy. By the 1990s, Italy had become the go-to in necktie production, with the business-minded town of Como the hub of what the locals regarded as an art.
If Como had mastered the trade in silk weaving, it certainly hadn't invented it. Thousands of years before Italy became the world's silk center, emperors in eastern China had obsessed over the homegrown invention of silk, and are said to have wrung their hands over how to keep the craft secret from ever-encroaching Western powers. But, by the middle of last century, as China struggled to move past decades of war, famine, and political convulsions, a rapidly industrializing West had absconded with the silk trade.
Yet by Clinton's second term, another shift was quietly beginning to transform the business. The year after Clinton's 1997 inauguration, Chinese entrepreneur Lou Yuming traveled more than 5,000 miles from Shengzhou to Como on a scouting mission. In the late '90s, Shengzhou was little more than an outpost at the center of a small valley known mainly for its bamboo weaving. When Lou went to Como, Shengzhou had a modest eight computer-controlled looms, then the cutting edge of mass garment production.
But after Lou returned, he helped build Shengzhou into a tie-weaving titan like the world had never before seen. And he did it with dizzying speed: By 2003, Shengzhou boasted 672 computer-controlled looms, which within half a decade decimated the mainstay of Como's economy.
By 2003, Shengzhou boasted 672 computer-controlled looms, which within half a decade decimated the mainstay of Como's economy.
The rise of Chinese manufacturing was replicating this story in industrial cities all across America, too. North Carolina saw a mass exodus of textile jobs, Ohio lost its steel mills, and New England shoe manufacturers relocated countless factories overseas. China was not only signing free-trade agreements, which opened its markets to tariff-free exchange, it was also profusely subsidizing its industrial base, constructing a vast infrastructure that would allow the country to produce with unprecedented scale and efficiency. Much of China's industrial investments also had the effect of simply cheapening its exports, making the country all the fiercer in the arena of international competition.
For more than a decade, critics have accused China of giving itself an unfair competitive advantage through its aggressive subsidies and currency manipulation. Most recently, this argument has formed the basis of Donald Trump's economic platform. He has pitched his candidacy on the assertion that, by rewriting trade agreements to stifle the Chinese government's aggressive cultivation of its manufacturing base, American workers will be able to compete for factory jobs that left the country decades ago.
But China's industrial policies explain only part of its exporting ascendance. Another major appeal of making things in China has been its reserves of desperately poor workers willing to toil long hours for meager wages under conditions that most Americans would abhor.
My lunch at Maidilang was the first in a series of glances into the lives of Shengzhou's factory workers. Although few things in Shengzhou fit snugly into the assumptions I'd long held about foreign factory work, my time there served as a forceful reminder that global capitalism has not merely moved jobs around — it has also made the jobs unrecognizable to the Americans who once worked them.
It doesn't take much time in the factories that made Trump's own garments for the candidate's promise on trade to be confirmed as another salesman's sleight of hand. The problem with his pledge to American workers is not just the enormous challenges of relocating good-paying factory jobs back to the United States. The real problem is that the jobs Trump speaks of no longer exist.
In interviews with more than a dozen workers at Shengzhou necktie factories that had produced for Trump, one thing became clear: The maxim painted in huge red letters on Maidilang's cafeteria columns — Every grain on the plate comes from hard work — was in no way figurative. Each worker I spoke with in Shengzhou said he or she was paid not by the hour but by the piece. Some of the workers found it amusing when I asked whether they were granted paid sick leave. "If you don't work, you earn nothing," one factory worker put it.
None of the workers alleged that the companies broke any labor laws, and, although they generally withheld their opinions both positive and negative, few workers expressed grievances regarding their employers. Most of the workers said they worked eight-hour days and often had a day off each week.
Several of the workers I spoke with said that, if they didn't work fast enough, their pay could fall to the bottom of the range of factory jobs in Shengzhou. Four of the workers I interviewed said that they could earn as little as 2,000 yuan per month, which, locally, is considered very poor pay. (The national average wage for migrant workers is 3,072 yuan, according to the South China Morning Post.)
"That's a hardscrabble life," said a Shengzhou restaurant owner whom I befriended. "You're taking care of your most basic living expenses. Forget ever owning an apartment."
Three of the four workers who said they could earn as little as 2,000 yuan a month for up to six-day workweeks were employed at a company called Babei, one of Shengzhou's largest tie manufacturers, with a sprawling facility located directly across from Maidilang.
One woman earning this much, who we met around 8 in the evening outside the Babei gate, quickly asked us to not reveal her identity after Jackie reacted with visible surprise at her low pay.
