How Far Do Your Clothes Travel to Reach You?

Before your clothes reach you, it’s very likely they’ve travelled thousands of miles; more than some people travel in ten years. From procuring raw materials to processing them into textiles to creating a garment, the process of producing a simple shirt often requires a mind boggling amount of transport and logistics.

According to the World Economic Forum, the fashion industry generates USD 2.5 trillion in revenue yearly. It’s an understatement to say that the fashion industry is enormous! 60% of all these clothes are manufactured in developing countries with 32% of the global supply coming from Asia. 13% of all exports come from China. Due to increasing labour and production costs in China, manufacturing is moving to cheaper countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and Philippines.

Since these countries do not produce most of the raw materials needed (such as cotton), the raw materials are shipped from places like the U.S., China and India. After the garments are manufactured, they are shipped again in containers by ship, rail and trucks and eventually reach your favourite shopping center.

Globally, 90% of garments are transported by ship every year. These ships burn low grade fuel at a rate of tons by the hour and pollute the environment 1000 times more than diesel used in trucks.

All this transportation, accounts for severe toxic pollution to people and to the environment.

Global Supply Chains Versus Local Ones

To bring that cute top or elegant dress to your nearest H&M or Zara outlet, retailers have two choices. They could either make use of the global supply chain (that helps them take economic advantage from cheap suppliers across the world and therefore deliver cheap clothing to consumers) or they could use local supply chains from near markets (that are usually costlier but are available much faster).

For the most part, when the clothes and fabrics are basic and predictably re-stocked every season, retailers find it better to rely on large networks of external suppliers across the world due to advantages in quality to price ratios.

Countries like Bangladesh, China and India serve as the main suppliers and have become garment factories to the world.

For products that have unpredictable demand (e.g. high fashion clothes) and  require faster restocking and replenishment, retailers prefer to source locally since the buyers can afford the higher costs. In this case, quality, punctuality and opportunity are the main drivers and therefore countries like Turkey, Mexico, Eastern European Countries, Columbia are where buyers from Europe and North America get their materials from.

Consumerism at its Peak

The fashion industry has a stupendous  marketing budget geared at constantly making  you feel like you’re not trendy or unfashionable. Fashion seasons used to be only Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, but these days there are 52 micro-seasons a year.

The idea is to sell a lot more clothes at a much lower cost and therefore keep profits high. For example, Topshop, a women’s clothing retailer, introduces 400 styles a week on their website.

Many retailers have business models that are built around producing clothes for consumers who always want to wear new clothes. This usually leads to a greater focus on producing cheaper clothes that fall apart faster in order to sell a lot more and at a faster rate.

In the US for example, 68 pounds of clothing end up in landfills each year. In Great Britain, one in every five people throw clothes away after a single use leading to about USD 125Million worth of clothes ending up in landfills.

As the demand for new clothes constantly increases, so does the amount of miles that clothes and fabric travel.

The Typical Journey: Fashion on a Toxic Trip

An ordinary cotton T-shirt would start its journey on a farm, say in Mississippi, USA where the cotton is grown.

The raw cotton is then shipped in bales to Columbia or Indonesia where the raw cotton is spun to yarn. The yarn is then shipped to Bangladesh where the yarn is spun to fabric. It is washed and dyed and shipped back to developed countries like U.S., Italy or the UK for decoration and distribution.

The total journey is approximately 32,000 kilometres. Each year, approximately 2 billion T-shirts are sold; do the math.

The Damage Caused

While it is difficult to determine exactly how much toxicity is caused in total by the fashion industry, it is quite possible to arrive at an estimate. Here are some statistics:

  • There are about 90,000 ocean-going cargo ships around the world.
  • 15 of the biggest ships emit as much pollution as 750 million cars.
  • 70% of all emissions from ships are around 400km of land.
  • 85% of all pollution from ships is in the Northern hemisphere; Europe has the busiest shipping ports globally.
  • In Denmark, 1,000 Danish people die prematurely due to shipping pollution.
  • About 4% of all climate change is caused by shipping.

Now, do you understand why we say that fashion is a toxic trip?

Considering these figures, it’s worth taking a closer look at our habit of consumerism and the damage that its doing. There is surely a more sustainable way to manage the logistics and supply chain of the fashion industry. The change begins with us.

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