The textile industry: The good, the bad and the ugly

We have heard of the dreaded stories, the illegalities, the ill-treatment of factory workers, dodgy certifications, corruption, polluted rivers and so on from the textile industry. But how much do we actually know about the industry? This post will hopefully help you understand the industry and what it involves a little more. It’s a pretty large topic, so let’s just dip our toes in first! Then perhaps at a later stage we can dive into all the nitty-gritty of which players in the industry are good, bad and ugly.  

It’s pretty obvious that it is a huge industry. In 2015, the value of the global apparel retail market amounted to $1,319.1 billion USD. Everyone needs clothes, right? The amount of textile waste the industry creates is also a pretty clear indicator that we’ve got more than enough clothes and that the demand for new garments is pretty high. So what is involved in the textile industry? Well, generally it concerns the design and production of cloth and clothing as well as their distribution. Basically, before our clothes become clothes it is fibre. The fibre goes through a process; turning it into yarn, and then yarn into a material, which then can be dyed with different colours. These fibers or raw materials that can be natural or synthetic A.K.A man-made with chemicals and technology. The garments are then made, exported, put into stores, sold to the masses and end up in our closets. Then eventually ending up in landfills. 

Now, some general stats about the industry that demonstrate why countries have such an invested interest in this industry. For instance, China’s textile industry accounted for $106 billion USD last year; one of its major industries that contributes to the country’s large GDP. According to the latest World Trade Statistical Review, the top three textile exporters were China, the European Union and India in 2016. When combined these three accounted for 65.9% of the world’s export last year. Among these three, other big exporters of textiles and apparel included the US, Turkey, the Republic of Korea, Vietnam and Pakistan.

With so many different makers and exporters of textiles from all corners of the world, how do consumers know which of them is: the good and trustworthy; the bad and dodgy; and the ugly and absolute no-nos. Before we delve into these three categories, one thing should be addressed. Categorising the textile industries into three categories is beyond difficult or clear-cut. There are of course, always, exceptions to the rule. So please keep that in mind, as we try to navigate through this difficult task!

The good:

Generally speaking those that fall into the ‘good’ category would be those who make textiles adhering to global standards put in place by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to ensure quality, safety and sustainability as well as possessing the right compliance certificates. There are many, many standards out there such as REACH, ASTM and CPSIA to name a few. The main thing to focus on here is the key three terms: Quality, Safety and Sustainability. Another important term is ‘transparency’ and whether or not the retailers, brands, producers and everyone else in the supply chain are open and transparent with all aspects of their activities. This includes their products, processes and finances. Being transparent shows that they are not hiding anything and that we as the customers, can trace back through the whole process and see what they have done and how.

The European textile industry – which includes producers and exporters from Germany, the UK, France, Belgium, Italy and other southern countries – tends to have a pretty good reputation for stricter and higher standards and regulations in order to protect the customer’s interests. Labour laws are also in place to protect the workers in this industry. In this part of the world, it is more common that unions, employment security, better work benefits, pay and conditions are available. What’s more is that Europe is home to some of the most important textile and fashion innovators, researchers and artists who often create with quality and craftsmanship in mind.

Meanwhile, China is the top exporter of textile and their position is helped by the fact that the country has the unparalleled capacity to produce textile fibre, which in 2014 accounted for over 50% of world share. Shoppers – particularly those of the western world – typically hold or held some sort of skepticism and hesitation when they see labels donning ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in Vietnam’ or ‘Made in –insert asian country here-’. Though it may be true in many cases that quality and craftsmanship is lacking in the garments made in this part of the world, it is unfair to completely generalise and make such a conclusion just because of its bad reputation. China is a good example of this. Although they have had in the past (and still presently) unsafe sweatshops, it is true that the quality is rising in their garments industry. China is home to an industry with invested technology, highly skilled and specialised garment makers that manage to offer a good price for speed and quality. Look at Burberry, Prada and Armani. These luxury labels produce a lot of their lines in China. Additionally, new Western fashion startups are now shedding light on a new generation of Chinese factories with ethical manufacturing. Factories that are paying workers fairly, offer good working conditions and reasonable house whilst crafting beautiful apparel.

The point is that you should not generalise and submit to the rumours without really looking into it. There are good factories and suppliers in the world, regardless of the region. Although in some cases the stereotypes may ring true, one should first research to find out which ones are doing good in the countries or regions that have a history of doing bad.