Another Babei worker, a 42-year-old woman surnamed Jun, told us that, even with the income of her husband, the money is hardly enough. The couple was raising a young son for whose education they were struggling to save money.
Yet, despite the minimal pay, Jun seemed appreciative for the work. "If it was a bad situation," she said, "I wouldn't have stayed for 10 years."
Though most of the workers in Shengzhou only received four days off per month (Maidilang provides six), a number of them told us that they actually wanted to work more. Perhaps due to the slowing of the necktie business, factories in Shengzhou, according to the workers, offered little overtime work aside from the customary weekend workdays.
In the summer months, un-air-conditioned factory floors can become stiflingly hot for workers employed by at least one factory that has produced Trump ties. On my second day in Shengzhou, as the temperatures neared 100 degrees, I sneaked into a factory called Yuelong, situated deep within Shengzhou's Necktie Industrial Park. (Later that day, a Yuelong manager would confirm by phone that the company had made ties for Trump.) Parting a mass of dirty rubber flaps on the first floor of a five-story Yuelong factory building, I found myself in a loud, dark room filled with fast-moving looms ingesting what looked like raw cotton from huge spools that clung to the ceiling. The room contained a caustic chemical smell and — aided no doubt by the active machinery — it was even hotter than the oppressive outdoor swelter.
"That's a hardscrabble life. You're taking care of your most basic living expenses. Forget ever owning an apartment."
Despite the harsh working conditions and long workweeks, many of the Shengzhou workers I spoke with did not have the financial wherewithal to rent their own apartments. Several workers I interviewed instead chose to sleep in bunk bed-packed dormitories paid for by the companies they worked for.
For these workers, the factories provide a comprehensive live/work accommodation that is a paternalistic remnant of the Maoist conception of factories as cradle-to-grave welfare providers. Although the stellar job security of communist factory work is long gone, the factories still seek extensive control over the lives of their workers. The foyer of one Maidilang dormitory that I entered after sneaking past an unmanned guard booth was decorated only by a large sign laying out a set of guidelines:
Protect the image of the company and yourself
Don't speak dirty words
Be friendly to one another and learn from one another
Feel at ease during work and make your family feel the same
The sign warned women workers that, before giving birth, they must first report to a local gynecologist to be inspected to make sure they haven't previously delivered a child, thus ensuring compliance with China's one-child policy, which is now being phased out nationwide.
It also ordered workers to report any "illegal behavior" committed by their friends; workers are forbidden from gambling or keeping expensive things in their dorms. Upon moving in and out of their units, the workers should expect to have the company examine the contents of their luggage. (In the dormitory at a PVH-contracted factory across town called High Fashion Silk, a sign simply read, "Follow no strangers to the fun places.")
Although the Shengzhou workers stopped short of criticizing the factories outright, they didn't mince words when I asked them what they enjoyed about their jobs: Nothing, they said.
"The best part of the job?" one repeated my question. "There is no happiness in work."
In August of 2004, Donald Trump's career sat at a curious juncture. His personal brand was trading higher than ever while some of his most prized business ventures were tanking. Having launched him into a new strata of fame, his NBC prime-time show The Apprentice was preparing to premiere a second season while his latest book titled Trump: How To Get Rich had placed his name once again on the New York Times best-seller list.
Just four days after Trump's casino interest announced it would file for bankruptcy, Newsweek reported that Trump would lend his name to a new fashion business.
As he reveled in the spotlight, the real estate empire on which he had built his reputation was foundering. That same month, his casino business declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy after a series of more nimble entrants had rushed into Atlantic City to steal the thunder from Trump's offerings, according to the Washington Post. Saddled with nearly $2 billion in debt, Trump's casino interest, known as Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, had seen its stock value plummet from $35.50 to just 40 cents in a matter of years.
Yet the performance of his casino business wouldn't slow the rising star of Trump, whose celebrity profile meant that he could increasingly rely on selling licenses to his name instead of building functional enterprises. Within the next year, Trump would leverage his name-brand status to launch a series of new ventures that had little to do with his troubled real estate holdings. These would include Trump University, which offered get-rich-quick seminars that dubiously promised to impart Trump's perceived business acumen to students.
Trump also parlayed the popularity of his name to enter the apparel market. In August of 2004, just four days after Trump's casino interest announced it would file for bankruptcy, Newsweek reported that Trump would lend his name to a new fashion business.
