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Fashion Supply Chains

How global fashion supply chains work, where our clothes are made in the UK, and why this is important for people and planet.

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.

What is a supply chain?

The process of production is known as the supply chain: the steps – and the network of individuals, organisations, resources, activities and technology – that bring a product to the consumer.

Below we use the production of a simple cotton t-shirt as an example to help illustrate how a supply chain works and how complicated they can be.

person holding pile of 5 folded tops

The journey of a simple cotton t-shirt

For a cotton t-shirt, the supply chain begins with a farmer, in this example from India, the world’s largest producer of cotton which is estimated to grow 6,205,000 metric tonnes each year.

The farmer will plant their cotton seeds between March and May and harvest the cotton in November. Cotton is grown by a mixture of big plantations and smallholder farmers. Big plantations rely on hired workers, including additional seasonal labour at harvest time; whilst smallholders rely mainly on family members, but also other members of the community, occasionally hire some extra hands but often labour using exchanges.

Once the cotton has been grown and harvested, it is sold in wholesale markets. Next, the cotton is purchased by retailers, who will take it to a ginning and pressing mill to be processed. Here, the cotton will be removed from its pods, and turned into cotton lint for shipment overseas.

Cotton exporters will transport it to China, where it is again sold on and passed between spinners, to dyers and then to weavers to be turned into fabric. By this stage, the cotton is ready to be sewn into garments for wearing.

This t-shirt is going to be tailored in Bangladesh, so fabric exporters will again ship the material overseas where it will be purchased for use in factories. About 10% of the UK’s clothing is imported from Bangladesh each year.

Even these garment factories are often not owned by the t-shirt brand itself, which will instead contract local suppliers to make different designs. Tailors will sew the garment following specifications sent by the t-shirt brand. This stage determines the ‘Made in’ label – so the t-shirt will say ‘Made in Bangladesh’. Then it is shipped for sale in the UK.

This account is a linear version of a supply chain – from cotton field to shelf – but the reality is of course far more complex. Big companies won’t just use a single person or supplier at each stage: multiple cotton farmers will grow the raw material that the cotton spinner turns into yarn; just as multiple spinners will provide the yarn for weaving into fabric.

In fact, the explanation given above hasn’t even considered the non-cotton elements of the t-shirt’s design: for example, the origin of the dyes or the thread that are also part of its production. Or all the inputs that are used, for example, to grow the cotton, such as pesticides or fertilizers and their supply chains. It is usually more accurate then to think of a supply pyramid than a chain, with multiple elements, people and locations contributing to a final product.

While the brand that we recognise is responsible for sale and design, they may not oversee any of the production themselves. Each stage can be outsourced to other companies known as their suppliers.

Infographic: a typical supply chain. Described also in the main text.

What is supply chain management?

The oversight that companies themselves have in terms of their supply chain will vary greatly. Some will have spoken to every supplier involved, from the smallholder farmer to those that sew the products. Others will just collect the finished garment from the contracted factory, never knowing where the fabric, let alone the cotton came from.

Due diligence is possible and there are lots of measures that companies can put in place to monitor their suppliers. This monitoring of supply chains is known as supply chain management. Companies can write fair treatment of workers into supplier contracts. They can ensure that those in their supply chains are able to complain if treated poorly. They can work with a multitude of unions and NGOs to establish best practice and make sure that this is monitored in the factories and workplaces that they rely on.

These measures are what our Workers ratings assess, in terms of workers’ rights. For every company we look at:

Supply chain policy, and whether it covers six basic human rights criteria: prohibition of child and forced labour; respect for freedom of association; no tolerance of discrimination; and an expectation for reasonable working hours and payment of a living wage. We also check whether the policy applies to suppliers beyond the first tier.

Worker driven monitoring: whether monitoring is undertaken by independent parties such as local worker-led organizations, unions, or local civil society partners. Such organisations are able to conduct in-depth investigations and worker interviews as they are on the ground year-round, understand local conditions, and are trusted by workers. Worker interviews are carried out with an understanding of the power dynamics between workers and management, preferably in the absence of managers and outside of the workplace.

