Buy local does not apply to sustainable clothing

'Buy local' does not apply to sustainable clothing

Finding environmentally-friendly fabrics and ethical manufacturers can be an overwhelming challenge for clothing companies entering the sustainable product market for the first time.

Many experts suggest that sourcing closer to home is the key to a sustainable practice, but Jason Kibbey, CEO of the US-based Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), stresses that where materials are sourced from and where manufacturing occurs has no determination on sustainability.

"You can have incredibly unsustainable products made in your backyard, and incredibly sustainable products sourced from across the world. 'Buy local' does not really apply to clothing the same way it does to food," he says.

"Oftentimes, it can be more sustainable to make something in India with a good manufacturing process, than in a North Carolina facility with a terribly wasteful process, despite being right around the corner from where you're located."

Qiulae Wong, marketing manager for 'Source', a platform of tools and services that is part of the Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF), a UK-based non-profit network focusing on social and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry, believes sourcing location depends on the company's values.

"If a company wants to source something that could support a community in a developing country, that makes a difference in their location choices. If keeping jobs and production in the company's home country is what matters most, then setting up shop in the US or wherever they are based is what they'll choose," she explains.

Wong stresses that it is also important to know how long the factory a company is considering using has been in business, who owns it, and how many workers they have. Additionally, understanding the workers (are they locals or migrants?), where they live, is there a union amongst them, are the wages fair in the context of the country they live/work in, is necessary so a company isn't just "picking the most convenient or cheapest factory, or one that can fulfil an order size."

Shorter supply chains

In general, Carmen Artigas, a San Diego-based sustainable designer and consultant specialising in integrating ethical practices within the fashion industry, says the key to sustainability lies in smaller or shorter supply chains.

"You want to have a short supply chain, because they reduce carbon footprints, reduce the amount of transporting needed, and are more efficient and easier to manage. Building long-term relationships is also important, and that's easier to do on a smaller scale with a smaller supply chain."

It also depends on what type of product a company wants to make and how much skill is required to make it. The EFF's Wong says, for example, there are very good jewellery producers in Ecuador, whose output can be a useful element of fashion and accessories.

Another expert, Rénee Cuoco, manager at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, based at London College of Fashion, uses the example of India and its workers' impressive embroidery skills. She says that if a supply chain is set up properly, and workers are paid fairly, sourcing from less developed countries is not a bad thing.

"The negative connotations associated with 'Made in Bangladesh', 'Made in China' and others like that, are quite sad because there's actually so much skill from different parts of the world," Cuoco says.

"If the tag says, for instance, 'Made in Italy', it doesn't mean that it should've been made in Italy. If the product is a woven bag, it's probably better that it was woven in the Philippines because they have been training in this craft for centuries. If it's embroidered, there isn't a better place on Earth for embroidery than India. We need to accept that different cultures and different locations really do have superior skills for different design and textile techniques."

She adds: "There is obviously a sustainability benefit to that as well – if you can work with local skills and local farmers, makers, etc, to produce your collection, there is less transportation and less issues with labour. You can have a much closer eye on what's happening and can stay aware of the practices being used."

Factory monitoring

However, monitoring a manufacturing factory across the world can be difficult. To get around this, Artigas, says developing good relationships with the facility and its workers is so important.

"The more you build your relationship with them, the more you know what's going on with their business," she says.

Artigas adds that if a company is worried its sustainable goals are not being met, it can always go visit in person, or even set up a 'nanny cam' in the factory, to monitor manufacturing.

"The only way to truly monitor your factories and workers is to go visit them in person. That's the next step. If someone isn't able to do that, you're relying on goodwill and unfortunately, sometimes that's not enough. It's hard for companies with hundreds or even thousands of factories, but it's necessary – and if the smaller companies start doing it, maybe it'll inspire the giants," she says.

Click on the following links to read related articles:

Sustainable sourcing – How to set up a sustainable supply chain

Sustainable sourcing – Is fast fashion at odds with sustainability?

Sustainable sourcing – Financing the ethical supply chain