The article said the idea had come from Trump's friend, Sheldon Brody, who ran Marcraft Apparel Group, which oversaw various brands, and who believed that, in an era when young people were shedding formalwear, Trump's label could compel those who wanted to emulate his success to begin dressing up. "I think the Donald Trump brand will relate to the up-and-coming business people between 19 and 35," Brody told the magazine. "The young people respect him."
Later that year, Trump signed a licensing deal with PVH to manufacture his branded dress shirts. In exchange for a license to the businessman's name, PVH would manage the design, production, and distribution of Trump's clothing.
PVH did with the Trump brand what it does best: outsourced the production of the billionaire's clothing to countries with the world's cheapest and most grueling factories. In the coming years, Trump's sourcing agent would make his menswear in Bangladesh, Honduras, Mexico, Vietnam, and China. In 2008, PVH began making Trump-branded neckties that, according to Forbes, quickly found their way into more than 400 retail stores across the United States.
Trump's apparel enterprise has never been considered a huge contributor to his wealth, and a financial disclosure he released last year listed his clothing license as bringing in between $1 million and $5 million for Trump annually.
"It was immediate. This brand, it just totally vanished."
What's even clearer is that PVH did not see Trump's brand as an integral part of its business. This became apparent shortly after his campaign launch on June 16th of last year. Two weeks after the speech, as his racist comments about Mexican immigrants generated blowback across the globe, Macy's — one of the major carriers of the Trump Signature Collection — dropped the billionaire's brand. A week later, PVH announced it would begin "phasing out" its dealings with Trump. Trump's hateful campaign presented, among other things, an opportunity for PVH to ditch an apparently flagging brand.
"It was immediate," said Stephen Zhou, a manager at Shengzhou Vision Textiles, as we sat in a small, immaculate conference room on the third floor of his office building inside a gated compound just steps away from where hundreds of factory workers had cut, shaped, stitched, and finished Trump's neckties. Zhou wore a gray V-neck T-shirt and, unlike anyone I'd met in Shengzhou so far, spoke English with an easy confidence. "This brand, it just totally vanished."
In 2010 and 2011, Zhou said, Vision was making roughly a million Trump ties for PVH each year. Those years appeared to be the peak of Vision's production of Trump's neckties. But it appeared the Trump had jumped into formalwear just as the rise of business casual was plaguing the industry. Beginning in 2012, orders for Trump ties steadily eroded until Zhou says he was making just 500,000 in 2014. Although Trump's apparel brand seemed on the decline, no one had anticipated it would disappear literally overnight.
"He had said a lot of bad language about the Mexican immigrants," Zhou said, "then the department stores, Macy's, said they didn't want to carry the ties anymore." In Shengzhou, PVH's elimination of its work with Trump meant the sudden loss of a brand that, at least for Vision, had been a mainstay of its annual production. "All of a sudden they called and said ‘no more Trump.'"
Although I managed to interview more than a dozen factory-floor workers during my time in Shengzhou, no category of employee proved more accessible and more eager to chat with me than the white-collar managers at the city's factories. After a long summer of stonewalling from PVH, the openness of these managers caught me off guard, especially as their candor didn't seem to stem from inexperience; instead, it appeared that the factories of Shengzhou simply hadn't learned from their foreign customers to default to secrecy.
I encountered but one exception, of course: PVH's regional manager, Mr. Gao, who ran the company's office downtown. When Jackie called him to request an interview, Gao became the first and only person in Shengzhou to regard us with a tone verging on hostile.
After asking Jackie if we were media, Mr. Gao said we would need an official letter authorizing the interview and said he was on vacation and would thus not disclose the address of PVH's office.
Gao quickly hung up, declining an interview and refusing to provide us the address of PVH's Shengzhou office.
Gao's few minutes on the phone with Jackie represented the closest I got to an interview with PVH. After silence from the company, I also contacted dozens of former PVH employees to ask for help; the few who responded mostly did so to tell me they'd signed nondisclosure agreements and were barred from discussing PVH's supply-chain activities.
In many ways, the consumer supply chain is both the driver and the embodiment of our current stage of global capitalism. Without any national allegiance, companies can move their operations fluidly between countries, adhering to almost no one set of rules. In fact, the ever-present threat of foreign capital deciding to ditch a country judged to have too-expensive labor or overly burdensome regulations has been enough to compel countries to loosen laws governing working conditions, tax policy, and professional licensing across the globe. Mainstream economists call this a feat of market-driven efficiency, while labor groups describe it as a race to the bottom; Donald Trump has pointed to this element of competition when discussing his opposition to a $15 minimum wage here in America.
The lack of regulations governing global capital also means that firms have little compulsion to reveal much of anything about how, and where, their merchandise gets made.
