From Field to Factory – How Ethical Clothing is Made. A Photographic Journey.

The journey starts here

In November 2014 muka kids journeyed to India, that great dusty & green continent of tigers, elephants, emperors and empire.

With all my do-gooder intentions for muka kids I really needed to understand the complexities of the ethical clothing production chain. By ethical I mean a production chain where worker and environmental well-being sits at the heart of it.  So we went to India. We went to learn how ethical clothing is created and other clothing is not. We went to talk with those involved, in this very long production chain, about their day to day reality, their joys and their despair. We followed the journey of fairtrade organic cotton from field to factory across that beautiful and chaotic continent. We fell in love with the beauty of rural India, and despaired of the poverty we saw there. We felt brought down by the knowledge that the production we were seeing represented less than 1% of the industry, yet uplifted by the promise of the better way it represented. It is not a perfect system, but it strives at it at least. Here is our tale of ethical clothing, we hope you will see the promise it is too.

Growing Cotton


Rural Orissa in West India, one of the main cotton growing regions in India due to the amount of rain it gets. 40% of Indian cotton is rain fed (this is mostly organic cotton).

It all starts in the green fields and rainy regions in central and west India. Organic cotton seed is planted, fed by rain and picked by hand when it comes to bloom.

Organic cotton uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The farmers make rich compost, have huge writhing worm farms and remove pests by hand. It is hard work, requiring intensive labour, but they are no longer beholden to large international companies for chemical inputs and seed.

Organic Cotton in Bloom

Organic Cotton in Bloom. By growing organically the farmers & their family are no longer under constant risk of pesticide poisoning- which is a massive burden in developing countries.

Cotton farmers In Orissa telling us about the problem of suicide.

Fairtrade cotton farmers in Orissa telling us about the challenges they face. Under fairtrade, 2% of the wholesale price of the cotton comes back to the farming villages, while this is a small amount it has given them the means to improve their infrastructure, learn new skills and invest in their village development.

Certified fairtrade cotton commands a guaranteed price for the farmers at market (43 rupees per kg of raw seed cotton), and it is a price that ensures they can feed their families. The non fairtrade cotton price is, distressingly, often below the cost of production for farmers (when writing this it was 33 ruppees per kg). Fairtrade has made a measurable difference to cotton farmer’s lives, and most importantly has enabled them to stay free of debt. Spiraling debt has lead to an extraordinarily high suicide rate in Indian cotton farmers. While fairtrade cotton is a literal life saver to these families, the market for fairtrade cotton is still small and subject to fluctuations in demand by clothing companies – this causes these families a great deal of anxiety.

The women cotton farmers of Orissa are looking for ways to keep their incomes steady and improve their position in the village. Violence against females in rural India is rife.

The women cotton farmers of Orissa are looking for ways to keep their incomes steady and improve their position in the village. Violence against females in rural India is rife.

These fluctuations in demand for fairtrade cotton, and the fact that rain fed organic cotton can only be grown for six months a year, means the women in the farming villages need supplementary sources of income. Currently, they migrate their families (their babies, their children) across the country, by train,to do menial labour for the other half of each year. Building small enterprises, while the ethical cotton markets grows, to keep them in their homes and their incomes steady, is a necessity for them.

Buffalo & cow are kept for farming & food, vegetables are grown, but the food and income they currently produce is not enough to allow them to remain in their homes all year round.

Cotton fields after the first harvest. Cotton has two pickings a year here. It is not grown year round due to the rain fed nature of organic cotton. Putting in bores for additional water and an extended growing season is an unsustainable solution. Unfortunately the local government does not invest in water storage infrastructure.


Once the raw seed cotton has been picked by the men and women in these small farming villages, it is taken by truck to the local ginning factory, where it is cleaned and processed and pressed.

The Ginning Factory in Titlargh

The ginning factory in Titlargh only deals with organic fairtrade cotton as keeping it separate from conventional cotton would be a logistical nightmare.

Using a series of huge machines the picked raw cotton, which still has the seed intact, is put though a series of blowers, filters, spinners and extractors to separate the fiber from the seed.

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Interior of the vast ginning factory.

Nine hundred tonnes of raw organic fairtrade cotton is sucked up into the filters every season at this factory.

First of about 5 Cleaning Processess

First of about five Cleaning & Filtering Processes.


