What we uncovered about Ivanka Trump’s fashion line
And what our research means for consumers everywhere
Last month we set out to research the Ivanka Trump apparel line*.
Well first, you can’t blame us for our timeliness. Her line was recently dropped by Nordstrom (among other retailers), removed from merchandising at TJMaxx and Marshalls, and a boycott is on against retailers that carry or do business with the Trump family called Grab your Wallet, encouraging people to make their voice heard through their purchases. Mr. Trump today tweeted his displeasure with Nordstrom.
But also, as an objective, independent (and nonpartisan, we might add) consumer resource, we wanted to research the line to discover what we could about the brand’s supply chain practices, and whether there was indeed cause for concern - or find out if this was a brand with a transparent supply chain, using positive manufacturing practices.
So we set out searching for the same sets of information we look at when we research any brand at Project JUST.
First, we looked in the most logical place: the brand website. We looked for any publicly available information there, as well as on the websites of partnership or umbrella holding companies. In this case, we looked at the G-III Apparel Group (G-III)— they hold the license for the Ivanka Trump clothing line and handle their manufacturing and distribution.
To note: there are multiple kinds of licensing agreements, and in fact, most celebrity lines are built on these various agreements. Celebrities who see an opportunity to sell a line of clothing prefer not to build out a whole brand, including its manufacturing, from scratch. Ivanka herself admitted as much:
“When I started my business, I recognized where my strengths were and knew that I didn’t have any experience in production and manufacturing,” Ms. Trump said in a rare interview. “I am not a designer. I am an entrepreneur.”
It’s reported that Ivanka was very hands on with the design, although as of January, she has released publicly that she will be removing herself entirely from the brand’s management and day-to-day operations.
So we dug in: we looked for workplace, labor and environmental policies, 10k’s, CSR or sustainability reports, checked out the brand’s online store product listings and descriptions, their social media accounts, and more.
Then, we looked at publicly available information from non-affiliated resources, media, NGO’s and government bodies.
[**When we can find them, we also look at factory audit reports, certifications that the brand may have received, and any evidence we can find to back those certifications up.]
Finally, we tracked the brand down at a retailer to try to trace back the codes on the clothes to factories, manufacturing groups and any additional information associated with these businesses. This would allow us to see if we could dig up any more data on working conditions, factory pay, environmental practices, community partnerships, etc.
We also tweeted and messaged the brand and found contacts within the firm and on their public relations team to reach out to. We hoped they could help us fill in the gaps.
Six of us from five countries researched for a month, logging in over 60 hours of research including web searches, phone calls, tweets to the brand, visits to the stores, and questions for sales reps, brand employees and the PR firm. We contacted 21 different people with no responses.
So what did we find?
Well, essentially. We were able to find a few things including determining where she makes her apparel line:
We were able able to track down several factories that manufacture for G-III in China and Indonesia, but couldn’t match them to any positive or negative reports. We also found a report in Forbes that stated that Ivanka had approached G-III to discuss bringing some manufacturing back to the U.S., a growing movement we’ve seen not just in the fashion industry.
We learned that G-III had USD 100 million in revenue in 2015 from the brand, and via Forbes reported a USD 29.5 million increase in 2016 sales. We found out that the Ivanka Trump line is tied to an initiative called, “#Womenwhowork” which the brand states, “celebrates women who work at all aspects of the lives.”
Finally our on-the ground research revealed something, if not exactly what we were looking for: on the racks at two stores we visited, we were disappointed to find multiple items of clothing carrying the Ivanka Trump name falling apart at the seams. You can read our full research report of what we found here.
Why is all of this concerning?
We know that like us, many of you would like the reassurance that the products we buy are made by fairly paid, adult workers in safe working conditions in factories that aren’t polluting the air and water around them. We want to make sure that we’re getting a fair deal for the $150+ we’re paying for a dress — an assumption of quality and proper manufacturing practices usually comes with a price tag like that.