Without any national allegiance, companies can move their operations fluidly between countries, adhering to almost no one set of rules.
This norm of supply-chain secrecy routinely leads to very practical frustrations of labor activists, whose work often must start with obtaining reliable information. Such difficulties were put into stark relief when, in April of 2013, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, an eight-story factory building known as Rana Plaza collapsed, killing more than 1,100 garment workers, who were earning well under a dollar an hour for the perilous work. It was the world's worst industrial accident in years. And, at first, little was known about the numerous, mostly subcontracted factories that the building housed.
For days after the catastrophe, labor activists and union representatives dug through the building's rubble. In addition to hundreds of corpses, the wreckage also contained clues about which brands were accountable. It took weeks for a more complete picture to emerge of which brands had used the facility. Yet, by this time, the catastrophe had largely left the front pages of American newspapers, sparing such corporations the worst of the potential publicity consequences.
"The fact that there had to be all this investigation done to identify the retailers and brands in the first place was only the case because of this extraordinary lack of transparency," said Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which advocates for better working conditions across the globe. Nova and his organization played a central role in both the Rana Plaza investigation and the drafting of a subsequent accord signed by more than 200 apparel companies that pledged to improve safety standards in Bangladeshi factories. "Transparency is not an end in itself," Nova said, "but it facilitates accountability."
A decade ago, after intense pressure from labor groups, Nike became one of the first major apparel companies to disclose its suppliers. In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, a growing number of apparel companies — including leading names like H&M, Patagonia, and Adidas — have opted to disclose the names of their manufacturers in recent years. Yet these companies still represent a mere sliver of the industry.
Marsha Dickson, a professor at the University of Delaware who specializes in corporate responsibility along the apparel supply chain, says that, when refusing to disclose information about their manufacturers, companies often point to competitive concerns, a claim of uncertain merit. "There's always been the fear that the suppliers will be stolen away," Dickson said, "but there's been research that says that doesn't really happen — get over it."
Dickson says that a primary concern of companies going transparent is that activists and journalists might visit the factories and generate negative publicity. "The fear is that they might not be doing enough," she said, "or might be perceived as not doing enough."
Brands and retailers can not only shield themselves from liability and transparency, they can also operate with genuine ignorance of who makes their goods where.
In addition to competitive and public relations concerns, there is yet another barrier to full disclosure: Many companies simply don't have a clear understanding of who, exactly, is making their merchandise. Through a complex layering of contracting and subcontracting of suppliers, brands and retailers can not only shield themselves from liability and transparency, they can also operate with genuine ignorance of who makes their goods where.
According to Robert Handfield, a professor of supply-chain management at North Carolina State University, transparency within the confines of corporate sourcing departments has marked a developing trend over the past decade, as companies seek to map, control, and contain their own supply chains.
With "being able to have greater visibility and access to where your stuff is coming from," Handfield said, "comes power to be able to drive better decision-making. It's just common sense."
At last week's presidential debate, in response to Hillary Clinton's criticisms, Donald Trump launched into several rambling tirades against his opponent's record. The most heated of these centered on his denunciation of Clinton over her long-standing support of free-trade policies, which, he alleged, made it easier for companies to relocate their jobs to China. "You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product," Trump said, clinging to his lectern as if dizzied by his own rage, "they're using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China!"
On the latter point, Trump's assertion is buttressed by the feverish growth of the city where he has manufactured millions of his own neckties. In a campaign built on unprecedented contradictions, that Trump himself has profited handsomely from the very outsourcing he has claimed is his top priority to prevent still stands out as astonishing.
Over the past few years, with its influx of money from customers like Trump, Shengzhou has spent heavily on updating its infrastructure, gotten its very own five-star skyscraper hotel, an array of ultra-modern shopping malls, and, perhaps most valuable, a growing manufacturing base in electronics — a far more sought-after production category than garment weaving. Although the campaign season has been rife with negative coverage of his business ventures, Trump should be given at least some small credit for this Chinese city's prosperity.
And still, though for years Trump patronized the factories where they worked, many of the workers I spoke with had never heard of him. The few Shengzhou assembly-line workers that were aware of Trump had only just learned his name. The long arm of Trump's fame finally reached these workers not through his storied business enterprises but through his precipitous rise as a right-wing iconoclast in American politics.
"We've known about Hillary for quite some time, but Trump has just recently emerged," said a 47-year-old worker named Tong, who has made ties at Maidilang for more than a decade. "We don't understand him yet."
Spencer Woodman is a writer in New York City.
Additional reporting by Jackie Cai.