Where do your clothes comes from?

a garment factory

“The world’s first Trillionaire will be someone in climate change”. This is from a very interesting podcast on The Knowledge Project with Chamath Palihapitiya, which covers a wide range of topics. Climate change is a big problem, but most people, including myself, just aren’t educated enough to understand the gravity of the situation we’re in. We don’t see the effects of it on our daily life and mistake the absence of obvious evidence to the non-existance of evidence and carry on with our lives. I’ve heard of the term carbon neutral but never have I paused to think “Do I live a carbon neutral life?” I try and do my part — avoid plastic, take public transport — but truth be told, I have no clue how much of a carbon footprint I’m creating based on my lifestyle and thus have no measure if I want to reduce it.

While I worked in the fashion industry, sustainability was growing to become a big theme. Fashion is the second most pollution industry on the planet and the growth of fast fashion in the last decade has lead to an explosion of production. Clothes have been getting cheaper and cheaper and people have been buying more and more. Unfortunately, it’s the environment who is bearing the cost of this growth in consumption. This isn’t news for most people and while we all agree that we must reduce pollution, we don’t seem to be doing enough.

After attending a few industry conferences, it was quite clear that while everyone cares about sustainability, very few have managed to find a solution. At the core of it all, the most common problem was that in order to be more sustainable, cost of products would increase and consumers did not want to pay for it.

An Economic Problem

Let’s now look at brands. I’d argue that most brands want to be more sustainable because it’s actually good for business. No brand would endorse or even want to deal with factory workers slipping in notes with pleas for help. However, here too, based on my conversations with brands, consumers are not willing to pay more for sustainable clothing. There are many new age brands which are built on sustainability (their product are more expensive) and I feel that while they struggle to acquire customers, once they find their audience, they do well. But it is the brands who have been around for a while, who face the bigger problem. They are struggling to move their customer base from a cheaper non-sustainable option to a more expensive but sustainable option. Further more, fashion is a highly competitive market and there’s always downward pressure on prices. This is translated to the pressure for lower cost of manufacturing and everything which follows

Finally let’s look at us, consumers. Yes, we care about the environment, but unfortunately this is not reflected in our purchasing decisions. We still prefer to buy cheaper clothes as compared to more expensive ones. While this is a problem, in my opinion, it’s not the consumers fault, but the brands. They fail to differentiate sustainable and non-sustainable products effectively as a result, do not give the consumer enough of a reason to switch. By creating a new product category with higher perceived value, brands might be able to get consumers to pay more for sustainable clothing, the benefits of which would move up the supply chain.

How to we decide what clothes to buy?

How could you show sustainable?

Many people argue that such content is “green washing” and merely a PR gimic used by brands. I don’t completely agree. While it can be used that way, the bigger problem is that most consumers don’t have a clue about how or where their clothes are being made and thus are unable to visualise the problems they themselves are creating by refusing to pay more for sustainable clothing. Most brands argue that lack of consumer awareness towards sustainability is one of the biggest drivers of low adoption, and I believe them. I buy a lot of my products from Nike, and I’ve visited one of their factories (and it was great!), most of their consumers don’t see this!

Now, executing this is very hard. As a fashion company, your brand image is very important and anything off-brand could have a serious impact. Also, you don’t want to end up like most charities and NGOs who slap on sad pictures of people to create a sense of pity and get donations. Content needs to be generated with the goal of increasing awareness and transparency and not with the goal of guilting people into buying products. These videos, like the Everlane factory page, should NOT have a call to action for consumer to buy products.

Brands are not the only one responsible for this. Factories and Mills who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to become more efficient ad sustainable need to do a better job at telling the world this and video can be a great format to reach millions. By being more transparent on the efforts they are taking, it’s likely they will get more business. Factories, like the one below, have been investing in technology and they use videos to market themselves as a supplier of choice.

As consumer, I feel we should demand that the brands we buy from invest in showing us where our products are made. Creating a video and putting it up on youtube is very cheap and all brands could easily do it. For some reason, most have not invested in this.


This essay is a part of my 30 day writing challenge. You can read more about why I’m doing it here

a little bit of everything