To have a ‘sensibility for sustainable clothing’ means to think about clothes in environmentally friendly and ethically conscious ways.

Some key things to think about could be….


image © fashion revolution


When we shop for clothes, it’s unlikely that we will be thinking about the person or people who made the item we wish to buy but if you just stop for one moment and try to imagine that there was at least one person who actually created this garment then your relationship with it will immediately change.

photo source – Hive society

Where do they live?

Much of the world’s garment manufacture takes place in countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh and China. Historically the plight of the garment worker has always been difficult and workers often come from poor families with little or no education despite being highly skilled sewing machinists. Many garment workers are living in abject poverty with little or no way to change this.

photo © gordon welters

How much are they paid?

Garment workers are mostly paid low wages. Across the sector there are ongoing campaigns to ensure that a ‘living wage’ is paid to everyone working as garment manufacturing machinists, cutters, checkers and packers. In Cambodia especially there have been worker protests against low wages resulting in violence against demonstrators at the hand of the military and police governing forces. One organisation campaigning for the living wage is Labour Behind the Label.

photo © Solidarity Centre/Sifat Sharmin Amita

What their working conditions are like? Is their work environment a safe place to work?

In recent years there have been exposés and reports about garment factory workers rights within both fashion and mainstream international news. One of the most significantly events which shook the world and heralded the drive to make garment workers lives better was the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory building collapse in Bangladesh which killed 1134 people The building took 90 seconds to collapse.

Following  this tragedy, an organisation called Fashion Revolution was founded whose aim is to draw global awareness to garment workers human rights and campaign for radical change across the industry. Today a growing global leader in the sustainable and ethical fashion  campaign circuit, it is an essential place to learn about how everyone can make choices that create positive change. You can become involved with many activities or create your own ‘fashion revolution’ by joining in one of their annual events.

photo © getty images


Do they work for reasonable or very long hours?

Many garment manufacturing workers have extremely long days and can often work six days a week. Although things are changing, there are still issues around how many hours people have to work to earn what many others would consider to be a pittance. Legislation on hours, wages and conditions across the industry needs parity. Another organisation concerned with raising global awareness about garment workers issues and the fashion industry’s problems is Traid.

photo © Anne Cusack

 How old are they?

Sadly in some countries child labour is still prevalent in the fashion garment manufacturing industry. These children have few rights and shockingly are sometimes ‘bonded’ in their roles as a means of paying often unjust debts incurred by parents. GoodWeave is an award-winning team of experts and advocates for social change committed to ending child labor, forced labor, and bonded labor in global supply chains.

photo © claudio montesano casillas


Other things to think about could be….


photo © Vadim Petrakov 

When we’re out shopping or even sat indoors shopping online and we find the item we like and want to buy, we probably never think about how it was made and how it’s manufacturing process will impact on the environment. This confirms that clothing and textile manufacture has been an environmental ‘elephant in the room’ for a long time. We naturally associate fashion with looking and feeling good, glamorous celebrities, glossy magazines, a ‘new you‘. So discovering that the manufacturing processes of clothing is having a catastrophic ecological effect on the earths’ rivers, oceans, soils and air quality can come as both a shock and disappointment. Some things to consider about how garments are made would be;

Where did the raw materials come from?

photo © The weekly times

Raw materials for clothing are either from a natural source such as cotton, wool, linen and silk  – or a from a man-made synthetic source like rayon and viscose or an artificial source like polyester.  Natural fibres and synthetic fibres require soil to grow the fibre plant or tree or grow food for the livestock. The care and condition of the soils in which these crops are grown are important as repeatedly growing the same crop every year, (monoculture), is detrimental as it will exhaust the soil of all it’s nutrients and minerals. Large scale industrial farming methods don’t really account for soil care as profit is their main agenda. Organisations like The Soil Association are working to educate and encourage farmers and consumers to make more environmentally sound choices when it comes to growing and purchasing clothes.

Does the farm use harmful pesticides?

photo © Joerg boethling

Cotton is a global mainstay crop. We all love wearing it and despite the extra ironing and laundering care it takes to keep cotton looking good, we often prefer it to synthetic and artificial fibres. The down side of cotton is that it’s production methods aren’t really environmentally friendly. Using huge amounts of water and electricity, producing cotton requires a many stage, energy and water-hungry system. Most people are surprised to hear this but coupled with the sheer size of the industry, ordinary everyday cotton production isn’t doing the planet any favours. One of the more disturbing aspects of it’s production is the fact that many pesticides are used to spray the crops and this can be destructive to the soil, the ecosystem, wildlife habitats and water sources caused by toxic ‘run-off’ from sprayed fields into waterways during rain after a dry spell. In poorer countries many farm workers don’t wear protective apparatus this can have a devastating impact on their health. In India crippling debts owed by small scale cotton farmers began to cause an alarming rate of suicides in the communities. They became part of the price paid for cheap cotton the un-payable debts are a result of the huge industrialisation of the industry. Ironically many have died by poisoning through drinking the cotton plant pesticides. This terrible plight is currently being worked on in a documentary production expose called ‘Dirty White Gold’. We hope to see the project funded to completion. The good news is that things are changing. One company leading the campaign for responsibly produced, fair trade organic cotton to become the mainstream is  the Better Cotton Initiative. It’s worth thinking about….

