Most apparel retailers and brand owners believe there's widespread consumer concern about human rights and the environmental impact of the clothes they wear. But is this interest at odds with the demand for fast fashion? Mike Flanagan suggests that how a buyer operates matters just as much as where a garment is made - and that it won't be long before declarations about carbon emissions and air freight appear on every label.

If there's one thing most of us would agree on, it's that customers are getting more and more concerned with the ethics of sourcing. But there's less evidence for this than many think.

A recent TNS Worldpanel survey in Britain, for example, showed that the prime target for most apparel retailers - under 25s - were the least concerned with the ethics of where and how their clothes were made. Indeed, although most of them said they were concerned in theory, most also agreed ethics didn't influence what they actually bought.

And of course "ethical" can means different things. To many Muslim customers, a garment has been produced unethically if money has been lent at interest during the course of manufacture. To other customers, a garment will have been produced unethically if its factory discriminated among its workers on the basis of sexual orientation. And to others still, neither of these criteria matter much.

So, different retailers adopt different codes of practice. And to many apparel manufacturers in developing markets, this proliferation of codes of practice is itself unethical, since it throws costs at factories that would be reduced if buyers could just agree among themselves.

Nonetheless, most retailers and brand owners believe there's widespread customer concern about human rights and impact on the planet. And on both issues, there seems to be widespread woolly thinking.

Human rights
Let's take human rights.

There are countries where exploitation and suppression of human rights are so widespread, you have to assume they're endemic. But such countries (like Burma and North Korea) export virtually no apparel.

In countries like Vietnam or China, worker exploitation isn't hard-wired into how business is conducted. Some businesses might well exploit their workers if they think they can get away with it - but so might businesses in the US or Sweden.

Ensuring garments are being made without exploiting workers doesn't mean stereotyping some producer countries as "unethical". It means selecting suppliers that operate ethically and managing them in a way that doesn't encourage them to exploit their workers.

Or is it?

Gap and Nike, in their latest Corporate Social Responsibility Reports, accept that worker exploitation in factories is often the result of poor working practices by buyers.

Last-minute changes of mind, or delayed decisions, rarely translate into extended delivery dates: factories are expected to get garments out in time to meet a ship, however often the buyer might have changed the brief. And with greater pressure on time comes pressure on workers, and pressure to use unvetted subcontractors.

Choosing the right factory is crucial. But equally important is choosing the right way of managing factories.

Clothes miles
And the same principle applies to ecology.

Most commentators tell us our atmosphere is getting hotter, this inevitably leads to rising water levels, and it's largely the result of increases in gases - principally carbon dioxide - that human beings cause to be emitted.

So it's easy to assume that the further a garment travels while being made, the more carbon gets emitted. "Clothes miles" is what headline-grabbing activists and consultants call it.

In fact there's simply no evidence for this viewpoint ("miles travelled is not an indicator of sustainability," said Britain's ministry of agriculture in 2005); and what evidence there is may even point in the opposite direction.

Cambridge University's Institute for Manufacturing published some serious analysis of carbon emissions in apparel manufacturing in late 2006 [1]. It showed that - even for a T-shirt made in China from American cotton, transport to Europe accounted for only 10% of the carbon emissions produced during the garment's life.

How the consumer washed and dried the T-shirt mattered most; and manufacturing the T-shirt emitted three times as much carbon as transporting it round the world.

But here's what Cambridge didn't look at. A factory that's heated in winter, air-conditioned in summer, highly automated and operated by people who commute to it by car must dump more carbon than a factory that's properly ventilated, is highly labour-intensive and where workers walk, cycle or get a (very overcrowded) bus to work.

On this basis a factory in Bangladesh must be better for the planet than a factory in France or South Carolina.

There is no hard data on this yet for the apparel industry. But a survey carried out by the University of Cranfield showed that a rose grown in Holland and freighted to Britain by truck emitted 5.8 times as much carbon as one grown in Kenya and air freighted to Britain.

Growing roses in Kenya consumes far less energy, and produces more roses per acre, than growing in Holland - more than outweighing the trivial amount of energy air freighting a properly packed rose consumes.

Similar studies by New Zealand's Lincoln University [2] show a similar result. A kilogramme of lamb brought up on an English farm produces five times as much carbon, by the time it's been transported to an English supermarket, as a kilo of lamb brought up on New Zealand's more nourishing grass and shipped 12,000 miles round the world.

As with any decent research, other analysts might produce slightly different numbers.

Points of impact
But what all these studies have in common is the recognition that:
• It's how you make it, not where you make it, that determines a garment's impact on the planet;
• Does that mean it's all down to the factories a buyer chooses? No. How a buyer operates matters just as much.
• British buyers, for example, rely twice as much on air freight as their French, German or Spanish peers for the clothes they're bringing in from China or India.

Estimates of the effect of air freight vary. Some argue that air freighting garments causes 20 times more global warming than shipping by sea; others that it causes a 150 times more. But even on the lower estimate, air freighting a T-shirt does more damage than all its production, transport and consumer use if it had been sea freighted.

British buyers' policy of depending more on air freight than other Europeans is a major contributor to the whole industry's pollution record.

True, buyers dislike air freighting: it's expensive in itself, and often requires extra processing at both ends. But it's not just air freighting garments that can damage the planet.

Making a blouse can be trickier than a T-shirt, and making a garment with lots of components (like a bra) trickier still. It's often difficult to find local suppliers of every component where a garment is being made, so air freighting components is much more widespread than air freighting finished garments.

We've calculated that a European air freighting buttons to India for a blouse that's going to be sea freighted back to Europe increases the amount of climate damage in transportation twenty-fold.

Even quite small decisions about relatively minor aspects of a garment's production can dramatically affect the total ecological damage a garment might make.

Consumer concern
Does all this really matter to the average consumer?

I'd say on global warming, apparel retailers and brand owners are exactly where the food trade was on nutritional information 25 years ago. Many customers are worried, there's a lot of duff information and blind prejudice floating around, and customers won't wait for governments to legislate.

While politicians are debating, brighter retailers will start requiring declarations about carbon emission and air freighting declarations on every garment.

Over the next few years, an indication of high carbon emissions on a garment will become as unwelcome as an indication of high cholesterol on a food label.

To some customers, not all. And it'll be a long time before carbon marking will be universal. But it'll be a foolish buyer who ignores the implications.

Countries like Peru or Ecuador will find it increasingly difficult to air freight the first 25% of their production to the US. Turkish investors in Egypt will find air freighting to Europe probably won't be acceptable - and that sea freighting from Egypt to Western Europe takes a very great deal longer than the lorries those Turks are currently using to truck garments from Istanbul or Izmir.

And all of this while the once low-cost production centres right on Europe's and America's borders - like, Mexico, Romania and Turkey - are falling out of favour because of rising costs and workforces increasingly attracted to other industries.

The truth remains, though, that the shorter the time lapse between designing a garment and getting it on the rail in a shop, the more it'll sell. And there's no consumer trend that'll make it more profitable to sell less.

Brands and retailers are going to want to square the circle of commercially vital short lead times and pressure from public opinion to plan ahead better.

I think there are ways to make this less difficult, and I've summarised some of them in the August just-style management briefing: 'Where's the next apparel sourcing Shangri-la?'
 
But it's tough - and I'd love to hear from readers who think they've cracked it.

1: Well Dressed? The present and future sustainability of garmnents and  textiles in the United Kingdom
2: Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand's Agriculture Industry

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.