Our shopping choices have far-reaching consequences. But what exactly is a clothing supply chain, and what does it mean for our wardrobes?
Breaking down the fashion supply chain
Whenever we shop, we’re (often unknowingly) participating in a long chain of events. Have you ever stopped to wonder who made the clothes you’re wearing? What sort of life they’re living? When brands have transparent supply chains, we can trace the journey our fashion choices have made and the lives they have touched along the way. But the reality is, supply chains are complex and aren’t very transparent (yet).
Clothing supply chains often involve many individuals at all levels of production, which can make it difficult for companies to know where the different parts of their products originate. Luckily for us, we have slow fashion entrepreneur Ania Zoltkowski to break the process down, one step at a time.
So what is a clothing supply chain?
The clothing, textiles, and footwear industry is incredibly labour intensive. It is estimated that the fashion industry employs tens of millions of garment workers worldwide, most of whom are women.
But what is a clothing supply chain exactly? The fashion supply chain refers to the process of tracing each step of the clothes manufacturing process, from sourcing of the raw materials, to the factories where those materials are made into garments; and the distribution network by which the clothes are delivered to consumers. It’s a lengthy process, and it’s extremely rare for raw materials to be grown, processed, sewn, and sold all in one location.
The global clothing supply chain involves millions of people as well as tonnes of water, chemicals, crops, and oil. This is what makes it possible for your clothing to reach your wardrobe. Within the last 30 years, there has been an increased push for high speed, high volume, and cheap consumption. As we know, fast fashion can be terribly damaging to the environment, people, and animals. Tragedies, such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, have also happened, as consumerism started being valued over a transparent, safe, and ethical supply chain.
The design stage is where details of fabrics, silhouettes, trims, and finishes are established. The majority of today’s clothing is based on current trends, so it is designed to only last a few wears. This is what we call “fast fashion“, which is responsible for a vast amount of clothing ending up in landfills. It’s said that 92m tonnes of textiles waste is created each year and the equivalent to a rubbish truck full of clothes ends up on landfill sites every second. We’ve become accustomed to discarding old styles for the next new thing.
In contrast to fast fashion, considered design or “slow fashion“ contemplates each phase of the clothing supply chain. The designer considers the materials and their impact, the production, and the consumer use stage to minimise the adverse effects on the world around them.
Many brands are turning away from fast fashion’s increasing rhythm and toward a more sustainable, long-lasting approach. Increasingly, labels are embracing the Cradle to Cradle design framework. Cradle to Cradle is a philosophy of responsible design, which states that all products must be designed to either fit one of two cycles:
- Biological cycle: where the loop is closed by returning products harmlessly to nature; or
- Industrial cycle: where the loop is closed by recycling non-degradable material.
The production of textiles encompasses the complex process of growing or creating the raw textile material, spinning it into a fibre, weaving it into a fabric, dyeing, and finishing it.
Textile production is a major contributor to environmental pollution because of the associated high greenhouse gas emissions and contamination of air and freshwater supplies.
The textile industry is estimated to use 378bn litres of water annually, using up to 200 litres of water to process, dye, and finish each kilo of textiles.
The textile industry is estimated to use 378bn litres of water annually, using up to 200 litres of water to process, dye, and finish each kilo of textiles.WWF
In addition, lots of chemicals are used throughout the world to turn raw materials into textiles, many of which are released into freshwater systems—potentially contaminating water used for agriculture and human consumption.
The cultivation of cotton alone relies on heavy consumption of fresh water, and it can take thousands of litres of water to make the cotton needed to produce one single t-shirt. The pesticides used for growing cotton taint the water and soil causing significant loss of biodiversity. Many farmers become victims of pesticide poisoning that can even lead to death.
Sadly, forced labour can also be found in textile production, especially cotton picking, spinning, and weaving stages. And child labour is known to be common in Uzbekistan, as children work for no pay as cotton pickers. The good news is, the situation is improving and there are certifications that hold cotton production to higher standards. Keeping an eye out for Fair Trade or Global Organic Textile Standard certified cotton is a good place to start.
The clothing production phase involves the cutting, sewing, and finishing of a garment. Within the last 30 years, most production has shifted to recently industrialised countries, predominately in Asia, in search of cheap labour. The arrival of large clothing brands into these areas was initially greeted with hope for the emancipation of millions of workers. Yet, it has also led to poor working conditions in some factories and sweatshops.
According to the International Labour Organization, almost 21 million people in the world are victims of forced labour within the clothing and textile industry—11.4 million of these are women and girls. Since the majority of garment workers are female, the effective protection of women’s rights is imperative.
Sexual harassment and discrimination exist within many garment factories. Further, the right to maternity leave is often not granted, and women who are hired on fixed-duration contracts often do not get them renewed after maternity leave. Many factories lack adequate nursing facilities or child care, which effectively discriminates against women, making it very difficult for them to continue working once they have children. Women also get paid less for the same work as men do.
Distribution and retail
As clothes are manufactured, they need to then be transported globally to retailers and consumers. This widespread transportation of clothes and textiles leads to increased pollution. Producing carbon emissions is inevitable in distribution. And while brands and companies can take measures towards minimising this impact, tactics like carbon offsetting are not wholly reliable and, if used at all, must be used in conjunction with other holistic approaches to more sustainable management of the supply chain.
International shipping is also a complex topic. Regardless of whether we buy a piece of clothing online or in our local shopping centre, that item has already travelled around the world in some form, and had an impact on the environment up to that point in its journey. This means we as consumers must be more informed and make decisions based on more than just where a garment has come from, rather taking into account every step the garment has made along the way.
The consumer stage of the clothing supply chain comprises the consumer usage of the garment, the laundering of the clothing, and the end of product use.
Part of a garment’s environmental impact comes from laundering and not just growing, processing, and producing the fabric. For example, in 2017, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from the laundering of synthetic textiles like polyester.
Sadly, across the board, textile recovery rates for recycling remain relatively low, despite textiles being considered almost 100% reusable or recyclable. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, more than $500bn of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling. In fact, only around a quarter of all waste textiles in the west are reclaimed, with 13% going to material recovery and 13% to incineration. The remainder goes to landfills, where fabrics contribute to the overall environmental impact of those sites, including production of methane emissions to air and pollution of groundwater.
What can we do as consumers and citizens?
The clothing supply chain is a complex system. These issues can seem overwhelming, leaving us with a feeling of helplessness. However, brands respond to consumer demands. If enough of us demand change, the fashion industry will need to reassess its current practices within the supply chain.
Together, we have the power to make a difference and create a more responsible fashion industry.