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What you need to know about clothing supply chains

What you need to know about clothing supply chains
By Biyya Mansoer

The past few decades have seen major structural changes in clothing supply chains; which have become increasingly globalized and complex. Not to worry! We are here to break down the components of the clothing supply chain into simpler steps.

It’s like one of the songs when we were little: the tree comes from a seed, and the seed comes from a fruit etc. Everything we have comes from a process we sometimes forget about. Clothing supply chains have many stages of production. This can make it difficult for fashion companies to know exactly where each component of their products comes from and how it’s made: the buttons, the lining, the zips, etc.
In fact, most designers have never met their suppliers. Why? What are the things about supply chain that a conscious consumer like you should know?

The past few decades have seen major structural changes in clothing supply chains as they have become increasingly globalized and complex. Not to worry! We are here to break it down into simpler steps. 

But first, what exactly is a clothing supply chain?

The clothing supply chain traces all the steps of the process in creating a product; from design to you wearing it. The clothing supply chain also happens to be very labor intensive; employing around 60-75 million people, according to the ILO.

The stages in the clothing supply chain:

#1 Designing the garments

This process involves finalizing the design elements of a product; this can be the colour, silhouette, construction, fabric, pattern, and other details. In fast fashion brands, designs are often influenced by major designers and current fashion trends, according to this study. 

What makes slow fashion brands different? Instead of consistently trying to keep up with current trends at a fast rate, designers are more cautious of the social and environmental impacts of the materials in their design; ensuring that materials are sourced sustainably. Cradle to Cradle is a great certification to look out for when searching for sustainable designs. 

Image credit (left): @filippa_k
Image credit (right): Pinterest (original source unknown)

#2: Textile production and sourcing 

Now, this is probably the most complex stage of the clothing supply chain but a crucial step before bringing a design to life. The quantity of materials sourced is based on the number of orders that a fashion brand demands. Sustainable brands often take a slow fashion approach and are mindful of the quantities of garments that they produce. On the other hand, fast fashion retailers mass-produce garments that lead to overproduction. Many of these garments become unsold and may end up being disposed of as waste in landfills. 

The production of textiles involves a variety of elements which generally include:

1. Growing and harvesting the fibers
2. Spinning the fibers into yarn
3. Weaving or knitting  the fibers into fabric
4. Pre-treatment of the fabric: this includes washing, bleaching, removing fatty waxes from natural fibers
5. Dyeing and Printing the fabrics
6. Finishing treatments to add aesthetic appeal or special technical properties to the finished fabric 

Source: Chem Sec Textile Guide

Image Credit: People Tree

The textile industry is associated with having a high carbon footprint, heavy usage of water, and the contamination of water supplies. According to the NRDC, textile mills are responsible for one-fifth of industrial water pollution globally, and to make clothes, it uses 20,000 chemicals that can cause cancer. The majority of textile factories happen to be in developing countries where the governments may not be able to keep up with the industry’s very large environmental footprint. 

Some textiles also require a massive amount of water and this common textile is cotton. For instance, it can take 2700 litres of water to make one single t-shirt, which is enough drinking water for one person to live on for two and a half years; according to  WWF.

Aside from the negative environmental effects, the textile industry (especially cotton)  is also associated with a number of labour violations. There have been cases of modern slavery and child labour involved in the cotton-picking and weaving stages of the production process. According to the ILO, there are approximately 170 million children that are engaged in child labour where the majority of them are working in the textile industry. 

For cotton that promotes better environmental standards and labour practices look for certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Better Cotton Initiative and Fairtrade. Check out some organic cotton products here. 

#3: Designs and materials are ready? Time to manufacture the garments

This is the stage where a design is brought to life! Raw materials are sewed to make garments and later on, they are cut and finished. Garments will be manufactured according to the materials available and the quantities that fashion brands may demand.

For the manufacturing stages,  it has been common for many fashion brands over the past three decades to outsource their production in developing countries for cheap labour.  Unfortunately, workers in these countries are at higher risk of exploitation. Garment workers are often working in poor conditions with endless working hours; some are forced to work 14-16 hours 7 days a week or even at late hours to meet a fashion brand’s strict deadline. Wages are also very low that they cannot refuse overtime (Sustain Your Style)

GOTS, Fair Trade are some certifications Renoon spots to ensure ethical practices are being applied.

Image credit (Centre): Eileen Fisher
Image Credit (background): Pinterest (original source unknown)

#4: Distribution from the factory to retailers and consumers

Once the garments are manufactured, packaged, and ready to be sold, they are transported and shipped worldwide to retailers and consumers. With so much outsourcing for manufacturing garments nowadays there is a lot of transportation used in this process, which leads to an increase in land and air pollution. Buying from local brands and collections can help to reduce carbon emissions because less transportation is used. However, this may not always be the most feasible option and the environmental impacts resulting from transportation usage are inevitable.  

On the bright side, some brands have made a conscious effort to offset their carbon emissions in this process. High five to them! 

Some certifications we look for in brands: B Corp, beclimateneutral.

 #5: The garments are ready for purchase

This is the final stage where garments are being sold in-store or online before reaching the hands of consumers. Putting the garments for sale either in-store or online can have a high carbon footprint. For instance, with physical clothing stores, carbon emissions are a result of energy usage from the store lighting, ventilation, and thermal energy for heating; according to the Retail Forum for Sustainability. Whereas with online shops, this results from the extra shipping and transportation involved to deliver the orders to consumers. Read on Renoon the impact of online vs offline shopping.

Image Source: Kowtow.

The consumer stage of the supply chain also involves the usage of the garments after they are purchased from us, their maintenance (laundry and storage), and the end of its life. This is when a garment is no longer serves us. Read more about what happens to clothes when we throw them away. 

Now that you have been given an overview of the stages within the clothing supply chain and some of the not-so-sustainable aspects, how can the clothing supply chain be more sustainable? As consumers, we play a huge role. 

A great starting point is supporting collections and smaller brands that are taking steps to minimise their environmental footprint and, making a conscious effort to end slavery and exploitation in their supply chains. 

Start your search for sustainable and ethical fashion today

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