Sustainable Clothing Manufacturers: A Step by Step Guide From Farm to Hanger
Now more than ever, the world is in desperate need of sustainable clothing manufacturing.
Big corporate brands have practiced unsustainable production methods — from the actual process to horrid labor conditions.
It’s no secret that most corporations are focused on a singular purpose: profit. While this is obviously the goal of any business, there are ways to make profits without sacrificing both the integrity of the brand and the health and safety of future generations.
Unfortunately, some corporations typically don’t have an interest in any of that. These brands will scream about fair practices from every rooftop in the continental United States yet pay their overseas workers unlivable wages, dump their waste wherever is convenient, and keep their employees in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.
With that being said, there are a few brands and companies out there that are actively trying to make a difference. It is these select few companies that give our future hope, and it all starts with one of the most important words in the English language: sustainability.
Today, we’re going to take you through a step-by-step process of what a sustainable clothing brand looks like while also touching on what makes a brand unsustainable.
How Can Clothing Manufacturers Be Sustainable?
In order to understand why a manufacturing process is sustainable, you need to be able to trace the production all the way back to when the first seed was planted — which is something only 5% of the fashion industry can claim they know.
A huge misconception is that sustainability is only connected with the environmental impact of production and shipping. In reality, it’s the integration of many sectors — the environment, the economy, and social equity — that creates healthy communities that can last for generations.
Basically, this means that every aspect of a business is important when pursuing (or evaluating) sustainability, from production to working practices. It’s not only carbon emissions and gross wastefulness — it’s how a company treats its employees and how they impact the global community.
To make this even more simple, we can trim all of this down to the three pillars of sustainability: economic impact, environmental impact, and social impact.
From a purely economic standpoint, a business isn’t sustainable if they aren’t profitable. To most large corporations, this is their only priority of the three pillars. By sacrificing their integrity and endangering future generations, the economic pillar becomes objective number one.
Again, the goal of any business is to make money. However, no amount of money to good and normal people would mean treating workers poorly and trashing the earth.
Nevertheless, profitability has to be included in any business model when talking about sustainability. Nobody is going to become environmentally conscious if that means tanking their hard-earned business and money.
So, finding a middle ground is essential. In this case, the perfect balance does exist, but most companies refuse to sacrifice any amount of profit for the betterment of humanity.
When you hear sustainability, your first thought often goes straight to environmental impact. We can informally call this pillar planet to add with profit.
They both tie directly together — environmental sustainability is simply being conscious of the use of natural resources that provides the product or good a business is selling. In our case, this would be clothing.
The process of manufacturing clothing uses a ton of natural resources, so this pillar instantly becomes more important to businesses in the fashion industry. Additionally, by conserving natural resources, companies can actually save money.
There have been wildly successful environmental sustainability plans implemented by large corporations that actually helped to increase profits by saving a ton of money on production costs.
It is through these types of plans and companies that show environmental consciousness and profitability can work together hand-in-hand.
Finally, the most often forgotten pillar of sustainability is the social aspect, simply known as people — now we have profit, planet, and people.
These are the three things that make a business successful and sustainable. You can easily argue the third and final pillar is the most important: A business is only as good as the people who work for it.
If your hypothetical company paid their overseas workers next to nothing, made them work unbearable hours, and kept them in disgusting conditions, how likely is it that the quality of your merchandise is going to go downhill, fast? We say very likely.
Morale is essential in creating a positive community in which employees can thrive. Fair wages, normal hours, and sanitary and safe labor conditions shouldn’t even be something we have to say is necessary — yet, here we are.
It’s disgusting and disappointing to us, and we’re sure it is for you too. Thankfully, these practices are far less common than they were years ago, although it’s still prominent throughout large manufacturing countries such as China.
Remember these pillars as we go through the rest of the process, and especially remember them the next time you decide to order from certain companies.
Why the Fashion Industry Needs More Sustainability
If you didn’t already know, the fashion industry is one of the worst polluters out of any global sector.
