Factories that collapse on workers in Bangladesh, emissions of untreated waste water from dyeing, use of hazardous chemicals, and inequality in the supply chain are the prices paid for satisfying our growing demand for clothing. At present, these consequences fall on the people that work in and live near the mills and factories that produce our clothes.
Fashion apparel and other textiles are made from many materials, both natural (silk, wool, linen) and manmade (polyester, rayon, lycra). Despite the diversity of inputs used to produce finished products, cotton still enjoys a 36% share of the market, more than any other material.
Although supply chains in the textile industry are often complex, there are basic processees that develop the natural and manmade inputs into finished garments. This process begins with the fibre itself, which is then made into yarn, then cloth, and then into the finished garnments we see on retail shelves all over the world.
Mills & Factories
After the field, cotton and other fibres undergo a series of stages and processing at different mills. The first stop is a gin mill that separates out the seeds.
At the textile mill, the fibres are spun, woven or knitted into fabric. The woven fabric is then sent to a finishing mill where it undergoes wet processing, where the materials are pre-treated, dyed and finished in a complex process using water and chemicals. Now it is ready to be stitched, sewn and made into garments.
The retail sector is the most visible of the textile supply chain and involves almost every person on the planet. In 2000, consumers spent near a staggering 1 trillion USD clothes.
And it is retailers, alongside producers, driving sustainability in the textile industry whilst also working to educate consumers on the industry’s sustainability issues. Brands also have a role in this regard because they are ideally placed at the top of the chain to drive sustainability agendas and to engage with all supply chain actors to jointly create change that matters.
Around 100 million people work in the textile and garment sector, the majority of which are based in developing nations where workers are reliant on this income to support themselves and their families. Hence, the burden of overconsumption is supported by the hard work of the world’s poorest.
Many of those working in manufacturing are women. These women sew, finish, and pack clothes. Meanwhile men work in the textile industry as supervisors, managers, technicians, machine operators, all of which pay more. Not only is there a gender divide and pay gap in manufacturing, but women often do not receive the same training and education as men and many are unaware of their rights.
Working conditions for their low-skilled labour are usually poor and may consist of being packed into crowded rooms with little ventilation and inadequate fire provisions. In Bangladesh, the overwhelming majority of garment export industry workers are women, and this is what they endure.
Lack of worker representation is also a problem within the textile industry, causing many of the above issue to go untreated. Workers often face management that is ill prepared or unwilling to deal with their labour issues.
Cycles of Destruction
The complexity and lack of transparency in the textile supply chain allow for many instances of environmental degradation. This is a waste of both human and environmental capital.
In the processing phase, excessive water use is a signature part of the dyeing stage in garment production. Textiles are often dyed using several dozen gallons of water for each pound of clothing, wasting both water and energy.
The waste water of the dyeing process, containing chemicals and other pollutants, is often discharged untreated, flowing into the rivers and streams local communities use in their daily lives to cook, drink, and water their crops, thus engaging a cycle of pollution that breaks down communities instead of building them up.
China and Bangladesh remain the top textile production countries. Solidaridad continued concentrating its efforts on these production countries by bringing best practices to scale and contributing to solutions for complex issues such as audit duplication and fair living wages. With leading brands on the outlook for new sourcing destinations, Solidaridad began contributing to the sustainable development of the textile sector in countries like Ethiopia and Myanmar as well.
H&M and Solidaridad announce strategic collaboration to achieve a more sustainable textile supply chain.
In January, IFC and Solidaridad launched the Bangladesh Water PaCT: Partnership for Cleaner Textiles, in partnership with the sector in Bangladesh, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and H&M, C&A, Inditex, Tesco, Primark, KappAhl, Lindex and G-Star.
The Better Mill Initiative is launched in September 2013 - a programme targeting sustainable textile wet processing in the Chinese Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta regions.
In India, H&M and other brands partnered with Solidaridad on a programme to promote the rights of garment-factory workers.
The Royal Dutch Embassy in Bangladesh began a partnership with the IFC, Solidaridad, and 9 brands to scale up the programmes beginning in 2013.
Nijenrode University’s extensive impact assessment of Solidaridad’s Fashion programme (2007-2010) is published.
Solidaridad expanded its support programmes in Bangladesh by starting a cleaner production programme for the textile dyeing and finishing industry. This was carried out in partnership with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and 8 brands.
Solidaridad was awarded a PSO for its innovative approach to solving sustainability issues in textile factories and dyeing plants.
Companies in Tirupur, India saved 47,000 EUR on water, wood, and energy.
Knitted Together: Multistakeholder Perspectives on Economic, Social and Environmental Issues in the Tirupur Garment Cluster was published. 2006 also marked the year that the Tiruper Sttering Group was formed in India.
MADE-BY was launched by Solidaridad. MADE-BY is a not for profit organisation with the mission of making sustainable fashion common practice.
Solidaridad founded the sustainable clothing brand Kuyichi in order to introduce organic cotton to the clothing industry.
Working the right way
People are indispensable in any enterprise, and garment production is no different. The people in factories are vessels of knowledge entrusted to carry out the task of not only producing items, but doing so in a responsible manner. We help these people carry out this duty by giving technical support, skills development, capacity building and training on labour rights.
In many factories in India, workers are often neither aware of their human or labour rights. To remedy this issue we, along with various fashion brands, created an innovative solution to this problem in producing a soap opera series focusing on working conditions in Indian factories.
Our work with brands doesn’t stop at working conditions. Fair wages are also crucial. As a part of H&M’s advisory board on wages, we, along with academics, union and NGO experts, advise H&M on its action plan for better factory worker wages.
“I am very proud to have been given the opportunity to learn how to act in case of fire and other emergencies. Particularly as I will be in the position of helping others by the things I have learned.”
Rabeya Mosammat Worker Dekko Apparels Ltd., Bangladesh
Knitting together a more sustainable future
Brands and retailers have enormous power to enact changes that can be felt throughout the supply chain, from farm to consumer. We also participate in initiatives and coalitions that make sustainability standards and practices more transparent and attractive, and we would like to see these initiatives become more effective in driving change, moving beyond compliance to a mindset of continual improvement.
Many of our activities focus on going beyond certification to realise full-scale environmental and human sustainability in the textile industry by bringing together retailers and brands. Working in coalitions is fundamental to our way of working because it makes sustainability practices more transparent and attractive.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which has 400 members and represents 40% of the apparel market, which develops tools to measure and evaluate brand, product and producer sustainability. Another such example is MADE-BY, which was founded by us 10 years ago.
The Better Mill Initiative in China (BMI), which focuses on mills, involves brands and retailers that desire to increase the sustainability of their supply chains. Through the BMI, we create tailor-made programmes to save energy and water, use less chemicals, and reduced waste in factories that dye and wash textiles in China. In our Partnership for Cleaner Textiles programme in Bangladesh we also work directly with brands on improving their corporate behaviour.
With companies, we can re-fashion the planet.
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