THE life of a garment

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This blog is intended to help you shop for more sustainable clothing, backed by data and research. My dream is for every brand and every item to be ethical and sustainable. Until then, we all need help finding the best clothes to buy – and verifying that it truly is the best.

TAKE-AWAYS

It is important for us to understand the lifecycle of a garment to determine which sustainability characteristics are most important. Based on research and data, the stages of a garment's life are:

  • Product design 
  • Fiber production
  • Garment production
  • Shipping  
  • Use/cleaning
  • Reuse/disposal

Future posts will review the environmental impacts and ethical considerations associated with each of these stages. From there, we can hone in on the most important stages to consider when you're buying clothing, caring for it, or cleaning out your closet.

I recently asked ethical/sustainable fashion enthusiasts what they want to learn on that topic. One of the first topics people asked about was to understand the journey to make a garment – and the impacts on the environment and workers at every stage.

This post provides an overview of a garment's life; the following post will cover the impacts at each stage. That will allow us to objectively determine the key considerations for buying, using, and disposing of clothing.

An apparel product’s lifecycle
The way you should think about the environmental impacts of clothing is through the lifecycle of a garment. To simplify, the lifecycle has six primary stages:

  • Product design
  • Fiber production  
  • Garment production
  • Shipping 
  • Use/cleaning
  • Reuse/disposal

Every garment is different, so for this post, we can talk generally about the key elements of a garment’s lifecycle irrespective of fabric or style. I also include videos for several of the major steps to help you visualize the process.

1. Designing a product
A garment's life begins with its design. Designer brands typically employ fashion designers, who will begin by sketching drawings by hand or computer. Then they produce samples to experiment with the colors, fabrics, styles, and draping. This is often done in several iterations. From there, they produce technical drawings to send to factories for production. The design phase is shortened for mass market brands, and especially for fast fashion brands, which tend to copy newly released designer pieces to accelerate the runway-to-retail timeline.

2. Producing the materials
There are three general categories of raw materials: natural and synthetic, and blends. 

Natural fibers now account for about one-third of global fiber demand. They include plant-based fibers (e.g., cotton, linen, hemp), which are produced through agricultural means and processing, and animal-based fibers (e.g., wool, silk), produced using a variety of processes.

Cotton is the most-used natural fiber. The leading producers of cotton are India (18.5 million tons), China (17.1), the United States (12.0), Pakistan (5.7), Brazil (3.8) and Uzbekistan (2.9).

Here is some insight into the methods for processing cotton, given the volume of cotton grown and used for clothing worldwide:

(The processing of cotton)

Global natural fiber production has stayed relatively constant for the past 20 years.

The other two-thirds of fibers produced and used globally are synthetic or semi-synthetic. The most commonly used for clothing include polyester (about 65%), then nylon, rayon (aka viscose), spandex (aka lycra/elastane), acrylic, and acetate. These are man-made through chemical reactions, typically from petroleum feedstock, and requires processing and chemical treatments to produce. They are primarily produced in China and other parts of Asia.

There are functional, aesthetic, and environmental pros and cons of each fiber type, which we will address in future posts.

Raw fibers are sold to textile mills for wet processing (bleaching, dyeing, printing, etc.), spinning, and knitting, often in highly automated factories. The largest producers of finished textiles are China ($119b), the EU ($74b), India ($18b), the United States ($14b), and Turkey ($12b).

You can get a feel for this whole process, including the blending of fibers, in this example video:

(Processing yarn into finished fabric)

3. Producing the finished garment
The final step to produce a finished garment is performed at cut and sew factories. These are what most people normally think of when describing clothing production.

The cut and sew journey begins after the buyer or factory calculates the amount of fabric necessary for its production and sources that fabric (as well as trim like buttons and zippers, and packaging). Next, the factory will cut the fabric by style, size, and color using specialized equipment and according to the technical designs supplied by the buyer. It will then sew the fabrics, accessories, and care labels together to produce a finished garment. Finally, it will package the product for shipping and sale.

This stage tends to be one of the most labor-intense in the production of a garment. Occasionally, when the primary cut and sew factory does not have enough capacity, some or even all of these steps are subcontracted to a third-party factory, which is not always disclosed to the buyer.

The U.S. imports finished clothing from China ($27,368M), Vietnam ($12,219M), Bangladesh ($5401M), Indonesia ($4475M), India ($3,804M), and other countries. These are the countries you are most likely to see on the "Made In..." tags.

(Cutting and sewing fabric into a finished garment)

4. Shipping
From there, the garment travels by ship, train, truck, or even airfreight -- often across oceans and borders -- to wholesalers, retailers, and ultimately to you. The top global clothing exporters are China (31.3%), EU (28.4%), Bangladesh (6.4%),Vietnam (6.2%), India (3.3%), and Turkey (3.1%) -- and the fastest growing clothing exporters are Vietnam (15% growth from 2010-2018), Cambodia (13%), and Bangladesh (10%). The EU and U.S. are the largest importers at 38.4% and 17.4% of global clothing imports, respectively.

5. Using/cleaning your clothes
In the U.S., 82% of us wash our clothes using a washing machine and dryer, and 53% of Americans average 2-6 loads per week. While there is no good data on the frequency of washing individual pieces, we can estimate that items are washed after every 1-5 wears.

6. Reusing or disposing of garments
After several months or years, the garment will become old or worn, or the style won’t suit you anymore, so you will eventually donate it, resell it, recycle it, or trash it. We already know that Americans produced nearly 12,800,000 tons of clothing waste in 2017.

And that’s the life of a garment.

If you want in-depth learning about the lifecycle of garments, I suggest watching this six-minute TEDx animation on the lifecycle of a t-shirt or even taking this Coursera class from the Museum of Modern Art

Over the next several weeks, I will write about the topics of importance to you, including the environmental impacts of each lifecycle stage, the ethical considerations for producing and buying a garment, and what you should look out for when you're shopping for clothes.

Together, we can make a fashion industry that works for all of us.

- Adam

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