Have you ever stopped to think about how many people were involved in making the clothes you buy? Chances are you have heard about or read The Travels of a T-shirt in a Global Economy or listened to Planet Money’s piece on making a t-shirt. Both are incredibly interesting examinations of the effects of global trade on the fashion industry, developing countries and garment workers.
Before I set off to start my MBA/MS program through the Erb Institute in 2016, I wanted to pull the curtain back on the apparel industry and see how my clothing was made. I spent that summer in Vietnam and India working with Asmara International, a forward-thinking global fashion company that designs clothes and also serves as a middleman between international apparel brands and manufacturing factories all around Asia. I visited several manufacturing factories and spoke with general managers and chemical suppliers to those factories. What I thought was a pretty straightforward process of producing a pair of jeans turned out to be anything but.
What struck me most was the sheer number of people involved in producing a single garment. Every step—from weaving the fabric, to designing the garment, to sewing it together—involved dozens of people. I estimate that at least 100 people directly touch any piece of clothing you buy off the rack.
And because it took me understanding that to begin to make more thoughtful decisions about the brands and clothes I bought—and the frequency in which I bought them—I want to share a snapshot of the processes and people behind your favorite pair of jeans.
From fiber to fabric
Your favorite pair of jeans likely contains cotton and another fiber like elastane that gives it a little stretch. You’d be hard-pressed to find a closet nowadays that doesn’t contain some cotton. Nearly 40 percent of all fiber produced in the world is made of cotton, which is grown from seed by farmworkers in any of the 58 countries that produce cotton. Over 60 percent of the world’s cotton is produced by an estimated 40 million small farmers, 99 percent of them in developing countries.
The elastane fibers in your jeans help keep their shape and are made by manufacturers that spin petroleum-based polymers into thread. Fifty-eight percent of fabric produced globally is made of petroleum-based materials. Next, both the cotton and elastane yarns are sent to a mill to be spun into denim.
At the mills, the yarns are dyed and woven together. The variety of denim washes and styles requires a precise formula of dye and solvents that help the dye stick to the fibers. Mills typically hire denim specialists, who usually have a background in chemistry, to oversee the denim wet and finishing processes.
After the denim is woven, mill workers inspect every yard of fabric produced and send it off for finishing. Finally, a team of inspectors reviews the final fabric before shipping the fabric to a cut and sew factory.
Fabric to jeans
Once the fabric reaches the factory, it is inspected by a team to make sure there are no defects in it. From there, a team cuts the fabric into patterns for the jeans. After they are pieced, they are sent to be sewn. When most people think of a clothing factory, they think of this next step—where the article of clothing is sewn together. By far, the people who sew clothes make up the biggest group of workers in a cut and sew factory. Garment factories in Vietnam and India range in size from less than 10 workers to more than 5,000. The factories that I visited were some of the most respected and recognized garment factories in the region. Factory managers worked hard to create and maintain positive work environments that were equitable and safe for all employees. Still, there was a clear expectation for workers to meet high quality and speed demands. In some factories, workers who didn’t meet these expectations were usually singled out publicly and put on a remediation plan.
After the jeans are assembled, they are sent to the trim and notion department, where garment workers sew on buttons, snaps and other small articles. Then the jeans undergo a final “wet process” to add design effects like whiskers. During this step, a cocktail of chemicals is used to ensure the fabric’s softness, durability or design. They are washed and dried and then sent for final finishing.
Sometimes, jeans are finished by hand or using sanders, as shown in the video below. Last, the jeans are inspected before being tagged, packed and shipped to the retailer’s distribution center or store.
One part of the process we haven’t covered is the planning process. Before any order is placed with a factory, companies like Asmara International work on behalf of brands like Urban Outfitters to come up with a sample design with the factory. Asmara’s design team would meet with the factory’s design team to develop samples for several brands. Several iterations of a sample may be created, and once the sample is approved, an entire production run is created, modeled after the sample.
The journey a pair of jeans takes from seed to store is a long one that passes through more than 100 farmworkers, designers and factory workers. As consumers, we may be thousands of miles away from many of these people, but the impact of our purchasing choices is direct and profound. My hope is that seeing a small part of these processes and the people behind them encourages you to seek out brands that respect and support the people who make your clothes.
While we can’t shop ourselves to a healthier planet, it’s important for us to align our values to our purchasing decisions. Even better, we can go beyond individual acts of consumption to contributing to a broader collective reform by asking our favorite clothing brands, “Who made my clothes and under what conditions?” After all, nothing grabs brands’ attention more or keeps them more accountable than their customers. Buying from responsible brands and demanding that all brands respect workers in the value chain are the easiest ways we can contribute to a more sustainable apparel industry. As consumers, our power is our voice and our choice. As they say, use it or lose it.