While the machinery looks pre-industrial , labour practices are not. As with the farming, at the ginning stage producers must adhere to an agreed set of labour standards (including no child labour) and are audited regularly to ensure compliance.

No Child Labour

While in many states child labour (under 16) is prohibited, many farmers and factories ignore these laws.  Fairtrade Cotton can only be certified if it is audited as being free of child labour throughout the entire production chain.

Once separated from the seed the cotton, now known as lint, is bailed (or pressed) and ready to make the long journey by road across the subcontinent to the cotton mills.

After cotton seed is separated from the lint it is used to make cotton seed oil. There is very little waste in the ginning process.

Cotton lint, separated & cleaned and ready for bailing or pressing.

Bailed cotton in storage. Cotton lint can last about 2 years in storage before it begins to degrade.

Spinning and Knitting

The pressed organic fairtrade cotton lint arrives in southern India at the cotton spinning and knitting mills. It is kept separate from the conventional cotton through a series of color coded labels and storage rooms.

PINK! for organic

PINK! for organic cotton.

Once at the mill the cotton goes through a much more rigorous cleaning process. It is then carded and combed by machinery that roars in rooms that dwarf. The vast size of the machinery means the mills need to be located in rural areas. In fairtrade and certified ethical production there must be free of indentured labour. This is where girls and women live on site, work long hours for limited pay in dangerous conditions and are prevented from leaving until a specified time is completed (usually years). Indentured labour at conventional mills is easy to get away with due to the isolated rural locations.

First clean of the lint at the mill. The mill entirely self sufficient for its energy needs.

First clean of the lint at the mill. This mill, which specializes in ethical and organic production, is entirely self sufficient for its energy needs.

After carding and combing the clean cotton it is spun.

The full milling process comprises sucking, carding, drawing, combing, roving, spinning and winding onto combs. This is the spinning stage.

and spun again..

and spun again..

Cotton fibre cleaned again and ready to be spun

The cotton is spun into a soft and pale golden fibre.

It is spooled into thread.

The spun fibre is then spooled into thread and onto cones.

and knitted into fabric

Once the thread is on cones it is knitted (or woven) into fabric.

This is a knitting machine. Woven cotton fabric is produced differently, but the essence of production is the same.

This is a knitting machine. Woven cotton fabric is produced differently, but the essence of production is the same. Knitted fabric is the stretchy stuff t-shirts and kids clothes are made from.

Newly knitted cotton

Newly knitted organic fairtrade cotton in an unbleached state.

Once the cotton has been transformed into the unbleached cotton knit fabric it is again put on a truck and taken to the dying factories. The dying factories are mostly based in the same area as the final garment factories they serve so the travel is reduced.

Unbleached knitted cotton heading to the dying factories.

Unbleached knitted cotton heading to the dying factory Indian styles.


While the residual chemicals left on fabric from conventional dying processes are concerning, the biggest worry is the waste. Conventional dying is a very toxic process and as such the waste water produced is full of heavy metals and pollutants. This waste is either pumped into local waterways (dying factories are usually situated on rivers) or into surrounding land where they will eventually leach into waterways. In organic certified factories however, the dying is done with fewer and much less harmful chemicals (no heavy metals are used at all) and is undertaken in a closed loop system. A closed loop system means the waste waster is treated until it is inert and then reused in manufacture. In the town we visited there are 10 organic dying factories – of the 200 or so that operate.

Highly regulated dyes free of heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals are used in certified organic dying.

Highly regulated dyes free of heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals are used in certified organic dying.

Organic dyes are as rich in hue and as stable as conventional dyes. Cost of production is about 10% more.

Organic dyes are as rich in hue and as stable as conventional dyes. The cost of production is about 5% more.

Unbleached cotton waiting to be fed into the dying vats. The smallest amount of cotton they can dye is 30 Kilos.

Unbleached cotton waiting to be fed into the dying vats. GOT organic standards have for the last 2 years also had a set of social standards that need to be met by workplaces.

Fabric in the dying vat.

Fabric in the dying vat. This factory dyes about 9 tonnes of fabric a day. They are surprise audited at least twice a year to ensure they meet the organic standards.

Following dying, the fabric needs to be conditioned then dried.

Following dying, the fabric needs to be conditioned to make it soft and then dried .

