According to the world resources institute more than 82 billion kilograms of clothing are wasted every year. It takes 2.700 liters of water to make a single cotton T-shirt and an average garment worker in Bangladesh makes about $96 per month. These numbers show that the clothing industry is both ecologically and socially unsustainable. To obtain her master dissertation in conflict and development Angela Rupp conducted a study about a modelled life cycle of a t-shirt bought in Belgium.
I studied the master program conflict and development. I was looking for a subject that is more practically applicable, because I feel we often stay very theoretical in this field. What I liked about the idea of the social impact assessment, was that I could look at a life-cycle of a tangible product and that my findings may be useful later on. I don’t want to say it will have an impact. It’s still only a master thesis, but it looks at practical implications about sustainability.
What does a T-shirt’s life cycle consist of?
Obviously I had to make a lot of choices, for example: which T-shirts do I pick? I modelled a simplified life cycle of a common T-shirt that didn’t actually exist. I traced patterns of trade across the globe. So I looked at the countries from which Belgium imports most of its T-shirts. This turned out to be Bangladesh. I found out that they don’t grow a lot of raw materials like cotton themselves. The cotton processed in Bangladesh is mostly imported from India. So I looked at cotton production in India. I also looked at viscose (another frequently used semi-synthetical fabric, red.). The raw material you need to obtain viscose is wood, which in this case is imported from Brazil. The viscose is then processed in China. I traced back the steps and modelled one relevant path the T-shirt could have taken.
How did you uncover the social impacts?
The life cycle impact assessment is an already elaborated method. There is kind of a manual with guidelines that is being used, also by companies and NGO’s to evaluate social impacts. Ideally one should consider all the possible stakeholders along the lifecycle, such as the workers and the local community. For each stakeholder one should then evaluate various impact categories for example fair salary and hours of work. These guidelines really try to be comprehensive.
One of the most relevant stakeholders to look at for me were the workers. At each step in the lifecycle, I tried to collect information about how the workers are being treated, how they are being paid and if they have labour rights. Because I did not select particular factories, I evaluated the situation of workers on the sector level. I gathered data about how the textile sector as a whole is organized in Bangladesh, what seamstresses report about their working conditions. And then I did the same for woodcutters in Brazil, and so on. In the production sites there was generally very little labour protection, a lot of workers get abused and intimidated when they want to form a union. Their incomes lie way below a living wage. This affects the workers but also the communities they live in. I also looked at how the production sites affected the communities living close by. This showed that there is a strong connection between social and environmental impacts. For example, the chemicals used in conventional viscose fibre production have a very harming effect on local environments of the communities.
“The highest social risks where located in the production sites”
So following the guidelines I tried to gain information on all kinds of social risks along the lifecycle, I evaluated the risk levels, and made an overview about where which risks are located. The highest social risks where located in the production sites, mostly for cotton farmers in India, but also for woodfibre production in Brazil, and in chemical fibre processing in China. So, all materials had high social risks. And then the situation of seamstresses in Bangladesh also raised a lot of red flags.
But the problem doesn’t stop there?
No, there were not only high risks at the production sites, but also at the disposal stage. When we discard our T-shirts they often end up being resold, for example to second-hand traders in Africa. This is problematic for textile markets in various African countries, because local production cannot compete with the massive influx of really cheap second-hand imports.
What stands out in the end it that almost all grave social risks are located in the Global South. But it is the Belgian consumers and the Belgian fashion sector that profits from all the bad conditions in all the other parts of the world. So while the social risks don’t occur at the retail stage in Belgium, it is nevertheless Western fashion brands and consumers who are involved in causing these bad conditions.
How could we as consumers have an impact on all of this? Does the price or a label on a T-shirt give us a warning sign?
The price of a T-shirt doesn’t tell you anything on how much the workers were paid. For example, more expensive brands put a lot of money into marketing and design, but not necessarily in their workers’ wages. Some companies claim they do, but that needs to be verifiable which is often not possible. There are some tools which help us track the processes of a brand. One can check independent organisations that rate brands online.
There are also labels you can check for and that is a good thing. But there are a lot of labels. Some with social criteria, such as decent payment, the length of a working day, how the workers are treated, if there is child and/or forced labour. There are others with environmental criteria etc. There is a whole list of important factors, but they all are often interrelated. Addressing one of them would not fix it. For example, some initiatives (e.g. H&M organic cotton) are not comprehensive at all. They only look at one point in the process: the cotton production. And even there they apply only low standards. This often means that a large part of the life cycle is not evaluated. There are also large differences in what is described as ‘organic cotton’. Some connect organic cotton to fair trade, but it is not the same. So it’s important to look for comprehensive labels. It is a very difficult field, but there are websites that compare labels for you. Those websites indicate if a brand’s labels consider the whole life cycle and if they consider both the environmental and social factors.
