Since doing the Who Made my Clothes course last year in association with Fashion Revolution, I have become very curious about the journeys that our clothes make. Take the average cheap cotton t-shirt for example; where did it come from, where did it go to and who did it meet along the way? I took up this tale again in the recent course I did and wanted to explore it further with you here.
The protagonist of this tale is the t-shirt itself, which starts it’s life in the cotton fields. Up to 99% of the world’s cotton farmers are from developing countries[i]. The majority of cheap conventional cotton (not organic) is grown in the cotton belt of India[ii]. The 3 largest producing states being Gujurat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Forced and child labour is sadly very common in the cotton industry and India has the highest number of child workers in the world.[iii] You can read more about the children our t-shirt would meet in previous blog posts here and here.
As cotton is traded many times before reaching the factory, tracing where it was grown and picked is incredibly difficult. This is why most UK retailers cannot say whether child labour has been used in their supply chain or not. Furthermore, as conventional cotton uses 24% of global pesticides, 11% of all insecticides and seven out of the 15 most deadly carcinogens known to man it is highly damaging to these cotton workers.[iv]
Ginning & Spinning
After harvesting the cotton bales are transported to processors where it is washed and dried in a gin machine that separates the fibre from seeds and chaff. After this the cotton fibres are carded, combed and blended, often at another factory, before being spun. The cotton yarn can then be knitted into fabric which at this stage is rough and grey looking[v]. The next processing stage involves treatment with heat and chemicals until it looks as we see it in the shops, soft and white. Up to 2,700 litres of water[vi] are used to produce the cotton to make this t-shirt as well as up to 250ml of toxic and hazardous chemicals. Read more on this here.
The sewing facility is often in another country. China is currently the largest garment producer in the world[vii], however Bangladesh has the lowest wages at about $65 or £40[viii] a month. As our protagonist is a cheap one, it’s safe to say it probably came from here. At this stage our t-shirt has now travelled over 3190 miles at least, not counting the distance from field to factory and the haulage route before being shipped to the garment factory. Here, the cotton cloth will be cut, stitched and finally pressed until it is the t-shirt we would recognise. You can read more about the people our t-shirt would meet in Bangladesh in a previous blog post here.
Now our t-shirt travels the last part of it’s journey as it is shipped to the UK, travelling over 10486 miles by sea. If the major cargo ports[ix] were used in each country on the journey then our t-shirt will have travelled well over 14,000 miles in total to reach its final destination of London, England. As it has travelled halfway around the world it will have met many people along the way. Cotton growers and pickers, processing factory workers, haulage drivers, shipping container staff, machinists and finishers and the retail staff who sell the t-shirt to us. Some of these people are the poorest in the world and their hard labour enables us to buy that t-shirt for very little.
We’ve all heard of food miles, but maybe we should start thinking about fashion miles too. Buying locally made goods, including fashion, means you can lower your carbon footprint and often the provenance is clearer too. Ethical manufacturers in the UK look after their workers and keep British craftsmanship and skills alive.
#fashionmiles #ethicalfashion #fashionfootprint