The apparel industry put Hoi An on the bucket list for travellers to Vietnam, but is the industry more harm than good?
Hoi An, central Vietnam, is a maze of tailoring shops, Japanese merchant houses and Chinese architecture. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is an exceptionally preserved Southeast Asian trading port.
It is a place of real beauty.
From high-end boutiques, to stalls in local markets, made-to-measure suits and dresses are a big attraction. The city is cosmopolitan and architecturally distinctive — part of a 1000-year legacy as one of Asia’s most important ports. The proximity to underdeveloped beaches and the world-famous Bánh Mi Phương sandwich shop make it a tourist favourite in Vietnam.
I cycled into Hoi An from my homestay in the countryside. The myriad of tailoring shops were the first sign of tourism. They lined the narrow lantern-edged streets. Promises of suits in 24 hours, in time for tourists leaving for their next destination, were common. The sheer number of businesses meant that the costs were kept low. The competition between stores was evident from the desperation in the sales pitches.
While Hoi An is famous for tailoring businesses, bespoke made-to-order clothing stores are common across Southeast Asia, from Bangkok to Singapore. The price and quality varies between each city, but the principle is the same. Tourists come in, take measurements, and pick up their made-to-measure clothes a couple of days later.
Mekong Tailor, run by Voung and her husband, is located in the busting centre of Hoi An. Their business is growing rapidly. Tourism in Vietnam has exploded: in 1992 there were just over 250,000 foreign tourists, by 2011 there were over 6 million.
Mekong Tailor works with a factory 20 minutes from the retail store. In Vietnam, female employees are estimated to make up around 90 per cent of the apparel factory workforce. The majority of street traders are also female. Sun, a 70-year-old stallholder, had her first sale at 3pm when I purchased a bottle of water from her. Factory workers have the benefit of a secure income; market traders like Sun do not.
Voung was environmentally aware. She proudly shared how she reuses larger pieces of fabric. Despite this, 3-5kg of scraps were thrown out every day. The scale of the waste provides some insight into how busy her store gets. My friend bought a dress for $70 from Voung. The process, from initial measurements to picking up the final items, lasted three days. The dress was skilfully designed from various pictures found online and in magazines.
I spoke to another friend who also spent time in Vietnam this summer. She did not get any items made, as she did not want to rush the tailoring process over two days. She had not considered the ethics of getting a personalised item so quickly. “The conditions would be better than a ready-made-garment factory, but maybe I’m being naïve,” she told me.
The skill of the tailors is evident from the final pieces. But when the items cost so little, is anyone getting exploited through the supply chain?
The social consequences from fast fashion are well documented. The factories used by Mekong Tailor are significantly smaller than those contracted by global brands like H&M or Nike. The factories working for local tailoring companies have the pressure of fast deadlines, but without the security of international standards for workers’ rights and environmental conditions. Accreditation schemes exist, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative, but focus on suppliers to fast fashion brands. Inadequate transparency and disclosure of conditions in factories contributes to the problem.
There is a lack of research into the conditions faced by workers employed by the tailoring factories, not just in Vietnam, but also across Asia. The distinction between internationally contracted apparel factories, and the factories used by companies like Mekong Tailor is not made. Yet, there are thousands of guides online to find cheap, fast tailors.
The Center for American Progress found that in the main apparel producing countries, including Vietnam, only Chinese employees could afford a “decent life”. All countries fell short of the living wage. Factories exploit garment factory workers — predominantly young women — every day.
One of the benefits of buying from a tailor while on holiday, compared to a large international company, is that you are supporting the local economy. The best tailors can trace the trade through several generations of their family. Others have been set up in copycat businesses to capitalise on the influx of tourists looking for custom-made clothing.
Prior research can help to determine the best tailor available. The cost can be a good indication to the quality of the fabrics, the skill of the labourer and the factory conditions – but scams are common. There are thousands of blogs and reviews on Trip Advisor that can provide recommendations for the better tailoring businesses.
A suit made in 24 hours? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Carys Tetlaw is on a year exchange at the ANU from the University of Leeds studying Sustainability and Environmental Management.