Dying complete the fabric gets trucked across town to the garment factory ready to be made into clothing.

Dying complete the fabric gets trucked across town to the garment factory ready to be made into clothing. The organic dying factories have long standing partnerships with ethical garment factories usually to ensure a predictable and steady stream of organic dying. The organic standards are expensive to adhere to so factories need to have a predictable level of work.

Back at the garment factory the cloth undergoes it final transformation into clothing. When people talk ethical clothing production it is probably fair to say that they mostly consider only this final stage in the chain (construction of the clothes). Strangely though the vast bulk of processes and people involved in the production of our clothing are hidden from consumers’ (and often makers’) dialogue on the issue of ethical production. For ethical production this means the complexities in ensuring a sustainable and fair approach throughout the chain are often unrecognized and unremarked upon, we can improve this conversation.

The Cutting & Sewing of the Cloth.

So what differs in ethical clothing production during these final stages from conventional factories? Well to me as the uneducated observer these factories all looked like a pretty normal workplaces, and that is the key, fairtrade, and other ethical labour standards ensure that things are just that – normal, safe, fair & reasonable. No children, no long hours, safety around large machinery, lunch and tea breaks, reasonable pay. It is not perfect, gender equity pay still needs work in many of these ethical workplaces, and the wider social conditions have an impact here, but progress has been made. As the demand from customers (western clothing makers and the people who buy their products), for clothes made under these conditions increases, so more progress will be made.

The cutting of the cloth.

The cutting of the cloth.

The first stage in garment construction is checking the fabric for flaws.

Checking fabric for imperfections before going to cutting.

Every single piece of fabric cut in a factory producing millions of garments each year  is checked for flaws by eye.

Garments with patterns and designs then go to screen printing, which can be done by hand or by rotary screens.

Screen printing screens

Screen printing screens

Organic certified paints are used for the screen prints on fabrics for clothing that is organically certified. Separation from non organic paints is critical and as demand increases many producers will move to 100% organic production to reduce the complexities.

Preparing organic dyes for screen printing

Preparing organic paints for screen printing.

Printed fabric hanging to dry.

Screen printed fabric hanging to dry.

Following screen printing the cloth is cut into the specified pattern pieces, usually by a hand operated cutting machine. Most pattern pieces are arranged on the fabric in a way to minimize wastage of cut fabric. Fabric coverage of 85-86% is considered acceptable, though it is not always possible to achieve this. In factories with a commitment to sustainability fabric scraps are usually recycled. That means the scraps are pulped back into fibre and then used to make cardboard packaging and labels.

Checking and labeling the cut fabric pieces.

Checking and labeling the cut fabric pieces.

Any embroidery is completed on cut but not sewn fabric pieces.

Any embroidery is completed on cut but not sewn fabric pieces.

The construction of the garment is carried out in mind boggling series of operations that to the average observer look all a bit the same, but clearly are not!  Depending on where in India factories are located you may only see men in the more skilled roles. The various states have made variable progress on women’s rights and this is reflected in the workplace. Under fairtrade there must be active movements made to address this regardless of the position of women within a local community.

Construction (sewing)

Construction (sewing)

The garments are then constructed (sewn) cleaned, ironed, checked, and packaged.

More construction, cleaning, ironing, checking, and packaging.

Finally the completed product is checked with the garment designers

Designers come to the factories each season to check on the garment sampling

Designers come to the factories each season to oversee and check on the garment sampling. This is their chance to talk with their manufacturers about conditions throughout the production chain.

Ironically, in many states in India the local labour laws are strongly in favour of workers rights (though often not women’s). However, the nature of Indian bureaucracy, a lack of regulatory bodies and out and out corruption mean these laws are not adhered to. It is not just a local issue, what compounds this is the business practices of large multinational clothing companies who press for the lowest price for products, and will only contract for specified item/s of clothing per season, rather than formalizing long term partnerships with manufacturers. Such partnerships would allow factories to predict their income, formalize their workforce and apply better standards to their workplace, instead of driving for the lowest production cost. In the meantime fairtrade and other ethical standards have stepped into the breach to provide for a small but growing group of consumers who want to see these standards improve. Pressure on countries at the political level (via large manufacturers and economic trading partners) may have some impact, in the mean time consumers have a very strong hand to play through the almighty dollar.

