Consumers are increasingly aware of the distance products travel to get to market, and it seems a likely next step that "clothes miles" will become an issue like "food miles." But is sourcing closer to home the answer? And what measures are retailers taking to address the issue? Mike Flanagan takes a look.

"You're killing the planet" the email from my neighbour said last night. "Just think of all those clothes miles. Do you have any idea how much carbon is dumped into the atmosphere by all those clothes being shipped round the world?"

My neighbour's not the only person getting worried about "clothes miles": the belief that the your local Wal-Mart T-shirt has travelled three times round the planet to get to you - wasting an awful lot of energy and dumping an awful lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

I get at least as many questions from casual acquaintances these days about the ethics of transporting clothes round the world as about wage levels or child labour.

The main UK clothing industry trade magazine, for example, contains some complaint about "clothes miles" almost every week - though usually from a European company who'd be very happy if guilt got us all buying our clothes from local factories.

"The further a product travels the more carbon dioxide it is responsible for," Britain's Federation of Small Businesses blandly proclaims on its website

The production - pollution debate
But a Bangladeshi sweater must cause more pollution than one made nearer its buyer, mustn't it? Surely moving production from Western Europe and America to poorer countries must have increased the noxious gases that will kill our way of life? And no, I'm not talking about what comes out of all the conferences on the issue.

Or does it actually use less energy to hand-assemble a T-shirt in a poor country and put it on a ship than to drive cotton several thousand kilometres in an air-conditioned truck, then have it assembled by a virtually labour-free, energy-intensive machine?

Well, it's very difficult to find out. What few analyses have been done produce pretty unpredictable results.

A University of Cambridge survey in late 2006 estimated transport accounted for 15% of the energy used in shipping cotton to China from America, making it up into a T-shirt then moving it to Europe.

The Cambridge survey also found that buying and using the T-shirt was the biggest energy consumer: going to the shop, washing the shirt and ironing it used nearly ten times as much as transport. Transport accounted for 6% of the energy used in producing a viscose blouse in India for the European market.

How to cut down on the energy use? Changing where the T-shirt was produced, argued Cambridge, had practically no effect. Washing it at 40?C rather than 60?C reduced total energy use by 8%. But drying it on a hanger and not ironing it reduced energy use by half.

So the world's most famous university is letting the apparel industry off the hook?

No. Because according to them, it's not where we make clothes that's damaging the planet, it's making the clothes at all.

Making clothes uses too many of the planet's resources says Cambridge, and things get even worse when the clothes stop being worn. Far too many are thrown into rubbish tips - producing methane that's even worse for the planet than the carbon dumped by washing too hot or ironing too often.

International trade
Not so, say lobbyists throughout the developing world. The clothes western customers give to recyclers are actually exported to countries like Nigeria, putting local manufacturers out of business.

Not our fault, say western recyclers: much of the international trade in recycled clothes is actually criminal, with one British recycling charity claiming this month that it was having 65 tons of used clothes a week being stolen by organised international criminals.

So now - just as some of us think we're making real progress on human rights and safe production in our factories - if we're not being accused of destroying the planet, we're feeding international crime syndicates.

Hardly a day passes without our customers finding a new problem connected with our business - from animal rights to global warming - to which there isn't an easy answer.

Meanwhile, most apparel markets are static in volume, with prices just not going up anything like as fast as operating costs are. And, when anti-Chinese quotas start coming off (at the end of this year in Europe; the end of next year in the US) prices will get even more squeezed.

Few businesses in the industry really have the resources to respond properly to the welter of different issues customers are increasingly worried about.

Meanwhile, as margins get increasingly squeezed, the biggest single external pressure on apparel makers and retailers - to ensure genuine living wages for all the millions of workers in the industry worldwide - gets stronger and stronger.

Retailers raise the stakes
So increasingly, it's mega retailers that are making the running.

Customers concerned about the global warming impact of transporting clothes around the world won't get much reassurance by asking a shop assistant - a tactic many activists advocate concerned consumers should use. And few are going to look up Cambridge University research.

But Tesco is currently paying Oxford University $10m to carry out preliminary work towards setting up a Sustainable Consumption Institute, charged with developing common measurement systems to underpin carbon labelling on every single product Tesco sells.

At the other end of the supply chain, the most common question I get from factory owners (apart from "how can you help me sell more?") is when buyers are going to stop producing codes of practice that conflict with each other.

There again it's the five members of 'Mega Retail,' in the form of Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco and Metro, together with Switzerland's slightly less gargantuan Migros, who are putting together the Global Social Compliance Programme as a buyers' common code.

The intention is that it would be a model for fellow CIES (Comité International d'Entreprises à Succursales or the International Committee of Food Retail Chains) members (mostly, but not exclusively, mass merchandisers) to subsequently adopt.

This sometimes leaves apparel manufacturers unexcited, until I explain these four retailers alone have higher apparel sales than the entire US department store industry, or than the members of the Fair Labor Association.

Mega Retail's initiatives haven't always been loudly supported by the rest of the apparel or textile industry: many in America's cotton industry seemed truly shocked when Wal-Mart began to side with its customers, rather than its suppliers, against excessive pesticide use last year. But Wal-Mart's attitudes, and its newly launched Sustainability 360 programme, are clearly hitting a nerve with many consumers.

Call it triangulation: Bill Clinton's successful campaigning device of finding ways to appeal to every sector of the electorate. Whether it's Ito-Yokado hiring apparel professionals, or Carrefour using its Spanish apparel operations as its worldwide model, Mega Retail has the resources to fight the apparel war on many fronts at once.

Mega retailers can expand their stores in their home markets, aggressively move round the world, get their fashion offer sharper, improve their buying through greater use of own label and buying offices, and STILL take the initiative in sustainability and compliance codes factories can work with.

And it works. Metro's fashion sales in Germany alone are bigger than Liz Claiborne's worldwide business - and Metro sells clothes in 28 other countries from tiny Moldova to China. Either Wal-Mart or Tesco is likely to become leader in the UK's children's wear market some time in the next year or two. Carrefour already operates France's largest single clothing brand.

China on the front line
Intriguingly, all five mega retailers are slugging it out in China. So are lots of smaller western fashion brands, from Aquascutum to Benetton. What's largely missing in mainland China is apparel's old-fashioned 'Big Retail': people like Gap, JC Penney, Limited Brands or Marks & Spencer.

Now oddly, it's businesses like Gap that seem to be having the most difficulty hiring the right senior management, or JC Penney, which fired its chief operating officer most abruptly. Getting the right people at the top is always tricky. It gets even trickier when the five members of Mega Retail (whose combined sales are roughly the same as the entire world's spending on apparel) have you right in their sights.

I'll have the privilege on 29-30 March of moderating public discussions at the Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong about how the industry is dealing with the mass of social and ethical demands consumers and buyers are making on manufacturers these days, and the many innovative ways retailers - from the most Mega of all to intriguing niche players - are dealing with these demands.

One of the things I hope to learn from the other exciting sessions planned for the Forum is what sort of management the industry needs to be developing (and how to find it) to cope with those demands.

If you're there, make sure you come and say hello. I'd really like to hear everyone else's answers.

Mike Flanagan is chief executive of Clothesource Sourcing Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy that provides the western apparel buying community with objective information on apparel production, trade, price competitiveness, and apparel producers in over 100 countries.