The bad:

The simplest way to explain the ‘bad’ is that it is opposite to the ‘good’.

Just kidding, there’s more to it than that. Those in the textile industry who do not comply with the standards and regulations – that are there to protect the customers, the workers and the environment – tend to end up in this category. There could be many reasons and causes for how they ended up in the bad category. It’s not that these bad players in the industry want to be bad on purpose, or maybe some don’t even realise that they are considered bad, or at least not that bad. In some cases, they might feel that they have no choice but to cut corners and make cuts because at the end of the day they want the buyers’ business and to make money.

As seen in the 2015 film The True Cost, a factory boss pointed out that they made cuts in desperation because they knew if they couldn’t provide the buyers with what they wanted for the price they wanted, then the buyers would simply take their business elsewhere; if not to the factory next door then to a whole other country. Whilst in some other countries, the foundations for fair work and wages aren’t even available for the country’s workers, let alone in the textile industry. Countries in the Middle East and Africa spring come to mind, where there are no unions, fair minimum wages, workers rights, benefits or securities. Countries that also don’t have proper procedures for disposing of waste or laws limiting pollution to the local areas.

However, it is unfair to only discount these developing countries that are desperate for business from the Western countries who are the ones demanding it. Europe might not be as great as it’s cracked up to be. In the eyes of many, something made in Europe is deemed to be of better quality than something made in Bangladesh or Thailand, where many retailers and brands outsource their manufacturing. According to the secretary-general of the European Association of Fashion Retailers in Brussels, Alessandro Bedeschi, some products are supposed to be made in Italy or France but in truth, most of the raw materials and most of the work end up being made outside of Europe. Furthermore, some labels bearing ‘Made in Europe’ are actually made in Albania or Bosnia, which is a misleading loophole that consumers might not have considered previously. Technically these garments are made in Europe, but the problem here is that they are not part of the European Union. As such, they are not regulated by the laws and regulations put in place by the EU Commission, which gives products made in the EU higher prestige and better reputation in the first place.

Despite bad being the opposite of good, we all know that the world isn’t just black and white, good and evil, or ying and yang. The lesson here is that some things might not be as bad as you think, and some things might not be as good as you think. Then there are some things that are worse than you thought! This brings us to the final category: The Ugly.

The ugly:

Worse than the ‘bad’ would be the ‘ugly’. But what can be worse than those examples we had given in the previous category? Well, these are the players in the industry that disregard all standards and basically ignore those key terms mentioned earlier (quality, safety and sustainability) AND are deceitful about it. The go-to example of this is the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 where over 1100 workers lost their lives and 2500 were injured. This was a factory that claimed to have the right paperwork and certifications, such as BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative).

BSCI is an initiative which provides a list of factories that are socially compliant and working to improve their factories within the global supply chain. So despite the illegal construction going on which led to the collapse, this BSCI approved factory was provided to buyers assuring them that they were doing business with someone living by these BSCI principles. In our opinion, being an unregulated company or manufacturer is one thing, but to pretend that you are up to scratch and compliant in order to mislead and trick buyers into working with you, that is what put you in the ‘ugly’ category and a big no-no.

Another factor that gets you into the ‘ugly’ category is bad labour practices such as slavery, child labour and exclusions from labour laws. The worst working conditions in the world are generally countries in the Middle East and North Africa such as UAE, Egypt and Swaziland; however, these conditions are not limited to the textile industry but across all sectors. Some countries have awful working conditions as there is no guarantee of rights due to the breakdown of law in the country itself; meaning that it isn’t really the textile industry’s fault.

So what now?

That was a lot of information to digest, and there were no clear-cut answers of who and where you should get your clothes from and which to avoid.

The point of this blog was to demonstrate that reputations can be true and false, and that every factory, designer, manufacturer or whatever, should be judged each on their own. The label of where the garment is made should not simply encourage or discourage you from buying a garment, but rather, the brand, their production methods and transparency should be further enquired. Instead of judging an item based on where they are made (if they are even made there), a conscious consumer could do research into the brand itself to find out the company’s values, supply chain, then decide if one would support the work that they do. We have compiled a list of eco-friendly fashion brands, for instance, to help us shop more responsibly.

Have you got any other suggestions for the good, the bad or the ugly? We’d love to hear it!

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