Labour laws of Tamul Nadu. Strong in statement, yet not adhered to.

Labour laws of Tamul Nadu. Strong in principle not in practice.

There are of course more stages to get the garment to you – packaging, freight, more packaging. Those committed to ethical clothing production work hard to reduce the packaging and carbon footprint of their clothes. Scale lends itself to the ability to make business practice more sustainable too, to use shipping instead of airfreight for example. These are all small but important activities in the complex chain that is ethical clothing production. Not all ethical & sustainable clothing makers have the scale or the size to commit to all ethical activities in this chain, but as consumers we can help them get there by growing their market and asking for it. If they do have scale then tough questions SHOULD be asked about their chain.  A chain that involves many many people, all who matter and all who just want to live a life where choices are real & meaningful.

Who made your clothes?

Who made your clothes?

Jess Berentson-Shaw founded the social enterprise muka kids’ to connect consumers, designers and garment workers across the world, and empower them to make the clothing industry a sustainable one. Muka kids has a marketplace to trade preloved organic, ethical & sustainable clothing. Through its partnerships with accredited brands it also helps make new sustainable clothing more affordable. Sales on the marketplace fund a micro finance scheme for women cotton farmers in India trying to pull themselves out of poverty.

13 Responses to “From Field to Factory – How Ethical Clothing is Made. A Photographic Journey.”

  1. Thanks so much for this post – I found it fascinating, and the pictures really help to get an idea of what’s happening. Keep up the good work!

  2. So when will you start selling the fair trade clothes? I have three constantly growing children….

    • Hey Georgina, thanks so much for being interested in what muka is doing. Since our trip to india to talk with the fairtrade cotton farmers, our business model has changeda bit to make it easier to buy fairtrade and organic clothes from partners who already produce these clothes. Check it out here Pretty soon I will put up a blog which covers all the great international places you can get ethical and sustainable kids clothes from and then trade on our site when you are done

  3. Do you think Fair Trade and Organic have to go together, or ‘for now’ would conditions improve more quickly if the industry focused on Fair trade followed by a change to Organic? At the moment could the infrastructure cope with an increase in demand – so if suddenly 10% of the trade were to buy through these channels could it handle it? Would factories simply convert do you think? is this seen as a barrier/excuse from manufacturers? is it their investment required as well for the long term change? Sorry…many questions prompted by what i see.

    • Hey Sally, thanks for thinking all this stuff through and asking the hard stuff!
      What I saw in India was that Organic has good uptake and is leading the charge, and it definitely made a difference in some ways to the farmers through reduced pesticide exposure etc. The fairtrade standard makes the MOST difference to their day to day living, especially the women because of the womens equality standards that fairtrade includes. I think they may go a little hand in hand, because for the farmers the change to organic requires a lot of learning and development, so it is a natural place to introduce fairtrade as a development solution. I think a massive increase in fairtrade cotton demand at this stage is unlikely, what is more needed is a consistency in the current demand (it currently fluctuates down a lot due to the market price for conventional cotton being really low). So basically getting those that buy fairtrade cotton (like the bigger retailers) to commit to keeping on buying that amount instead of doing just a one off line of garments in one season. In terms of the factories there is very little they need to do for fairtrade except keep the cotton separate, the current ethical garment makers could handle the extra capacity easily was my read on the situation, as they are not overloaded with work. Factories do need to do some investment, but at the moment those that have made the investment just need more business coming their way. Certainly if brands want to do things ethically there are HEAPS of ways they could make changes really easily in their production chains, especially as they just go to the lowest cost factories a lot of the time anyway so are well used to changing supplier. There are loads of people that could help them source a better supply chain as well. It is more the commitment to it in their business mission and in their profit margin – that is my take. I should say that applies to the big businesses, for the small makers with ethical aspirations it is more challenging because minimum orders are smaller, costs are higher and margins are lower at that scale, so the extra cost of fairtrade and organic are less easily absorbed, hence us trying to support these people and brands and build their market. Hope this helps! Jess

  4. Hi Jess,
    How’s it going? I hope you’re moving ever-closer to bringing muka kidsv2 to fruitition!
    best wishes, Carolyn

    • Hey Carolyn, we are chipping away at the new model and the best way to make that work smoothly for everyone! Thanks for the supportive comments! Jess


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