From an oil rig worker on the Canadian coast to a cotton spinner in Uzbekistan – hundreds of people can be involved in producing one item of clothes.
Where do clothes sold in the UK come from?
The UK imports around £20 million worth of clothing from countries around the world every year. Around half of this comes from China, but Bangladesh, Turkey and other European countries such as the Netherlands and Italy also supply significant quantities.
These figures, though, only show part of the story. While clothes always have to say where they were produced, the ‘made in ...’ label only covers the final stage of production, where the clothing was completed and exported.
In fact, the production of a simple white cotton t-shirt or jumper often spans the globe, with numerous companies and potentially hundreds of workers involved in the process. And numerous countries could have supplied raw materials like wool or fossil fuels for plastic clothing, processed these materials into fabric, or provided other components like buttons, zips or buckles.
India is the world’s biggest cotton producer. Taiwan, Korea and other countries produce polyester. Little is even known about where fossil fuels for plastic clothing production come from, but the biggest producers of crude oil include Saudi Arabia and Russia. Synthetic fibres like polyester are made from petrochemicals.
Why does it matter where clothes are produced?
Unfortunately, the clothing industry is notorious for abuses – from serious violations of workers’ rights to massive greenhouse gas emissions. The more we understand about where clothing is produced, the more we can do to identify, remedy and ultimately prevent problems.
Issues will vary around the world: for example, in some countries factory workers receive poverty wages, while in others, companies are allowed to dump toxic chemicals into rivers or waterways.
NGOs and intergovernmental organisations, retailers and consumers can all act on risks, once understood at a country or regional level. They can ensure that workers and communities have support.
For example, governments in both China and Turkmenistan sanction the use of forced labour in cotton picking. Companies have therefore been called on to identify and eliminate cotton from the regions involved.
Unfortunately, we usually know very little about where our clothing is made. Very few companies publish information on which manufacturers they use, let alone where the raw materials are produced. For this reason, companies rarely have to take responsibility for funding and profiting from violations. It is often impossible to link retailers in the UK to violations abroad.