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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nine hundred tonnes of raw organic fairtrade cotton is sucked up into the filters every season at this factory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 first stage in garment construction is checking the fabric for flaws.
Garments with patterns and designs then go to screen printing, which can be done by hand or by rotary 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.
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.
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.
Finally the completed product is checked with the garment designers
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.
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.
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.