This is because of the unsustainable production practices combined with the never-ending shipping. To put this in perspective, the fashion industry accounts for around 10% of the world’s global carbon emissions — which is more than all global flight and maritime shipping combined.
Waste is also a major issue. The consumption of the fashion industry has nearly doubled since 2000 and is expected to triple by 2050. While sales are up, people tend to wear their purchased clothes before discarding them for half as long as they did in 2000. 20% of clothing in the United States is never worn, while that number is hovering around 50% in the UK.
This fact, combined with the synthetic fibers that have become more common such as polyester, means that there are millions of tons of clothing dumped either in the ocean or sitting in a landfill each year.
To make matters worse, some of these fabrics take centuries to decompose, and some microfibers that are released after throwing a garment away can actually never decompose.
The fashion industry’s environmental problem produces statistics that might not even be possible to comprehend. Every second, one garbage truck full of clothes is either burned or dumped.
Everything you’ve read in this section doesn’t even cover the emissions of shipping, dumping thousands of gallons of dyes into rivers and lakes, and the absurd amount of water it takes to produce a simple pair of pants (over 2,000 gallons).
To boil all of this down to the simplest possible terms: Future generations will pay an even higher price if environmentally sustainable practices are never implemented and made mandatory — that’s why the fashion industry needs more sustainability.
Now, we’re going to take you on a step-by-step journey of a sustainable clothing manufacturer.
Along the way, we’ll stop and take little detours to tell you what an unsustainable company would do as well. This, of course, is a relative term. Companies will do things differently that border on sustainable, unsustainable, and a little in-between, so we’ll be sure to clarify.
The process of producing a bulk garment order actually isn’t overly complicated — there are a ton of moving parts, but when they’re all moving correctly and together, the result is an environmentally conscious practice that produces their apparel with haste, efficiency, sustainability, and quality.
The purpose of this is so you can do your own independent research before you decide to buy from a certain brand. Only you can decide for yourself whether or not to give a company your business, so be sure to keep all of this in mind going forward.
Step 1: Planting and Pre-Production
Before anything gets planned, there obviously needs to be something planted, like cotton.
A sustainable brand will use only natural materials to produce its clothing.
An example of a brand bordering on sustainability would be using a majority of natural resources on their product with a small percentage of something synthetic mixed in, such as spandex or polyester.
An unsustainable start to pre-production would be planting nothing at all. Some brands will use completely unnatural materials to make their products, so planting anything isn’t even in the equation.
After the seed is planted, pre-production can begin. This stage typically involves garment testing and samples, design approvals, and a carefully laid-out plan as to when the garments will be ready, how they’ll be prepared in a sustainable way, and the overall production cost.
Step 2: Preparation for Production
During this phase, the aforementioned pre-production plan is finalized after careful calculations and planning.
This is when everything from costs to schedules will be finalized. The first two steps to the production process will likely take the most time, even longer than the production process itself.
This is because a sustainable company is willing to ensure their process truly is sustainable, including how they actually make the garments to making sure their employees are safe and satisfied with their working conditions.
An unsustainable company’s goal is to produce and sell as much as it can as quickly as possible. That means lower-quality products, likely environmentally harmful practices, and possibly poor labor conditions.
Step 3: Cutting and Making Blank Apparel
Finally, the fun can start.
This is the busiest stage, as this hypothetical sustainable company would begin pumping out and cutting blank apparel to fulfill whatever orders they may have. For this stage, there are multiple different ways companies can go about this.
Large companies like the brands you’d find at department stores will cut and produce their apparel as fast as possible. This wouldn’t necessarily mean they’re unsustainable; they just have higher order quantities to fulfill.
What would make them unsustainable, however, is if they produce blank apparel made from synthetic fibers, if their employees are overworked and under-compensated, and if their overseas factories are dumping waste into clean lakes, rivers, and oceans.
While it’s true that it takes a lot of water to produce cotton apparel, cotton still remains one of the most sustainable materials — mainly because it takes under a few months to completely decompose.
Step 4: The Transfer Process and Quality Assurance
If you’re making something with a design on it, the next step would be the transfer process.