Today we see a lot of green labels. Do they take away the attention of the social impact, moreover, do you think the green part is overaccentuated?
Sometimes advertisements and brands make it seem like both environmental and social justice go together automatically. I think some of this is rhetoric and some initiatives are greenwashing. You don’t know the standards behind their commitment, often it is just a blank statement. This is a problem with the term ‘sustainable’: it is not clearly defined and thus just becomes a catchword in advertisements and so on. Indeed, I think environmental consciousness is getting more popular. Big brands advertise their ‘green initiatives’ very vocally. However, such initiatives often only make up a fraction of their business. You could argue that this is a start, but I have a problem with the small amount of real commitment that is behind those initiatives as well. I do think as a consumer you should look at both environmental and social impacts and ask yourself what’s concretely behind all the catchphrases and companies’ self-ascribed sustainability claims. Again: pay attention to comprehensive labels.
Is sustainable clothing expensive?
It can surely be more expensive, but if you buy half as much and twice as expensive (which it might not even be, because there is a lot of affordable sustainable clothing) then you would already be fine. We own so much. If we go for less and better – then it will equal itself out. You can also buy second hand, which is often cheaper. So, a good mix of more expensive sustainable clothing and second hand may even turn out to be cheaper.
“If we go for less and better – then it will equal itself out.”
What happens with our clothes after we have stopped wearing them?
We have so many used, discarded clothes that the domestic second hand market can’t take it all. We only keep 10 to 20% for local reselling and charity. They usually sort out the good pieces. The rest is often shipped to big sorting centres in eastern Europe, where reusable clothes are arranged according to quality, to be resold around the world. Because sorting is labour intensive, these processes are often located in eastern Europe where wages are again lower. The better quality clothes might be resold in eastern Europe as well, where they have a huge second-hand market. The rest is sold to the global market, to for-profit brokers. This also happens to the clothes we think are ‘donated’ in used clothing collection boxes. But often it has little to do with charity – maybe the money is used for charity purposes in the end. But collectors often simply don’t know what to do with all those clothes; there is just too much.
It’s bad for the textile industry in the Global South. But isn’t it good that the life cycle of clothes is extended?
Yes, from an environmental standpoint this is more sustainable. But that is why we can ask ourselves more fundamentally, from a social and environmental standpoint: “How should the world economy be organized sustainably?” There are also the cultural and psychological aspects. What does it do to people when they always have to wear our waste? Or if they are not able to build up their own industries. There was an emerging textile industry in some African countries in the 70s, but with the opening of the markets a lot of jobs were lost. Cheap imports made things difficult. It is a complex problem.
China produces a lot of cheap clothes as well, and these production processes are very harming for the environment and flood the markets in the Global South. There is no simple solution. But you can still question the vast amounts of used clothing we send across the world. There are also a lot of clothes shipped to African countries, that simply end up as waste right away – because the quality is too bad, the clothes are too large, or the style is just not in demand. So, container loads of clothing are also thrown away there, burned or dumped in nature: Global North countries dumping their waste in the Global South and leaving them to “deal with it.” The cheap second-hand markets maybe have some good aspects as it is affordable and better quality than new Chinese products. But it needs to be better controlled. We can’t keep sending them our waste.
One last thing I want to highlight is that it is not only the responsibility of the consumer. A lot of what we are seeing is simply the logic of how the global system of production works. And that is carried by our political configurations as well. We need to apply much more pressure; we need to improve labour laws in the Global South. Workers need to be allowed to form unions and they need to be protected from harassment and abuse. It is a whole global political configuration that supports that system. States have their responsibility and companies as well. The EU is planning to do address some of these issues with a supply-chain law. To oblige companies to ensure that there are no rights violations in their supply chain, so they have to comply with certain standards. That is something the EU can do but it is questionable whether the law will be strong and comprehensive enough, and how it would be enforced. We as citizens can demand more engagement from our politicians. It is important to be aware of it.
Did you find that the subject of sustainability was addressed enough in your studies?
I think we could have addressed it more concretely. We deconstructed and criticised a lot – which is of course very important. We questioned how our economic system functions and analysed the negative impacts, but we barely talked about how it can be improved. So I took the class on sustainable development (which wasn’t obligatory) and it was really interesting. In this class possible solutions were discussed. The whole framework of sustainable development has a lot to offer.
Image: The journey from raw material to T-shirt (Angela Rupp)