Sewing and the Supply Chain

I’ve recently started sewing again. After learning how in home economics in junior high school, I decided to pick it up again in order to have an offline hobby with more tangible results (like baking, but longer-lasting). Sewing has changed in the last twenty years, and a fabric wholesaler has witnessed the changes in his own warehouse.

Christopher Higgins owns Globe-tex, a crammed-to-the-gills warehouse in Montreal that’s open to the public. With twenty years of experience, he has seen the fabric industry change dramatically over the course of his career: “Free trade and globalization have totally changed the market. It’s caused a lot of pain for a lot of people and it’s decimated the manufacturing sector altogether. We’ve lost our mills, the technical experts who operate the mills, the chemists who understand dyeing, the engineers who know how to design the textiles.”

Since most fabric and clothing manufacturing moved overseas in the past two decades and dropped dramatically in price, home sewing dropped off as well. Sewing used to be the way to build a wardrobe without spending a lot of money, but it has now become more affordable to buy than make. Why sew a dress when you can snag one for $15 at the mall?

An overwhelming amount of cheaply made clothing is available everywhere, but ironically, it’s encouraging people to return to sewing once again. We miss quality. We want to feel creative and connected, and to avoid wearing clothing made in dangerous and exploitative sweatshops. We are a movement, and the fabric industry is catching up to us, slowly but surely.

Garment-making has moved primarily overseas to countries like Bangladesh, where working conditions fail workers in the worst ways. Researchers at NYU are attempting to map all of the clothing-manufacturing factories in Bangladesh to improve safety:

A comprehensive, transparent database and map of manufacturers—whatever their size—would begin to make Bangladesh’s vast universe of garment manufacturers visible to auditors, regulators, banks, and brands. To be sure, even many factories that do appear in public databases are hurting for resources to make them safe and stable workplaces.

As globalization has taken over the clothing industry, the price of ready-to-wear clothes has dropped substantially.

Overall, clothes have been getting cheaper for decades, ever since apparel manufacturing started moving to developing countries, where production costs are significantly lower. In the US, the world’s largest apparel market, 97.5 percent of clothing purchased is now imported, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association. That percentage has risen steadily for years. As recently as 1991, it was just 43.8 percent.

The price of the clothes is often at odds with the condition in which they’re sewn. It wouldn’t take much of a price increase to ensure that the factory workers at the bottom of the chain were well-paid and worked in safer environments, but part of the issue is how far down the supply chain that price increase would have to wend:

The sad part is that the price of individual garments would not have to go up much — 1 percent to 3 percent, various estimates say — to provide a living wage and safer conditions for all those cutting and stitching what we wear. The cycle could slow or even stop. But that 1 percent to 3 percent would have to wend all the way down that river of production — past the eddies and breakwaters of corporate boards and middlemen, subcontracting agents and compradors, to reach those who really need it.

As it gets cheaper to buy clothes, its easier to buy more of them. But what happens after the trends pass? You donate your clothes to a thrift store, or another organization, and then what?

About 10.5 million tons of clothes end up in American landfills each year, and secondhand stores receive so much excess clothing that they only resell about 20 percent of it. The remainder is sent to textile recyclers, where it’s either turned into rags or fibers, or if the quality is high enough, it’s exported and cycled through a cutthroat global used-clothing business.

What doesn’t make it into the stores is then recycled–where else but back in the countries that manufacture the clothes. This 15-minute video follows the work of women responsible for processing the bales of recycled clothes sent over from countries like the United States. Recycled clothes are most often turned into fabric of varying quality–starting the whole process over again. A wholesale fabric retailer estimates that “approximately 80% of fabric in stores is recycled from ready-to-wear”.

Another challenge in the fashion, fabric, and clothing industries is the environmental impact of what you’re buying (true in most industries, honestly). I follow a bunch of sewing bloggers, and they’re often excited about bamboo rayons, and how eco-conscious the fabrics are. However, according to the Federal Trade Commission, that’s all a big marketing ploy.

Extracting bamboo fibers is expensive and time-consuming, and textiles made just from bamboo fiber don’t feel silky smooth.

