Where do our clothes come from?

How much do we really know about how our clothes are made, where they start their life and what they go through before arriving on the shelf ready for sale?  Talking to Jess Strain on the podcast, it became clear how complex fashion supply chains are and how we consumers can only make informed choices when armed with accurate information.

Jess’s story

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Since attaining a first-class degree in Textiles at Loughborough University, Jess set up her own fashion accessories business, Ovrbloom, producing hand-made hats with the additional functionality of becoming a bag, the HatBag.  Aware of the widespread greenwashing in fashion, she has sought to be radically transparent within her business.  Jess has chosen to steer away from using sustainability as a descriptor, as all too often, businesses use it to gain consumer favour, without necessarily operating to the sentiment suggested.  She goes beyond identifying the material as organic cotton by revealing the who, how and where behind the cloth.  She also shares the associated hat costs, showing a complete breakdown.  With each HatBag, you gain all the information you need in an accessible way – no 50-page sustainability report to decipher.  For Jess, it is super important for her business to match her values, so she is wholly mindful of societal, ethical and environmental impacts relating to her hats.

Through her entrepreneurial endeavours with Ovrbloom, Jess is even more determined to instigate impact in fashion transparency; she is on a quest to make it easier to track fashion pathways from farm to shop.

The fashion supply chain

Fashion supply chains are complex – there are lengthy and labour-intensive processes within garment manufacture and involve various raw materials (crops, oil, water and chemicals).  In the example of a cotton item, the cotton plant is grown within many countries, the top three being India, China and the United States of America.  Wholesalers buy cotton from farmers, combine it and sell it to retailers, who process it into lint.  From here, it is sold on for spinning into a fibre, weaving it into a fabric and dyeing.  Further trading follows, for the finishing stage, transforming the material into a garment.  The numerous stages of fashion manufacturing can cover multiple countries and continents, and gaining details of these can be extremely tricky. 

Sustainable and ethical fashion

We want our clothes to be made in a way that respects people, places and the planet.  To this end, it would be brilliant to know details about the supply chain, for example, on:

  • Deforestation – cutting trees down to grow cotton.
  • Pesticide usage on crops.
  • Toxic chemicals in the dying process.
  • Working conditions for factory workers.
  • Factories energy supply – fossil-fuelled or renewable energy.
  • Low-carbon transport.
Cotton field


However, at a time when many people are trying to decipher products manufactured with the environment in mind, some companies are seizing green credentials as an opportunity to increase sales.  Marketing eco, green and sustainable clothing needs though to reflect genuine practices.  Sustainability claims need to be substantiated, and if they cannot, then this marketing strategy is known as greenwashing.

For example, at the time of publishing this blog, a Missouri federal court is suing H&M for greenwashing.  Here, H&M is promoting the idea that their premium-priced Conscious Choice clothing is sustainable as it is recyclable.  This inference is highly problematic, as for starters, many items may indeed be recyclable in theory but in practice are not.  Sustainability should consider the judicious use of raw materials, and any brand/system promoting an inexhaustible supply is counter to its authenticity.

Transparency across the fashion business

Fashion supply chain transparency is needed to eliminate greenwashing and allow consumers access to product information in an easy-to-digest format, including information on suppliers, factories, materials, and partnerships.  Currently, many brands don’t know or don’t share the details of their manufacturing process.  This lack of clarity needs to change.  It’s not good enough for a brand to only manage the finishing part of the garment within the supply chain; the whole process needs covering.

It is absolutely vital to improve transparency across the fashion business.  I’m guessing when brands start stepping up and marketing real sustainability, then others will follow.  Consumers will become more discerning and demand easily accessible data on their clothes – it will not be enough to say you are sustainable; it will have to be clearly demonstrated.