The clothing industry is a global industry

Made in the World

Why is the environmental impact of clothing so great? Part 3.

In previous sections I have dealt with clothing production quantity and price from an environmental point of view. This section deals with the international nature of the clothing industry and its impact on the environment.

Traveling around the world

It is clear that emissions occur when clothes come to us from very far away. However, this journey is just one snippet of the journey an industrially made garment makes. The biggest emissions are already in the atmosphere before the finished garment has even begun its journey here north.

When the scale of production is large, the work steps are also highly specialized. Indeed, many certainly know that in large garment factories, each seamstress makes only one particular seam or work step. No one makes a garment from start to finish, but everyone does their part and the garment moves from one stage in the chain to another in different hands. This makes production fast and efficient. The whole production chain works in the same way; one specialized step at a time.

However, there is one significant thing that increases the environmental impact of the garment production chain: the fragmented location of the various stages of work. It is characteristic of the clothing industry that different stages of production are concentrated in different places, in different countries and even on different continents. We may well have a garment with material from China, the United States or Africa, spun in India, woven in Pakistan and sewn in Bangladesh.

The clothing industry is a global, specialized industry
In general, I have described the manufacture of a garment with a very simplified straight "tube." However, an industrially mass-produced garment does not come out of a straight tube when finished, but the multi-stage process of manufacturing the garment and the journey to the finished product is illustrated more clearly by a picture like this.

There may be historical and cultural reasons behind this, on the basis of which local know-how has grown into an industry. The reasons can also be financial. When the scale grows large enough, it is economically viable, for example, to transport the clothes for sewing to where labor is cheapest. As a result, the manufacture of a garment causes carbon dioxide emissions not only during the manufacturing stages themselves, but also during transport between the various stages of work.

Long and multi-stage transport journeys also significantly increase the need for packaging and chemicals. Most often, clothes from far away are individually wrapped in plastic and treated with protective chemicals.

The most economical solution is not always the most ecological, and often not the most ethical.

What does the made in label say?

Only the Made in label is visible on the journey of consumer clothing. However, the labeling shall not indicate the manufacturing stages of the product other than: the latest the location of a significant stage of production. Thus, in the case of a garment, it is most often the country in which the garment is sewn. It does not indicate where the different raw materials and components come from or where the different manufacturing steps have taken place. So it could be quite a surprise when we see in the garment the full listing of the journey it has taken. For example, the primary production of Made in Finland-labeled clothing often follows a similar winding path as mass-produced international clothing.

Carbon dioxide is not the only environmental nuisance

When we talk about the disadvantages of clothing production, we usually talk about greenhouse gases. In addition to transportation, plants that produce greenhouse gases are powered by fossil fuels. However, production can also cause a wide range of local disadvantages in production countries.

For example, cotton cultivation can have significant impacts on local water resources and exposure to chemicals used in cultivation and harvesting affects not only the people working in the cultivation, but also the immediate environment.


"The drying up of the lake is not the only environmental disaster that has affected the area. The sand at the bottom of the lake contains harmful substances that, as a result of sandstorms, rise into the air and fly into the wider environment."

Yle news: The environmental disaster peaked: the main basin of Lake Araljärvi dried up completely


Chemicals are also used in many other work steps. Where closed chemical cycles are provided in the most advanced plants, in undeveloped places, untreated wastewater can be discharged directly into the immediate area. In this way, the effects can be felt throughout the ecosystem. Many of these local disadvantages go completely unnoticed by us and, to some extent, certainly overshadowed by the manufacturers as well.

The production of cotton clothing consumes thousands of liters of water.
Making one regular cotton T-shirt consumes about 2700 gallons of water. Using recycled materials can save up to 99% water. Picture: Pure Waste Textiles

Out of sight

If you look at the maze diagram above, you might get a pale idea of ​​how difficult it is for a manufacturer to know who has been involved in production at different stages, under what working conditions and under what working conditions. There is not a single place to control, but even a single product involves a huge number of people in different places, some perhaps in large factories, some in small workshops, some in fields. Indeed, in long and complex production chains, there is a risk of negligence or misconduct.

When more different products are made, blend materials are used, or just the production volume is increased, the pattern becomes more complex with each step. So there will be surprises.


"Many of the world's biggest fashion brands may be indirectly contributing to forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China, says a coalition of more than 180 human rights organizations. "

Yle news: Does the fashion industry benefit from Uighur forced labor?


Not at the expense of others

While I usually talk specifically about the environmental impact of clothing in the context of Upcycler, the background is strongly influenced by the experience of unethical and inequality. It is unreasonable for the products made for us to consume the resources and habitats of those who are disadvantaged in many ways. In addition, work is often done in very poor conditions or on unreasonable terms. What is produced for us should also be willing to pay for ourselves.

Therefore, Upcycler’s main themes are circular economy and as short as possible and transparent production chains. Both promote the idea of ​​consuming as few natural resources as possible and learning to identify more ecologically and ethically sustainable alternatives. There are still alternatives to mass-produced fashion.


Also read:

Part 1. More is more

Part 2. Cheap clothing is also an ecological problem

Back to Reflections

Upcycler home page

Write a comment

Please note that comments must be approved before they can be published.