Fashion on a Toxic Trip: Just how far do your clothes travel to reach you ?

How far your clothes travel to get to you ?

According to the world economic forum, the fashion industry generates USD 2.5 Trillion in revenue yearly, and is projected to be twice as much in the next 10 years. 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 (e.g. 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 retailers near you.

If you take a country like the U.S as an example, where USD 22 Billion is spent on clothing per year, only 2% of those clothes are produced domestically.

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 by ship and other means, accounts for a lot of toxic pollution to people and to the environment including to aquatic life. Indeed, fashion is on a toxic trip.

Why brands choose global supply chains instead of local ones

Before you can buy clothes from your favourite retail outlet like GAP, Next or H&M, where do these garments travel from? And how do these retailers and indeed most other retailers across the world, justify all the global production and supply chains? What options do they have?

Well, retailers have two main 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 highly demanded 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, better known as the world’s factories.

For products that have unpredictable demand (e.g. high fashion clothes) and yet 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 among others are preferred sources for the European and North American markets due to their close proximity.

Consumerism at its peak

The fashion industry spends a lot on marketing budgets to make you feel that you are out of trend more than ever before.

Whereas fashion seasons used to be only Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, 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 model’s 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 from an average American. 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.

A typical journey your clothes take

An ordinary cotton T-shirt would start its journey on a farm, say in Mississippi, USA where the cotton is grown. (Despite China being the largest cotton producer, followed by India and then the U.S., the U.S has several advantages for cheaper production including automation and better yields due to use of GM seeds).

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 about 32,000 Km or 20,000 Miles. Each year, approximately 2 Billion T-shirts are sold.

The damage caused

It is difficult to determine exactly how much toxicity is caused in total by the fashion industry, it is quite possible to estimate the damage caused. If you consider that, 90% of USD 2.5 Trillion in revenue generated every year is transported by ship, the numbers are astounding!

  • 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. Shipping emissions cost the Danish government approximately USD 6 Billion, treating heart problems and cancer.

About 4% of all climate change is caused by shipping


Most of the information, data and statistics in this article has been sourced from:

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