There’s also no evidence that rayon made from bamboo retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some sellers and manufacturers claim. Even when bamboo is the “plant source” used to create rayon, no traits of the original plant are left in the finished product.

Beyond fiber content, the production of fabrics is challenging to keep environmentally safe. A recent program in China led by the Natural Resources Defense Council’s program Clean by Design aims to help textile mills achieve some of the quick wins of environmentally-friendly textile production. Despite the successes of that program, it will only be harder to improve the environmental processes of the mills beyond these quick wins:

there’s a significant problem that the program can’t easily fix: the use of hazardous chemicals. When the mills dye fabrics, their business depends on getting the colors right for their clothing label clients—which is why they’re reluctant to change their practices.

The program also doesn’t address a fundamental problem: the sheer amount of textiles it takes to create the massive volume of clothing the mills produce. Responsibility for that falls on the retailers placing the clothing orders, and it’s one of the biggest issues fashion faces where sustainability is concerned.

And now we’re back where we started. This should make me a more ethical consumer of fast fashion, but so far it hasn’t changed my buying habits too much. I subscribe a bit too much to retail therapy, but I did recently bring several pairs of shoes to be repaired instead of simply throwing them out and replacing them. Slowing down the cycle where I can.

Sewing is just one example of how globalization has affected working conditions, and our knowledge of the supply chains of the products that we buy. It isn’t possible anymore to simply say “Made in America” – often times, products sold as American-made these days, are actually just American-assembled. A lack of clarity about where the things that we buy are made, and who makes them, is troubling.

There are pockets where globalization is clearly not working how you might expect. America imports its own fish, because it is somehow cheaper (due to globalization) to send American-caught fish to China for processing, and then ship it back to America to be sold.

It’s also led to class divisions in terms of what is affordable and desirable.

For most of history, the poor would have eaten the local pigs and known the origin of their socks, and the rich had better access to a global marketplace. But changing elite tastes and the relentless efficiency of supply chains have slowly inverted tastes: In many categories, the poor now buy from the exotic unknown, and the rich insist on what can be traced, from the pig next door to the locally sewn sock.

This is a pattern that you can see in home sewing as well. It isn’t poor women that are returning to sewing, but more well-off women, seeking out high-quality fabric and clothes for themselves that grant the satisfaction of knowing who made an item. Of course, this dichotomy wasn’t supposed to happen with globaliztion (at least according to Jeffrey Rothfeder in the Washington Post).

It was supposed to act like a rising tide, lifting all boats in poor and rich countries alike. Buoyed by hundreds of thousands of new assembly line jobs courtesy of multinationals in emerging nations, the middle class would swell, which in turn would propel higher local consumption. More factories would be needed to meet the demand, further raising local standards of living and handing the largest non-domestic companies a vast and enthusiastic new customer base.

Of course, what happened instead is that the rich got richer. Free trade deals and low labor costs (and safety regulations) abroad meant that countries like the United States benefited more than the countries that took over the labor and factories. Countries like China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in the United States and Europe, consumers would have their pick of inexpensive items made by people thousands of miles away whose pay was much lower than theirs. And in time trade barriers would drop to support even more multinational expansion and economic gains while geopolitical cooperation would flourish.

Capitalism. Oppression. Globalization. So what can we do? In 2006, Jason Kottke proposed the idea of a True Cost for an item.

Wealth doesn’t just magically materialize into your bank account. It comes from the ground, human effort, the flesh of animals, the sun, and the atom. The global economy is driven by nature, and yet it’s not usually found on the accountant’s balance sheet. Perhaps it should be. I’d like to know the true cost of the stuff I buy. Embodied energy and carbon footprint calculations are a good start, but it would be nice if the product itself came with a True Cost number or rating, like the nutritional information on a cereal box or the Energy Star rating on a refrigerator.

We’re still not there. Some apps on the market make an attempt to add transparency to the global supply chain, but that information is hard to come by for the apps, and hard for the average consumer to find out about. An app can seem like a simple solution, but access to apps isn’t equal (and even among those with smartphones, storage space is limited and attention is lacking).

Now that you feel guilty about all the clothes you own and products that you buy, and the economy as a whole, listen to this song. The band WATERS with their song What’s Real. Probably how you feel about the mall right now.