Who Made Your Clothes?

Lilipiache Organic Cotton Bra

Where do our clothes come from? And do we really want to know? Liesl Truscott, Farm Engagement & European Director at Textile Exchange, says that if the public response to the recent Bangladesh disaster is anything to go by, many more of us do care and expect our clothing retailers to care too! 

The textile industry has a long history of changing only when forced to by a crisis or disaster. The latest being the tragic Bangladesh Rana Plaza factory collapse in April where over 1,000 workers lost their lives. However, unlike previous displays of procrastination and attention diverting tactics, a substantial number of retailers and brands reacted quickly to ensure action was indeed taken. A coalition of 70 leading clothing brands, retailers and trade unions backed by the International Labor Organization and the IndustriALL and UNI global trade unions has announced the next steps for their precedent-setting, five-year Accord on Fire and Building in Bangladesh.

We saw a similar response by the industry to the recent exposé by Greenpeace. The Detox campaign was launched in 2011 to expose the direct links between global clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution around the world. The campaign exposed the toxic discharges resulting from textile dying and other manufacturing processes and challenged global sportswear brands to champion a “toxic-free future”. Since then, some of the world’s largest fashion retailers have committed to build a roadmap to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC).


Twenty years ago we were forced to acknowledge the damage and lives lost through pesticide use and abuse in cotton cultivation. The Environmental Justice Foundation exposed the ecological and human rights disaster of Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, including child and forced labour and the devastation of the Aral Sea. Also in the late 80s legendary ethical fashion heroine Katharine Hamnett (awarded a CBE by Queen Elizabeth in 2011) told us we had “blood on our hands” due to the amount of deaths and destruction caused by chemical use in the cotton industry.
Despite this awareness raising and industry exposure the domination of our capitalist system and consumer appetites for consumption means that industry and consumer behaviour is very slow to change.

But is change starting to speed up?
Fast forward to 2014, April 24th to be exact and we will see our first Fashion Revolution Day. The aim of the event is to encourage transparency, and connect wearers to the origins of their clothes – in particular the people behind the production. Among the many challenges facing a more sustainable textile industry, knowing where to start is often the biggest! The textile value chain can be long and fragmented. Many retailers and their customers are often so far removed from the origins and impacts of production that it’s extremely difficult for companies to market and build a thriving business that incorporates sustainable practices. But of course we cannot knowingly accept any more Bangladesh or Uzbek disasters… or for that matter the multitude of human suffering and ecological degradation that remains invisible to the fashion shoppers.

Organic – A Beacon For The Industry
For the past eleven years, we at Textile Exchange (TE) have been contributing to the knowledge and awareness-raising of the benefits of organic cotton. Textile Exchange’s  Farm Hub is the epicentre of the  work in organic cotton. The philosophy of organic offers us a holistic and integrated approach to value chains where people and the environment are respected. This philosophy and the four guiding principles  (health, ecology, fairness, care) developed by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) provide the basis of an organic practitioner’s work ethic and relationships with suppliers, customers, and the Earth. But of course we need more than a definition to prove the worth of organic as the beacon of sustainability. We need quantitative data, particularly from the farms – where the water use, land use, and impacts of climate change are felt most keenly – to support the move by businesses to invest in organic.


There are a growing number of indices and rating systems in development these days; creating a demand for sustainability data. Impact assessment and Lifecycle Inventory data are increasingly being used to drive the textile industry towards investing in more sustainable raw materials, more resource efficiency and less hazardous processes, and pushing organizations and companies to better quantify performance improvement.

Leading the Way
C&A’s Water Footprint The C&A Foundation, the fashion company C&A, and the Water Footprint Network (WFN) have just published two new, trailblazing studies on the sustainable use of water, and on C&A’s own water footprint along the international value chain for the manufacture of cotton products.

The studies showed that with conventional cultivation, the grey water footprint of cotton is about five times larger than if an organic method of cultivation is used. A primary contributor to the bigger water footprint was the use of chemical pesticides on conventional farms. For C&A, these studies have confirmed the benefits of a move to organic cotton and shows that the water footprint of conventional farming can be reduced through improved farming practices.

PUMA Lifecycle Inventory for Organic Cotton Cultivation in India Earlier this year, PUMA, PE International, and Textile Exchange collaborated to produce a life cycle inventory (LCI) for organic cotton cultivation in India. This project was based mainly on the PUMA value chain and sourcing regions. The results showed that water consumption in organic cotton was 18 times lower than for conventional cotton, energy demand was 72 percent lower and Global Warming Potential was 40 percent lower for organic cotton than for conventional cotton.

