Why you should stop buying patches from AliExpress

by Doug Coker Grant

AliExpress is an immensely popular website that has an enormous range of cheap products. On the surface, they seem to specialise in low quality and mass-produced goods. The price often makes it seem like a great option. But manufacturing cheaply comes with a multitude of other costs. I can't speak for everything on the site, but after making patches and embroidered goods from my bedroom (and now studio!) for over 2 years, here's my rundown on the cheap embroidered patches they offer. 

AliExpress, which is owned by the Alibaba Group, claims "THE ALIBABA CULTURE IS ABOUT CHAMPIONING SMALL BUSINESSES". Ironic, considering it's a haven for stolen artwork and cheap products. I've seen countless brands have their designs, pins, patches and artwork ripped off. Stores on AliExpress sell patches by the cent or as a mixed bag. I've seen them first hand. For a few dollars you can have 20 patches on your doorstep, and this is damaging in a lot of ways. 

Firstly, they're damaging to the environment. The patches are almost always stitched with un-certified (and potentially toxic) virgin polyester, on a polyester fabric. That's a lot of plastic. Once it's stitched, a hot knife cut or laser cut is used to cut off the excess fabric. If it were stitched on cotton, that wouldn't be possible. The cotton would burn, catch fire and stink up a storm. Secondly, they have questionable ethics. Since the manufacturing environment isn't guaranteed we have to ask: what kind of practices are in place? Are workers well-paid and represented? Is it safe? Is waste managed properly? Thirdly, (and most damaging to independent artists) is the stolen artwork. Factories on AliExpress rip off established creators, artists and brands. I've seen this with the likes of Retrograde Supply Co., Danny Brito, Astropuke, and countless more. I'm lucky enough to not have had my designs ripped off. People say it's a sign of success and that ‘imitation is the highest form of flattery’. To that I say: sure — maybe it's a sign of reach, but at the end of the day your art and business is being stolen. It’s not flattery, it’s theft.

The counterfeit patch market isn’t unique to AliExpress, it’s linked to other major retailers too. Wish, for example, sells the same rip-off patches (probably from the same sellers), but at a slightly higher price point.

Let’s say you’re out and about, and you see a patch on a bag. Telling if it’s a rip-off patch is easy: is it cheap looking and has a clean cut edge? Well, it’s probably a counterfeit. That clean edge is a sure fire way of knowing it's a plastic-based patch. It means it's had a hot knife cut, or laser cut. Majority of the time they’re not perfectly centred either. You can see them off centre like this one on Wish:

Compare that to the real patch, from Mokuyobi Threads:

Most of this seems obvious. And it is. Despite this, I've seen countless shops in Auckland and across New Zealand stock these kinds of patches. Not only are they supporting the stolen artwork trade, but they're taking business away from creators, local manufacturers, and sustainable, transparent businesses. All in the name of profit. I acknowledge I have the absolute privilege to shop locally and 9 times out of 10 pay more, but when I shop locally, I expect to see locally designed and produced goods. 

It's a classic vote-with-your-dollar scenario. Which businesses are supporting local infrastructure? Independent creators face the artist’s struggle everyday, and COVID-19 has amplified that. Post-pandemic I’d love to see New Zealand’s creative and fashion scene flourish with manufacturing — that way everyone wins. The creator, the manufacturer, the customer, the environment (to a degree) and Simon Bridges with his economy rhetoric.

But what can you do about it? Next time you see a bunch of (normally loose) patches at an 'alternative' or 'vintage' store, politely ask them where they sourced them. Their vintage clothes may be sourced from corners of the globe, but how about the patches? With a stroke of luck, you'll find some vintage patches or some locally designed, locally made ones. If not, educate ‘em. Some store owners might not know what they're supporting, but with a bit of education they can change their ways.

If you're looking to support ya local, look no further! Shop all products made by me here. If you're looking for some great gifts or vintage clothing, check out Crushes on Karangahape Road. For more vintage goods, check out Percy’s Vintage.