After production has started and a company has the blank apparel cut, dry, and enough on hand, the transfer process can begin.
This process entails printing the custom design onto the blank apparel. There are three main types of design transfer: screen printing, digital printing, and embroidery. Some companies will exclusively stick to one of these, while others will offer a choice between the three and possibly more.
If the selected process is screen printing or embroidery, a sustainable company would do the following: first, they’d have strict waste management and disposal sites instead of illegally dumping into bodies of water.
Next, because screen printing and embroidery require hands-on work, their workers would be placed in a stable and clean environment and properly compensated for their work.
After the transfer process is complete, overseers will check each and every garment to ensure they are all of the same quality. An unsustainable company would either have no check or a quick one to ensure they get their product out as quickly as possible.
Step 5: Finalization and Shipment Preparation
After days or weeks of planning and hard work, the garment order has been fulfilled and is ready to go.
Sustainable company managers will give their products one last quality assurance check before eventually approving the products for shipping.
In terms of shipping, it’s a big gray area environmentally speaking. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot that sustainable brands can do in terms of shipping compared to unsustainable brands. The product has to get there somehow, and there has yet to be an adequate solution to lowering the emissions of shipping.
Once the product is loaded onto either trucks or planes, the order will arrive a week or two after its finalization.
Problems and Sustainability Issues
There you have it!
It might be simplified a little, but that is more or less the process of clothing production from both a sustainable and unsustainable viewpoint.
As you can see, one of the biggest challenges for sustainable companies is shipping. As we said, your order has to get there somehow, and if the factory is overseas, then that means a truck to pick the order up, a drive to the airport, a flight to a destination, and a drive to deliver the order.
That’s a lot of emissions for one order, even if the process itself is completely natural and sustainable.
In terms of the production process, if a company follows sustainable steps, the environmental impact should be minimalized relative to the rest of the industry. Production on a mass scale is when it gets tricky as companies will be tempted to take shortcuts for cost savings.
This could results in poor wages and conditions for workers, illegally dumped waste to avoid any taxes or disposal costs, and poor overall quality.
The world is still waiting on a solution to these problems. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to keep our planet clean.
How You Can Help
How can one person possibly change the disgusting amount of emissions the fashion industry is responsible for? Well, one person can’t change those statistics, but the global community can — and that starts with one individual.
Before you buy from anywhere, do some independent research. Read reviews, articles, and anything you can find from an unbiased source pertaining to their production practices.
If you are concerned that a company is unsustainable, try finding a more ethical alternative instead. In order for large companies to finally wake up, we need to hit them where it hurts: their wallets.
Second, you can stop buying one or two pieces of clothing at a time. Refer to what we said in the previous section about shipping a large order. Now, imagine all of that for only a pair of shorts and a T-shirt for yourself. Buying more at a time can actually help you reduce your carbon footprint (and give you even more fun purchases to love).
Of course, this shouldn’t be seen as advocating for overconsumption — you can simply make large purchases of items likely to last longer on less frequent basis instead of constantly buying in smaller quantities.
Finally, you can spread awareness. This is on the global community to make a change. If you know of a company practicing unethical production, tell people about it before they order.
Do whatever you can to save the fashion industry and, more importantly, save the world.
At KOTN Supply, we’ve made sustainability a priority over everything. We’re a wholesale company that makes custom swag for you, your peers, and anyone else you might be shopping for.
Only 5% of companies in the fashion industry can claim they know exactly where their products come from, starting on the farm and ending on your doorstep. KOTN Supply is a proud member of that 5%, and it’s something we don’t take lightly.
Instead of synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester, all of our apparel is made from 100% Egyptian cotton sourced straight from the Nile Delta. From the moment the cotton is harvested to the instant it arrives at your door, we know exactly where our product is and where it’s coming from — meaning you can feel good about buying in bulk from our wholesale offerings.
Learning more about the fashion industry is the first step towards a more sustainable future, and you’re already there. We’re so excited to see what’s next.