Much of these results were underpinned by the pioneering work by Trucost and PUMA on  Environmental Profit & Loss, which not only revealed that the most significant impact of textile production occurs at “farm level” i.e. textile raw material production, but also put “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” on the radar for the industry. The study showed that if monetized, over half (57 percent or € 83 million) of all PUMA’s environmental impacts are associated with the production of raw materials (including leather, cotton and rubber).

Some companies are leading the way on transparency. The Pi foundation (the charity arm of UK brand Pants To Poverty) is leading a project where Pants to Poverty is opening itself up for external scrutiny with complete transparency (financial, environmental and social) throughout the value chain from seed to post consumer disposal or upcycling. Pi foundation has assembled an inspirational international network of leading experts to develop a framework and methodology to measure, communicate and allocate a value to the 3 dimensions of profit generated by its underwear brand. All of the research, assumptions tools and methodologies will be made available, open source, for others critique it and build consensus around true corporate profitability.

Revolutions … and Collaboration… We need Both
Alongside the number of campaigns driving industry manifesto’s and accords, and the great progress made by our “trail blazers and pioneers”, there are a growing number of multi-stakeholder platforms and consortiums developing within the textile industry. These networks, based on pre-competitive collaboration, provide enormous opportunities for driving widespread industry-led change and growth towards a more sustainable industry.

For example:
The UK Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) Companies representing more than a third of UK clothing sales have signed up for the SCAP 2020 Commitment to measure and report on the environmental “footprint” of clothing throughout its life, and to take action to reduce the impact.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is an industry-wide group of over 100 apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, nonprofits, and NGOs working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products globally. The focus of the SAC is to create and implement an index (Higg) to measure the environmental and social performance of apparel and footwear products.

Rana Plaza showed that companies can come together to collaborate and raise standards in the supply chain, to recognize their responsibilities to the people who make their products, and come out from behind the veil of anonymity that too many have hidden behind for too long. The integrated approach of organic – taking into account environmental, social and economic factors – offers the best hope that we can to build a better textile industry and avoid further tragedies.

Textile Sustainability Conference
Join us in Istanbul, an amazing international city, for our global annual conference with a theme  of “Sustainability: The Future is Now – Unifying Our Industry through Integration and Collaboration”. 2013 promises to be the most interactive and solution-focused conference to date.

The 2013 Textile Sustainability Conference will bring together industry stakeholders with the intent to share, listen, learn and develop scalable solutions over three exciting days. These industry leaders are working alongside TE staff to develop interactive sessions and topics that involve and meet the needs of the entire value chain from raw fiber and chemical inputs to dynamic business models that change the role of the consumer.

In addition to the main conference sessions, TE will host the pre-conference 2nd Annual Organic Cotton Roundtable on November 11. At last year’s Round Table meeting in Hong Kong two task forces were established: (1) reinvigorating the business investment model and (2) investing in and securing seed availability. A third area of opportunity was identified (3) consumer awareness – a vital part of the success story for the entire value chain. We look forward to sharing with you the progress we have made during 2013, and discussing next steps for 2014.

About Textile Exchange
Textile Exchange is a global non-profit organization that convenes networks and acts as a catalyst to accelerate sustainability across the textile value chain. Textile Exchange (TE) is the go-to resource for organizations and brands from all over the world who are working towards textile sustainability. 

TE develops and manages textile content standards to safeguard industry integrity and transparency.  TE works diligently with organic farmers, providing improved access to stable markets, sustainability education and business opportunities.  

TE educates people from the farms, mills, factories, brands and retailers about why organic and sustainable fibers are cleaning up our planet. TE creates partnerships between companies of all sizes to encourage solution-based interactions and is committed to accelerating sustainable practices in the textile value chain in order to create material change, restore the environment and enhance lives around the world.

TE is led by a Board of Directors, consisting of fifteen members from eight countries representing the supply chain, and is supported by an Advisory Council. The organizations home office is in the US and the work towards TE’s mission is accomplished by twenty staff from nine countries.  In 2011, Textile Exchange Europe was incorporated as a registered public charity in the United Kingdom.

Highlights from the Farm Hub

Farm & Fiber Report (latest edition now out!)
Collaborate Learning Series
Organic Cotton Round Table
Future Shapers
Organic In Action
Find A Producer
Learning Journey
World Environment Day

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