Supply chain transparency: whether the company publishes its suppliers. We further reward companies that publish suppliers beyond the tier 1 level. 

Country of manufacture: whether the company chose to manufacture its goods in countries with more robust labour rights legislation. 

Purchasing practices: a company's purchasing practices can have a great effect on its upstream suppliers. For example, if a company is constantly pushing for its suppliers to deliver products on very tight deadlines (as is the case in fast fashion), then this might pressure the supplier to make its workers do excessive overtime.

Living wages: whether companies are taking active steps to ensure those in their supply chains are paid a living wage.

Trade unions: we are looking for a statement that indicates the company is working with trade unions beyond its immediate workforce.

Smaller companies (with turnovers below £50 million a year) that have other clear measures to protect workers’ rights in place – for example where all products carry the Fairtrade or organic label – also receive better ratings. 

The best companies are already taking responsibility for their supply chain in these ways.

Companies with ethical supply chains

Companies that score highly in Ethical Consumer's Workers ratings in the ethical clothing brands and high street clothing guides are:

Ethical clothing shops:

MUD, Rapanui, THTC, Where Does It Come From, Lucy and Yak, Kuyichi, Ninety Percent, BAM, Nudie,  Earthmonk, Finisterre, Greenfibres Brothers We Stand, Outsider, Komodo, Pact, community Clothing, Bibico.

High street clothing shops:

Nobody's Child.

What are the benefits of an ethical supply chain?

Large companies can wield a huge amount of power. If their purchasing practices put pressure on suppliers to speed up production and lower the costs, this routinely leads to worse conditions for workers and the environment. 

But if companies support and reward suppliers who are pursuing good practice, conditions can improve. 

Person's hand covered in blue dye

Benefits of an ethical supply chain for workers

In many countries, national laws protecting workers’ rights are very weak: much weaker than international human rights laws or conventions demand. Child labour from the age of 14 is in some places permitted, unionisation banned, or certain forms of bonded labour allowed. Even when suppliers are actually breaking the law, many governments lack either resources or the impetus to enforce penalties.

For workers, then, ethical supply chains are not just beneficial but vital. At the very minimum, they protect human rights. At their most effective, they incentivise suppliers to go beyond the baseline: for example providing child care, paying a decent wage, or giving education and training.

Benefits of an ethical supply chain for the environment

The same principle applies in terms of the environment. Many practices that cause serious environmental harm are legal or the authorities will turn a blind eye. But ethical supply chains alter the economic incentives. They make environmentally unsustainable practice economically unsustainable too. For example: if companies with ethical supply chains all selected green energy suppliers, coal and oil companies would increasingly lose out. The fossil fuel industry would become less viable.

More effective ethical supply chains will again go above and beyond this. They will disincentivise processes that put a long-term strain on the natural world, such as the ongoing use of agrochemicals.

This pressure can have a ripple effect: if companies require suppliers to have ethical supply chains too, respect for workers’ rights and the environment will spread through the pyramid as a whole.

How companies benefit from an ethical supply chain

But it is not only the environment and workers that win. Aside from the ethical obligation not to profit from abuses, companies themselves can benefit.

It is increasingly normal for companies to consider ethical and reputational ‘risk’ in financial projections for the following year. This shows that abuses in a supply chain come with a real financial cost.

If NGOs or national press discover problems in a company’s supply chain, that company can take a real hit. Ethical supply chains protect companies from losing their reputation in this way, and all of the customers and profit that go with it.

Take action

What can you do if you are concerned about where clothing is made and how workers and the environment are exploited?

Some suggested actions include:

  1. Buy from the companies with the best supply chain policies - we highlight these in the article above.
  2. Read our guides to high street clothing and ethical fashion brands to find out more about the companies behind the labels.
  3. Support a fashion or clothing campaign like Labour Behind the Label and Clean Clothes Campaign.
  4. Sign Traidcraft Exchange’s petition for a new #FashionWatchdog that will hold UK garment retailers to higher standards.
  5. Buy less, buy better quality, buy second-hand, and repair or upcycle clothes.
  6. If we haven't rated your favourite clothing brand, or if they don't score highly in our Workers category, contact them to ask what their plans are to improve.