But that isn’t always the case. Despite some progress over the last ten years, the fashion industry is still one of the most controversial industries in the world — notorious for its sweatshop like working conditions, use of toxic chemicals leading to water and land pollution, human rights violations including child labor and human trafficking… the list goes on.
How are these issues allowed to persist?
- Zero transparency = zero accountability. Well, you can imagine that if it was close to impossible for the research experts on the Project JUST team to find any information on Ivanka Trump’s supply chain — how hard it would be for you, the shopper, to know how responsibly they were made — and how easy it makes it for brands, fashion groups and factories to remain unaccountable, and keep problems hidden in this opaque web of purchase orders, paperwork, sub-contracting agreements and multi-national supply chains.
- Dispersed global supply chains = passing the buck on responsibility. It’s almost standard practice for big brands like Ivanka Trump to outsource their production to manufacturing facilities in countries like China and Bangladesh. Longer, more dispersed supply chains allow brands to wash their hands off any culpability, claiming no direct ties with transgressing facilities.
- Endorsements + catchy taglines = less scrutiny. To make matters worse, celebrity brands in particularly often get a free pass simply because of their celebrity — and coupled with catchy “do-good” taglines like #womenwhowork, they lead shoppers to believe that the brand is in the clear. We hoped to find this message of empowerment equally applicable down the supply chain, to the women actually manufacturing Ivanka Trump clothes. But just like Amy Larocca pointed out in her piece for NYMag, we were left wondering about how empowered the women who actually work for this brand felt — given that they’re ironically completely absent from the campaign itself.
What does this mean for consumers like you and me?
- Don’t get blinded by the light: always question celebrity lines: As Vanessa Friedman wrote in the NYTimes about the Ivanka Trump line,
“It’s selling the promise that women who wear her clothes can get a piece of her gold dust — and now that this gold dust is visible in the corridors (and news conferences) of power, that is only going to be more true.”
When we see Beyoncé, Jessica Simpson, Ivanka Trump or any Kardashian promoting an apparel line, we can assume all sorts of things: the celebrity designed them, they’ve worn the same items, or even they’re visiting manufacturing locations to ensure practices align with the celebrity’s values and ethics. Don’t. Each licensing agreement is a different beast with varying levels of involvement. Especially if the brand is available in stores nationwide, odds are the celeb hasn’t checked out the facility - it would be a massive undertaking to visit all those stores. And, buyer beware that a brand like this may actually face less scrutiny than you’d see with other popular brands, because of the celebrity name attached to it and the additional levels of complexity in production.
2. Don’t assume “Made in China” is good or bad: It could be bad, it could be good. And same with Made in the USA, for that matter. The FBI and Dept of Labor have run sting operations on sweatshops in NYC and LA, finding deplorable working conditions, which you usually only hear about in China and Bangladesh. Do your homework: look at what the brand shows you. And if they’re not telling, ask them — they should have nothing to hide.
3. Do your research: Don’t give brands like this the opportunity to hide behind opaque and sketchy supply chains. Demand transparency, demand information, do your homework before supporting a brand, and vote with your wallet. Each dollar makes a difference. Sign up for a membership at Project JUST to research brands, know their practices and make sure you’re getting a fair deal for your money.
If you liked this investigation, we’d like to hear it — leave a note in the comments and make sure to support our work by visiting projectjust.com/joinus.
You can watch our webcast detailing our research in to the Ivanka Trump line here.
You can read our research report on the Ivanka Trump line here.
*We did not research her shoe or jewelry line. Our investigation focused solely on her clothing line. Part of the reason we didn’t dig into these other lines is because our initial research turned up nothing. Mark Fisher, her shoe manufacturer, does have a (non-public) Code of Conduct, and her jewelry manufacturer, Diamond Dynamics, is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council. But, beyond that, neither organization got back to our queries, and we couldn’t find anything else. We also tried tracking down the shoes in stores.