While trade and production have gone from international to global the way we source, produce, and transport the clothes you are sitting in right now has gone through a change.
Today, most of the items you see hanging in-store have been on a long journey in order to get to this shop so you can take it to the dressing room and eventually put it in your closet.
This journey is called a supply chain. But since we are talking about the fashion industry let’s refer to it here as the clothing supply chain. Just to avoid any confusion.
When trying to understand a fashion supply chain as a consumer the best thing you can do is to ask yourself “Who made my clothes”
The fashion and textile industry was set to employ more than 60 million people worldwide in 2014, and that number keeps rising each year. It is an industry many depends on economically. But it is also an industry with a damaged reputation.
The fashion industry has been accused of exploiting the environment as well as the workers along its supply chain for years. However, even though the Rana Plaza disaster made the big fast fashion brands take responsibility exploitation is still happening today along the fashion supply chain.
In order to understand how this is happening, you would have to understand the complexity of the clothing supply chain. Lucky for you, this article will gently take you through every link of the fashion supply chain by hand. Hopefully, in the end, you will have a better understanding of how the clothing supply chain works.
What is a clothing supply chain in simple words
Supply chains can vary. The structure can look different depending on the industry, product, and sustainable aim. But most supply chains in the fashion industry follow this structure
#Link 1: Sourcing materials
#Link 2: Material production
#Link 3: Clothing production
#Link 4: Distribution and retail
Simply put, the term then refers to the chain of steps a product, like a t-shirt, needs to go through before it ends up in the store. Or, the very first and very last steps actually aren’t part of the clothing supply chain, but falls under a whole other term. But more on that later.
Fashion supply chains are often accused of neglecting human rights, environmental protection, and labor conditions. The Rana Plaza disaster serves as an example of just how bad it can go. Unfortunately, violations of workers’ rights happen every day in the fashion supply chain as well as environmental damage.
The textile industry is estimated to use 378 billion liters of water annually. Considering a pair of jeans requires up to 1,500 gallons of water to be produced this is no surprise.
On top of that, the fashion industry uses 8000 synthetic chemicals in the production of our clothes. Some of which can be very harmful to the workers’ skin and health. Often these chemicals are just flushed out with the waste-water into important water resources in the country of production.
All of these choices are made along the clothing supply chain. That is why it is so important to support brands who are transparent about their practices, and why it is important to know how the fashion supply chain works.
An example of a fashion supply chain
For the sake of convenience let’s look at an example of a fashion supply chain following the life journey of a cotton t-shirt.
The different links explained in depth
A clothing supply chain can be quite complex, and it can be challenging to grasp what is happening in each link. These are often controlled by different stakeholders and suppliers, and most brands don’t even trace the first two links. The lack of transparency in these two steps of the clothing supply chain makes it even more difficult to create sustainable fashion supply chains.
#Link 1 – Raw material sourcing
For a piece of clothes to become substantial and wearable, it needs to consist of materials. Just as we consist of flesh and blood. The first link of the clothing supply chain is then to source the materials. This link is also called the third or fourth tiers suppliers, and most fashion brands don’t trace this link.
This step, of course, differs according to the materials chosen for this product. If we are producing a t-shirt made of natural fibers such as cotton or linen, we would first need to harvest these. If we are to make a shirt from man-made fibers such as viscose. If we making the shirt from recycled materials this link would have a whole other look.
#Link 2 – Material and fabric production
Now that we have the raw materials it is time to make them into the fabric. If the raw material for example is wool you have to spin it into yarn before you can knit a sweater. In this link, the textiles are also dyed and patterns are added to the fabric. If you have a blue, pink, or black shirt this is the step where that color is added.
Usually, this is a link that is characterized by the use of harsh chemicals, water-waste, inhuman working conditions, end a high amount of emission. Especially the use of harsh chemicals is present in productions where man-made fibers are used or unnatural colors are added to the fabric. This link is also referred to as 3 tier suppliers and a great number of fashion brands tend not to trace this link.
#Link 3 – Clothing production
Now that our raw material is turned into fabric we can go on start produce the clothes. In link three of the clothing supply chain, we then move to the factories where the actual shirt or pair of jeans is made.
#Link 4 – Distribution and retail
When the piece of clothes is produced and ready to sell, it has to be packed and shipped to the parts of the world where it is going to be sold. Sometimes the packing of the items happens in a whole other country than where the clothes are produced and where it is sold.
But in all cases, the clothes are transported from the manufacturing site out to the stores. This step is handled by the corporates or brands themselves and traced closely. This is also the last link of the clothing supply chain. This is where the journey of clothes ends ready to start a new journey at the consumer’s home.
How can a clothing supply chain be sustainable?
Well, there are actually multiple choices a company or brand can take in to make their clothing supply chain more sustainable. Changes can be made alongside the whole supply chain, which in the end will make it more sustainable.
#Firstly, a brand should aim to track its whole supply chain. Most fashion brands today only track the last tiers of their supply chains. Both because it requires more resources to check up on every link in the chain, and sometimes it isn’t even possible for the brands to follow every single step of the supply chain.
However, most brands choose not to track their whole supply chain, because that is easy and they can say that they didn’t know about the bad labor conditions at the factory because they didn’t trace their supply chain that far.
#Another way to increase the sustainability of the supply chain is to use natural or recycled materials. Natural fibers need less chemicals to be turned into substantial fabric. Recycled materials on the other hand is great because it reduces the waste.
#Thirdly is to make sure the workers are treated fairly and paid a fair living wage. The fashion industry employs millions and millions of people. But they also have quite a bad reputation when it comes to working conditions in the fist links of the supply chain.
There are lots of other ways to increase the sustainability of the clothing supply chain such as reducing water-waste, cutting down on the use of chemicals, slowing down production, and using renewable energy. So look out for brands, who are actually making major changes in their supply chains in a sustainable way.
The difference between a Supply Chain and a Global Value Chain
Do you remember we would get back to the very first step of the clothing supply chain later? Well, now is later.
The very first step of clothing production isn’t actually happening on a cotton field or a bamboo forest. It is happening at the brand’s creative team, where the clothes are designed, fabrics chosen and budgets approved.
However, these steps are theoretically not seen as part of the supply chain. Instead, these are part of the so-called Global Value Chain.
At a global value chain level, you are looking at every single link that adds value to the process of producing clothes. Where the clothing supply chain theory only looks the production, global value chain theory also include factors such as design, food at the factories, so the workers are able to do their job, PR when the items arrive at the store and so on.
So where the supply chain begins with the sourcing of the materials, the global value chain begins at the design level and includes every link that adds value to the chain. Sometimes you can then gain even more insight into the process by looking at the value chain instead since this will give you a better overview of all stakeholders and interests as well.
The Last step: Consumers?
So, the brands have a great responsibility for choosing to be transparent, choosing suppliers who pay their workers a fair living wage and tread their workers with respect, and aim to protect the environment.
But we as consumers also have a responsibility to choose brands who actually care about these things and aim to make a change in the fashion industry. If you want brands to choose to be transparent and care, then you need to care as well.
So be a part of the change and choose a brand that traces its supply chain, pays living wages, uses eco-friendly material, protects the environment, and has fair working conditions. Said another way: Be the change you want to see in the world.