Clothing manufacturers and associated regulators in emerging markets are often mindful that they need to meet the requirements of consumer safety rules in key developed world markets, but standards still need raising, and – crucially – enforcement.

Take Vietnam: steadily increasing its clothing exports, greater emphasis is being placed by manufacturers and its government on the safety of goods sold overseas. Clothing manufacturers must comply with both local and international safety standards laid out by the government, which are monitored both privately and the state.

Foreign-owned third-party testing agencies such as Bureau Veritas Vietnam, Intertek and SGS are major companies adding credibility to the quality of Vietnamese clothing exports.

German company TUV SUD is also active in this market and, on 17 May this year, opened a laboratory specifically for textile, clothing, and footwear testing. The Ho Chi Minh based facility covers chemical, quality and regulatory testing including flammability testing to ensure garments meet international standards.

The Directorate for Standards, Metrology and Quality (STAMEQ) is Vietnam’s national authority on clothing safety standards. Within this government department are three main quality testing centres: Quatest 1, 2, and 3, which enforce national quality standards.

The agency is attempting to bring national standards governing the safety of clothing sold locally up to a more globally recognised level. In late 2008, the department brought protective clothing production standards in line with ISO (International Organization for Standardization) protective clothing requirements. Vietnamese protective clothing regulations cover protection against chemicals (liquid and gas), heat and flame, in regards to material used in making protective clothing.

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However the governing of chemicals used in more mainstream clothing items has been lagging behind. According to the VietnamNet newspaper, formaldehyde was found in clothing imported from China last summer and although STAMEQ was involved in testing imports and determined they were not up to scratch, the agency could not do much at the time as the government has “no concrete regulations about the safety level of products and the allowed levels of substances.”

Chinese consumer product safety concerns
Of course Chinese consumer product safety has been a concern, and not just in Vietnam and in western markets, but in China too.

A recent sampling test conducted in June 2010 by Guangzhou administration for industry and commerce found only 66.7% of baby wear sold in local stores complied with Chinese clothing safety laws. High formaldehyde and alkalinity were the two prominent problems, according to the administration.

For example, a baby T-shirt labelled Baby Creations made by Shenzhen-based Wong Hau Tradings contained formaldehyde of about 70mg/kg, three times higher than the national standard, which says no more than 20mg/kg is permissible.

China issued its first ever safety standard for baby and toddler clothes – FZ/T81014-2008 – in 2008. Along with another standard GB18401-2003 for adult clothing, it seems China is developing a solid system to ensure clothing safety in the country, something that is bound to impact on exporters as well.

But there remain corners the authorities find hard to regulate, such as countless privately-owned fashion stores and on the Internet, says Jiang Weifang, a Shaoxing-based director of textile testing division under the Zhejiang Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision, a regional government agency in charge of product testing.

“Usually, if clothes are sold in big department stores, manufacturers will have to get the clothes tested as the testing report is required by the stores. However, if the clients are private stores, I don’t think the report is necessary,” she says. Tests are indeed not required by those shop owners.

A good example of the resulting problems are copyright fakes – for instance of the ‘Rui Li clothing’ line promoted by the monthly fashion magazine Rui Li and widely popular among Chinese young women aged 20 to 25. Complaints about these clothes causing skin irritation are numerous across the Internet.

“There are too many stores and it’s hard to control,” Jiang explains. She says her division has undertaken tests in accordance with both Chinese and European standards, depending on clients’ requests. “I think there are few differences between the two standards, but manufactures pay more attention to quality if the clothes are for export.”

Maggie Wu at Shanghai Challenge Textile, which undertakes both export and domestic trading, agrees, but says its Western clients usually require reports from multinational testing agencies such as the Geneva-based SGS Group. “Domestic clients rarely have such requirement, but they are happy when we give them tests done by us,” she says.

Organised retail raising the bar
In India, garment safety standards are perhaps at an even more nascent stage, though the fast growing organised retail sector and expanding base of discerning customers are making a difference.

“As the established brands are spreading across the country, the competition for satisfied consumers is becoming fierce and the stakes are high”, says Dilip Gianchandani, regional director of Intertek, the international agency, with laboratories for testing garments in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Tirupur.

In addition to the modern retail outlets, which according to Gianchandani presently handle only 3-4% of the Indian domestic clothing market, the arrival of international brands, growing quality awareness through the media, and a globally mobile young generation are all promoting demand for global safety norms within India’s domestic clothing market and industry.

Acting as a quality assurance partner for foreign importers and domestic brands, Intertek focuses on the quality manuals of the respective brands it works with and mainly acts as a bridge between Indian suppliers and overseas buyers.

On the official side, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) is the government agency responsible for setting standards for various consumer goods including garments. One of the regulations it enforces is actually long established: the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 prohibits imports of garments and textiles containing hazardous dyes as listed in its annexes.

Implementing these regulations at the port of landing is relatively easy. However Gianchandani stresses that imposing uniform clothing and textile safety laws across the country is a massive task, and presently there are no preventive monitoring agencies ensuring clothes and textiles on store shelves follow trading laws.

But organised retail seems to be setting its own standards. Chandrima Chatterjee, director (economic and consultancy) of the Apparel Export Promotion Council of India told just-style that the norms followed by the big Indian retailers such as Pantaloon, Lifestyle and Reliance, are the generic domestic sector norms for tomorrow.

“It is the beginning of new era where things will start maturing and those safety standards will evolve”, said Gianchandani. “India is a huge potential market for the big brands in times to come”.

By Wang Fangqing in Shanghai; Raghavendra Verma in New Delhi; and Karryn Miller in Hanoi.