The 4 surprising things I learned when I produced a fashion collection
If you’re like I used to be, you’ve never given that much thought to where your clothes come from. But it’s something we should all spend more time thinking about.
I never set out to work in the fashion industry. Then, about 18 months ago, I was recruited along with my cofounder Julia to launch a new venture at Founders Factory setting up a kind of incubator for influencer fashion brands. We’ve since pivoted to a completely different business model, but before we did that, we launched a few collections with influencers.
Producing a fashion collection took me to physical destinations I’d never given any thought to before — garment factories and hidden silk showrooms in Istanbul, unmarked warehouses in industrial parks in East London, a trade show in a gigantic convention center in Paris — and forced me, for the first time, to confront and consider where my clothes come from.
The last time you bought a new article of clothing, did you think about how many hands had touched it? How many countries it had passed through or oceans it had crossed to make it into your closet? Getting some firsthand insight into the global fashion supply chain has been so helpful in making me a more mindful consumer of clothing, I thought I would share some of the things I learned.
Almost all of your clothes are made by hand
Yes, this includes underwear. I think before I ever set foot in a garment factory, I had a vague notion that at least some clothes were produced by machines in some kind of an industrial assembly line, but almost none are. Yes, most clothing production involves sewing machines, but there is almost always a human sitting behind the sewing machine.
Think about that for a minute: when you purchase an article of clothing, it is almost always something that has been assembled with human hands. How many t-shirts do you think a garment worker can produce in an hour? The answer is that they can produce a whole lot, but even so, if you buy that t-shirt for $5, there’s no way that translates into a living wage for the garment worker who made it.
The global fashion supply chain is more diffuse and opaque than you can imagine
One of the more enlightening moments on my fashion production journey was when we went to source deadstock fabric for our collections. Deadstock is fabric that’s left over after a garment production run. A lot of brands use it as a more sustainable alternative to ordering and dying new fabric (e.g., Reformation, which started out using a lot of deadstock but whose website now says that about 5% of their products are made out of deadstock). We wanted to use deadstock for two reasons: 1) we felt it was more sustainable than commissioning and dying new fabric and 2) we were producing small quantities and would have had a hard time reaching minimum order quantities for new fabric.
Our search for deadstock took us to a basement in London’s Soho stuffed with racks and racks of leftovers. When we took an unlabeled swatch to the front desk to ask about the composition, the girl working there pulled out a lighter, lit the edge of the swatch on fire, and sniffed the smoke before telling us it probably contained some synthetic fibers. In the end, we sent swatches of all of our fabrics to a testing lab to have their composition verified before we printed care labels. But in all honesty, we still had no idea about the provenance of the fabrics we used. We didn’t know where the silk had been grown or who had processed it. We didn’t know the carbon footprint of the roll of cotton poplin we sourced from Turkey.
The fact is, it’s not just small suppliers working with deadstock fabric who lack visibility into the provenance of their raw materials. For a fiber to make its way into your wardrobe, it needs to be farmed, harvested, spun into yarn, woven into fabric, dyed, cut, and sewn before it can be distributed as a garment. This assumes it’s a natural fabric; synthetics and blends go through an even more complex operation. Vertical integration is extremely rare, so there are almost always many intermediaries involved throughout the process. A 2015 study found that 75% of fashion retailers did not know the source of all their fabrics, and only half could could even trace where their products are cut and sewn.
If brands don’t even know where their fabrics are coming from, how can they ensure that environmentally damaging and exploitative labor practices aren’t being deployed in their supply chains? The answer is that they can’t. Case in point: it’s estimated that cotton produced in forced labor camps in China’s Xinjiang region finds its way into one in five cotton products worldwide.
Brands are incentivized to overproduce
When we were looking for a factory to produce our collections, we had a hard time finding one that would agree to produce small quantities. Many factories in Turkey wouldn’t even talk to us unless we would commit to producing over a thousand units per style. We ended up working with a lovely boutique factory in East London which pays its workers a living wage, but producing there was very expensive. One of the dresses we produced there cost us over £100 per unit in labor costs alone; add in fabric costs and overhead, and it was impossible for us to both charge a reasonable price and turn a profit.
The incentives of garment factory owners and fashion brands aren’t aligned; factory owners want their production floors as close to 100% utilization as possible, and the easiest way for them to achieve this is to get brands to commit in advance to very large production runs. There are extreme per-unit discounts applied for large order quantities, so that ordering a single t-shirt could cost upwards of $25 in labor and materials but ordering a production run of 10,000 t-shirts could cost pennies per shirt.
This means that it’s cheaper for brands to order massive production runs far in advance — knowing that they won’t be able to sell everything — than it is for them to produce smaller runs closer to launch with more confidence that they’ll sell through. Let me reiterate this point: brands overproduce on purpose, knowing they will end up selling a large portion of what they produce at a discount or not at all.
When we produced our collections, they were made to order. This meant that customers had to wait a bit longer — as long as a few weeks — to receive their orders, but we produced nothing that didn’t get sold. A small new breed of of made-to-order brands has started to emerge, but we’re very far away from this being the norm.
There are too many clothes in the world
An increasingly diffuse and globalized supply chain has enabled clothing to become cheaper and cheaper. Between 2000 and 2014, US consumer prices rose 50%, but clothing prices actually dropped. Consumers have been trained to believe that clothing should be cheap, and that they need more clothing than they do. UK consumers today consume five times as much clothing as they did in the 1980s.
We should all try to buy fewer clothes. We should do what we can to support garment workers. But like most problems afflicting our planet, this one ultimately isn’t going to be solved by individual consumers changing their behavior. Policymakers need to step in and require more supply chain transparency and protection against labor abuses.
Brands need to step up too, and rethink the business model that requires massive production volumes at any environmental and social cost. My company, Wovn, is working to provide fashion brands with the consumer insights to get a better handle on what people actually want to buy, so they can stop producing the styles that end up going straight to landfills or incinerators.
Of the 100 billion+ garments produced every year, 20% go unsold. These volumes and this amount of waste are simply unacceptable, and the planet depends on us doing something about it.