In this guide, we share our experience sourcing compliant apparel and textiles manufacturers for American and European businesses. Keep reading, and learn more about the signals that really matter when qualifying a supplier, and why manufacturers tend to lack confidence in their own capability to ensure compliance with overseas substance regulations. Further down this post, you also find an overview of various substance labeling regulations, applicable to textiles and apparel in the US and EU.
Assessing a supplier’s ability to ensure compliance with foreign substance regulations
Apparel and textiles manufacturers with a strong compliance track record is rare. We have encountered situations where large manufacturers, even those with the US and EU and their primary markets, are unable to present a single test report proving compliance with overseas substance regulations. Our experience tells us that there are essentially three factors that matter when assessing whether an apparel manufacturer is even able to comply:
1. Main Market: Test reports are usually held, and paid for, by the importer, rather than the supplier. This partly explains why so many manufacturers are unable to produce said compliance documents. Manufacturers exporting large volumes to buyers in the EU and the US, are more likely to be able to ensure compliance than those focused on the domestic market, for example.
2. REACH Compliance: As of today, EU REACH compliance is far more common among Chinese clothing manufacturers, as compared to other regulations, namely those in the US and other markets. However, previous REACH compliance is a strong indicator of the suppliers’ ability to control substances, and may therefore serve as a benchmark.
3. Substance Test Reports: Not all test reports include the title of a specific regulation or directive. Instead, a testing company may check samples based on a list of substances, such as AZO dyes, lead and formaldehyde.
Why Chinese Apparel Manufacturers are unsure about their own capability to ensure compliance
When I refer to an Apparel manufacturers ability to ensure compliance, I am not really referring to their production capabilities. What I am referring to is the quality of their subcontractors, and the suppliers’ ability to ensure that they are supplied with compliant materials.
Apparel manufacturers purchase virtually all fabrics and components from subcontractors. The number of subcontractors can vary between a few, sometimes up to a hundred. As such, ensuring compliance is all in the hands of the fabrics suppliers, rather than the apparel manufacturer. Yet, in the end, it’s the apparel manufacturer that is left holding the bag in case the apparel turns out to be non-compliant.
These days, we have found that it’s rather common that apparel manufactures require that their American and European buyers submit pre-production samples for compliance testing – before they even accept their orders. Starting in 2014, we have seen numerous such requests made by clothing manufacturers. Prior to that, I cannot recall a single case when suppliers actually required their (soon to be) buyers to verify regulatory compliance.
Worth noting is that these manufacturers all had strong compliance track records, presenting a large number of relevant documents. Yet, the lack of transparency in the supply chain makes it crucial for both buyers and manufacturers to verify that the batch material is verified, before it’s too late.
How to avoid skyrocketing compliance costs when importing apparel and textiles
Laboratory testing is not free, and you are expected to foot the bill. Yes, the buyer is always expected to pay for ‘extras’, even in situations as described above. Product testing companies charge fees based on the number of different materials. As such, only a handful of SKUs can quickly add up a several thousands of dollars in additional costs – a hefty sum for many apparel startups.
The good news is that test reports must usually not be issued for each SKU. Instead, importers can reduce the number of required substance tests by reducing the number of different materials and colors – for example by reusing the same fabrics on more than one SKU. This in turn has the benefit that it can reduce the Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) per design, a topic you can read more about here.
Apparel Regulations in the United States
Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA)
All children’s products, defined as ‘products intended for children aged 12 years or below, must comply with CPSIA. This also includes children’s clothing. The consumer product safety law regulates various aspects of products, including substance restrictions, physical properties and labelling requirements. Compliance testing is often mandatory, and importers are also required to issue a Children’s Product Certificate.
Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA)
FHSA requires products containing certain substances to carry warning labels. One such substance is Formaldehyde, a chemical (sometimes) used for fabric treatment. The scope of FHSA also covers other substances, some of which may be used during fabric production. Click here for a list of CPSC substance regulations and mandatory standards.
Flammable Fabrics Act (FFA)
The Flammable Fabrics Act regulates flammable fabrics for apparel, furniture and other products. Products and fabrics within its scope may require compliance testing with an appropriate flammability standard. Click here to read more about the Flammable Fabrics Act.
California Proposition 65
CA Prop 65 restricts more than 800 substances in consumer products. That said, compliance is only mandatory for companies based in, or selling to customers in, California. Very few Chinese apparel manufacturers can show relevant test reports.
In the United States, labelling requirements are often as comprehensive as product safety regulations. While CPSIA and CA Prop 65 has their own respective set of labelling requirements, the following applies to apparel as a whole:
- Country of Origin (e.g. Made in China) is mandatory for all products imported to the United States, apparel and textiles included.
- The fiber content must be specified (e.g. 100% cotton)
- Care labels may either be written, in English, or ASTM D5489 symbols.
- The importer’s company name must be present on the label
Apparel Regulations in the European Union
REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals)
REACH restricts substances in all consumer products sold in the European Union, including textiles and apparel for all age groups. To ensure compliance, a product must not contain SVHC (Substance of Very High Concern) above the set limit. As an importer, you don’t need to keep track of every single SVHC that your product may contain. Instead, compliance testing companies, such as SGS and Asiainspection, know what to check for.
Worth noting is that third party testing is not mandatory, at least not yet. However, many small business owners remain unaware of the fact that consumers in the EU may require a seller to present compliance documents (e.g. a test report) without any specific reason. If such a request is made, the seller then has 45 days to present the relevant documents. This certainly puts a lot of pressure on EU based importers to verify the compliance of their produce early in the process.
Ensuring compliance is never free, but the implementation of EU wide substance restrictions offers at least one benefit: REACH compliance is far more common among Chinese apparel manufacturers, as compared to regulations in other countries. In fact, we often use REACH compliance as a benchmark when selecting manufacturers for buyers in other markets, including the United States. A supplier that is able to ensure REACH compliance is, in most cases, able to ensure compliance with FHSA and California Proposition 65.
The European Union textiles labelling regulations apply to products containing at least 80 % by weight of textile fibers, and “products treated in the same way as textile products”. If your company is based anywhere in the EU, you must ensure compliance with the following textiles labeling requirements:
- The fiber composition (single or multiple) must be specified on the label (e.g. 98% cotton, 2% Lycra)
- As of today, there is no mandatory sizing system in the EU. However, importers are recommended to apply one of the following: EN 13402-1:2001, EN 13402-2:2002 and EN 13402-3:2004
- Unlike the United States, there are no mandatory care label symbols in the EU. However, importers are advised to apply standard ISO labels.
- Country or Origin Labelling is not mandatory for most textile products
- Labels shall be written in the language/s of the member state/s in which the product is sold
- Certain local regulations may apply in some EU states
Do you need help to ensure compliance with all mandatory apparel regulations and standards?
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a. An overview of product safety standards in the United States, Europe, Australia & more
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d. Checklists that guide you step-by-step through the entire compliance process
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