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Nice Uniform, Officer — Now Where’s It Made?
March 31, 2014
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Canadian border guards wear uniforms supplied by R Nicholls Distributors, which was revealed to manufacture goods in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Mexico. (Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Every year, the Canadian government spends millions of dollars outfitting civil servants in various uniforms. Want to know where those uniforms are made? Until recently, the government agency responsible for purchasing them didn't disclose that kind of information. But now, thanks to a Toronto Star report, garment manufacturing information is about to be released.

The Star used an Access to Information request to acquire sales documents from a major government supplier, R Nicholls Distributors. The company has supplied clothing for Canadian prison and border guards, various police departments and other government employees — and, it turns out, much of that clothing was made in factories in Vietnam, Cambodia and Mexico.

The Star points out that there is no evidence to suggest that R Nicholls supplied clothing that was made in sweatshops. 

Now, Public Works and Government Services Canada, which oversees government contracts like the one to R Nicholls, has changed its policy to disclose where clothes it buys are made. 

“For all future procurements undertaken by [Public Works], the country of origin will be disclosed and made available to the public as part of the contract agreement. For active contracts, [Public Works] is working with companies to disclose the country of origin, which will be posted on our website,” Public Works spokesperson Annie Trepanier wrote in an email to the Star.

The news could be part of a trend. In December, the Ontario government introduced an ethical sourcing policy for the clothing it buys. This ensures that the government will only purchase clothing from manufacturers that follow labour laws and have decent working conditions. 

"Canadians now have more information, and that can be useful," Bob Jeffcott, Policy Analyst at Maquila Solidarity Network, told "But it's no more information than an individual shopper would get by looking at their labels. Country of origin already applies to products you buy in stores. It's not a huge step forward. An ethical procurement policy would be one in which you actually disclose the locations of the factories. That's not far fetched — many universites already have policies that require that kind of information."

Many Canadian retailers — including Hudson's Bay Co. — have also pledged to enact ethical sourcing policies. This comes about a year after the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, in which an industrial accident killed more than 1,100 garment workers. For more information about that incident, as well as some informative long reads about the treatment of garment workers in developing world countries, see our post from last year here

In December, thousands of Cambodian garment workers went on strike to protest poor labour conditions at factories that produce clothing for big Western companies. You can read more about that here

It's not uncommon or illegal for government contractors to manufacture goods outside of Canada. But most government spending on clothing and uniforms goes to goods that are made in Canada. In fact, Public Works says 98 per cent of its spending on clothing and uniforms for the RCMP and the Department of National Defence — two agencies that specifically mandate that suppliers make their goods in Canada — was for clothing that was made in Canada. 

But even clothing that is said to be made in Canada often has origins elsewhere. According to the Textile Labeling Act, if a garment is labelled "Made in Canada," it means the last major transformation occurred in Canada, and that at least 51 per cent of the total costs of production must take place here. Garments can also be labelled "Product of Canada," which means 98 per cent of the total direct costs of production take place in Canada. And if the material comes from somewhere else, that is supposed to be stated as well (though the Competition Bureau of Canada doesn't always police this). 

Via Toronto Star


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