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.
what & how
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.
3D sampling allows brands to create a virtual fit model of their product, and has become an innovative tool to minimise the harmful effects of the sampling stage. Companies like Clo 3D, Taas, Optitex and Marvelous Designer provide digital sampling services, and it is impressive to see how they can recreate different fabrics, patterns, and lighting on the digital clothes.
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.
CAD design is a program used for placing patterns and connecting with cutters. Experts would use their knowledge to reduce the fabric waste by maximizing the fabric used with clever pattern placements.
Cutting waste highly depends on the design, size range, and fabric details, and the percentage of cutting waste can vary from 0 up to 20%. Although being used more widely in Fashion classes than in practice in industrial settings, Zero Waste Pattern Cutting means that the pattern pieces fit together so that no fabric is wasted during the cutting phase. This also allows to reduce the amounts of cuts that are required.
Intellocut is a fabric planning optimization software designed to help apparel and textile businesses save fabric in roll form in order to boost topline. It distributes patterns along the rolls to maximise fabric utilisation and reduce offcuts. Think of this as a puzzle solved by software!
what can you do about it?
It is still too rare for brands to publish a full list of their suppliers. You should prioritise the brands that do, and then do your research into them. Some brands have started actively calculating living wages, and starting to ensure that they are paid, an example is Nudie Jeans, that is transparent in showing that it has not yet reached even 50% of the workers in its supply chain. The main limitation is traceability: most brands have no idea where their clothes are actually made. The model of fast fashion doesn’t allow brands to develop long term partnerships with its suppliers, and having an impact on garment workers.
Fashion Checker is a campaign by the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), funded by the European Union. It has developed a website where it provides access to data about brands, their transparency, and work on living wages. Since 1989, CCC has worked to ensure that the fundamental rights of workers are respected.
Social enterprises are businesses that put the interests of people and planet ahead of shareholder gain, and are driven by a social and/or environmental mission. Social enterprises commit to reinvesting most profits into achieving its objectives. This is a fundamental difference between social enterprises and traditional businesses, which are accountable to shareholders and as such are primarily driven by these interests. It is possible to source from social enterprises, therefore having a positive impact on people through purchasing, either business to business (B2B) or Business to Consumer (B2C).
Rekut is an example of a social enterprise in the denim industry, which we wrote about here.