Fabrics are shipped from mills to manufacturers, who are in charge of turning rolls into finished garments. The first step is to cut the rolls into parts that will compose the jeans.
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Sampling is a process of making a product prototype prior to starting bulk production, and is a key part of the design and pre-production process, as it provides an essential opportunity to analyse what works before putting the design into production. Before deciding on the final shade, fabric, and fit, factories can make dozens of samples for one item that then goes into production. $6 to 8 billion is spent on sampling in the fashion industry every year. These samples often are not sold, and their environmental impact should not be overlooked.
Automated cutting allows for a machine with an automated moving blade to cut rolls into parts of garments, for better worker safety, since the traditional cutting method required for employees to handle cutters manually. Furthermore, the cut pieces are repeated perfectly to reduce waste.
Cutting waste is one of the least talked of issues in fashion: tiny pieces of fabric are either incinterated or thrown to landfill. You can read more about the upcycling of fabric waste in ‘End of Life’.
There is also a big problem of minimum order quantities that is not well known. Fabric is considered a high volume low price product, therefore manufacturers who have to run extremely big machines and use vast amounts of chemicals in their production set a minimum order quantity. Garment manufacturers however receive an order from brands, who do not take responsibility over the order quantity from the mill, so they end up with unused fabric that they have to store or dispose of.
Sewing factories are employers of hundreds of thousands of people, all using variations of simple sewing machines. This is why the sustainability of this step is mostly social: material is transformed mechanically only. Since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013 when more than 1000 people died in an accident in Bangladesh, because of the very poor working conditions, the world has started paying more attention to fashion workers’ rights.
In the current set-up of the fashion industry, brands have extremely big supply chains, which makes it near impossible to know exactly what is going on in every factory. Systems of audits and certifications have been set up to ensure that factory employees receive a fair wage and work in a safe and healthy environment.
The difference between a living wage and a minimum wage is that the former allows a worker’s family to have enough to pay for varied and nutritious food, afford water, housing that meets certain standards, education including that to achieve a better position, health care, transportation, clothing and some discretionary earnings, including savings for unexpected events, such as the death of a family member (..or a pandemic).
Code of conducts are written by brands to ensure that their suppliers meet certain standards. Many of the processes can be dangerous to people’s health because of big machinery and chemicals, which is why it is very important to protect them.
There is a lot more than just receiving a living wage. Unions allow workers to ask for what they need, this could be insurance, support for their children’s education, better facilities in the factories, social security, and transport. There are companies that don’t allow for their employees to start a union and ask for rights, which shows that they do not value the wellbeing of their employees.
The concept of Diversity and Inclusion is also very important, and it looks at including in the workforce those who are discriminated against. Companies that hire thousands of people should ensure that they welcome women, people with disabilities, people from ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+.
Sustainability goes further than just within the factory. A company that hires a large proportion of a community should support it through CSR projects that can also benefit the company itself in the longer term.