Thoughts about… The miles in our wardrobe

Ann Marie Newton for QHQ.

Hearing in the news that Greta Thunberg is sailing to New York rather than flying due to the carbon footprint and environmental impact, thoughts turn to the number of miles racked up by our clothing. In Fast Fashion especially clothes are often flown to meet tight in store deadlines. Not only the clothes but sometimes fabric is flown by air to help make those deadlines happen. Even if clothes are not flown all over the world, they can travel an awful long way before they make it to our stores or online retailer’s warehouse.

In the last article we heard about the term ‘virtual water’ describing the water that goes into consumer goods that we do not see. There are other such ‘invisible’ facets to the clothes in our wardrobe. For example: the time it took to make, how raw materials are made, the dyer who gave it it’s vibrant colour, and the number of miles travelled by the garment and its component parts. Even before the garment is made it has probably accumulated a fair amount of land, sea or air miles. Let’s take one examples from high-street mass-market fashion: A Linen shirt and follow a manufacturing path to give an indication of the number of miles travelled.

The raw material component for linen fabric is flax. A lot of the world’s flax is grown in a region in Northern Europe that stretches from Northern France, through Belgium to the Netherlands. So, let’s say our linen comes from France, the fibre is then shipped to China to be processed into yarn, let’s say it’s flown to a processing unit outside of Shanghai, that’s at least 5,500 airmiles, and even more miles by boat. Now the yarn is ready, it’s shipped to a fabric mill, let’s say a few hours away in China, that’s another 200 miles by road. Now the fabric is ready to be dyed, that is done at another facility also in China, adding 50 miles. Finally, the fabric is ready to be made into garments, now its shipped 4,300 miles to Bangladesh. Linen shirts are created that are already well travelled, and now to another long-haul journey to the UK, on a boat, 10,000 miles. Let’s add on the miles from the distribution centre to a store and we racked up 20,000 miles at least. If we think of the number of linen shirts sold in the UK alone every year, those miles really add up.

Of course, different items of clothing go through different supply chains and can range from local or regionally sourced raw materials that follow a vertical manufacturing route through to items like the linen shirt that go all over the world. The majority of our clothing in the UK is made overseas in places like China, India & Bangladesh, so even if the manufacturing is local prior to garment making it still has a long journey to get to us. At the other end of the spectrum there is some local production in the UK, examples are Patrick Grant’s Community Clothing which manufactures only in the UK, and Kitty Ferreira which manufactures in London.

Community Clothing funded by a Kickstarter campaign came about when a UK clothing manufacturer that Grant used was in jeopardy of closing, Grant founded Community Clothing to offer high quality basics year-round that did not relay on set productions times and can be slotted around other orders.

Kitty Ferreira believes in upcycling fabric and smaller orders, rather than specially ordering large amounts of new fabrics as in the case in most fashion brands today. They describe themselves as the ‘anthesis to fast fashion’ and described by the Guardian as suitable for ‘boardroom activists’. Both have an ethical and sustainability story and are just two examples of those leading the way for change in the Fashion industry.

It’s incredible to think of the journey that our clothes can take even before they reach us. Whereas in food there has been a movement towards local production, this remains largely unexplored territory for the fashion industry. However, in this age of concern for our environment and a thirst for transparency of how things are made there is an opportunity for all in the garment supply chain to examine where things are made, and not just the finished garment but all the components that go into it. Garment retailers especially can take this as an opportunity to be increase their environmental stewardship and provide more information to consumers to help them make more informed choices. Technologists can play a pivotal role in advising and suggesting alternatives as the experts who understand the manufacturing processes.

Even the simplest garment in our wardrobe has taken a team of people and a complex process to make. Understanding more about this can empower consumers and retailers alike. Taking the lead from the food industry, perhaps in addition to being aware of ‘food miles’ perhaps we can also become aware of ‘fashion miles’?

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