Are textile producing animals cared for?

photo source –

When buying a beautiful natural fibre garment where the yarn has been sourced from an animal or insect, i.e, wool, silk, angora, pony, cashmere, alpaca, mohair and leather, most of us never actually consider the welfare of the animals who gave their fur, fleece or skin to produce the item. In recent times animal welfare organisations have criticised and exposed many textile farming practices as cruel and unnecessary. Thankfully, many brands and industry organisations have responded positively calling for change. The International Wool Textile Organisation, has created a specifications document outlining animal welfare standards required for producing wool. This is based upon “Five Freedoms”of the World Organisation for Animal Health’s (OIE) Terrestrial Animal Health Code. We hope that this standard will become global legislation across all textile livestock farming sectors.

How is everything transported and fuelled?

The logistics of moving everything involved with clothing manufacture is huge. Considering ALL transport and used for ALL elements of production the list might look something like;

  • Farm workers transport to and from work
  • Farm machinery, tractors, harvesters etc.
  • Transporting raw fibre materials from farms to mills for processing into yarns and fabrics
  • Mill workers transport to and from work
  • Transporting yarns, fabrics, dye and chemicals to dye-works
  • Dye workers transport to and from work
  • Transporting dyed yarns and fabrics to storage warehouses
  • Storage warehouse workers transport to and from work
  • Transporting fabric swatches, stands and brand representatives to industry trade fairs
  • Transporting buyers and members of the public to industry trade fairs
  • Brand designers, CEOs, buyers and clients transport to and from work
  • Transporting dyed yarn and fabrics from storage to garment manufacturing factories
  • Garment factory workers transport to and from work
  • Transporting garments to retail outlets
  • Retail outlet workers transport to and from work
  • Customers transport to and from retail outlets

If the amount of carbon or fuel was calculated for the production of a single major brand coloured cotton t-shirt manufactured overseas to be sold on the UK high street, the figure would be staggering. Of course, everything is made in bulk quantities but if taken into account alongside all the other many small factors of garment production such as;

  • Sewing machines
  • Buttons
  • Zips
  • Threads
  • Interfacings
  • Paddings
  • Labels
  • Hooks and catches
  • Elastic
  • Pins
  • Packaging
  • Trims
  • Beads
  • Sequins
  • Heat bonded materials
  • Lubricants for machinery

The figures become bewilderingly immeasurable. Non of the lists above take into account such matters as fabric printing or synthetic and artificial fibre manufacturing. Currently, the sustainable management of fashion supply chains and logistics appears to be still in the discussion and debate stage with no real actions happening other than awareness building across the sector. It’s a big problem to tackle but that’s not to say that the industry aren’t trying to evolve solutions such as by exploring themes such as ‘reverse logistics’ and green supply chain methods. There are books and scholarly articles addressing the issue which doesn’t just feature in the fashion industry but across all supply chains. One publication ‘Sustainable Fashion Supply Chain Management – From Sourcing to Retailing’ by by Tsan-Ming Choi (Editor), T. C. E. Cheng (Editor) comprehensively examines the scope for possible methods of change. Offset Warehouse also produced this article explaining why this issue must be discussed as a  matter of urgency.

Are dyes polluting the water tables?

photo © Gigie Cruz-Sy

Trying to imagine a world without coloured clothing is rather challenging and while most people enjoy the colours ‘cream, off-white, buff, grey and oatmeal’, It would be naive to assume that everyone is going to resort to solely wearing these colours to avoid further contamination of any water source from both dye pigments and the multitude of chemicals used to fix the colours to the cloth. Natural un-dyed fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp, wool and silk are never bright white, they are the various shades mentioned above. To make them bright white, lot’s of bleach is required. So in thinking about the clothes we buy, wear and see on the people around us, one has to realise that the quantity of dyes and chemicals used to create the colours and shades we all love is enormous and subsequently, the amount of effluent pollution generated by dyeing the textiles used to manufacture clothing is also huge. And all this is before we even mention the words ‘printed fabrics‘!

photo © CFP


Textile dyeing and printing water pollution isn’t a new thing, from the dawn of industrially manufactured cloth, dyeing using man made chemicals has created waste or ‘effluent’. When the industry was centred in Britain and Europe and the USA, rivers and waterways in industrial mill towns ran coloured and very probably poisonous. In the last couple of decades, as the Western textile manufacturing industry has moved overseas to Asia and grown at an incomprehensible scale and speed, the amount of residual waste leaching into rivers, groundwater sources and oceans has escalated with devastating impact. Reports of ‘cancer villages’ situated along waterways in industrial China, Thailand and India tell stories of local people who rely on the water for drinking, bathing, washing clothes and cooking being blighted with a spectrum of medical conditions so prevalent amongst communities that it is clear that the cause must be linked to the toxicity of their water supply. In it’s online post, ‘The Environmental Cost of Clothes’, The website China Water Risk states “In China, polluted water causes 75 percent of diseases and over 100,000 deaths annually, the World Health organisation has said. Meanwhile, cancer rates among villagers who live along polluted waterways are much higher than the national average.” and there are numerous academic papers, reports and scientific evidence revealing the tragic impact of dye and chemical waste pollution on human and ecological health.

image source – shutterstock


The synthetic dyes used in the textile industry are made up of chemical compounds that can be harmful to humans, especially those who work in their production. Some of the chemicals found in synthetic dyes are mercury, lead, chromium, copper, sodium chloride, toluene, and benzene. The compounds used to create the range of dyestuffs for different fabrics can be mined from the ground, i.e. metal salts and also developed from petrochemicals. Many of the inorganic solids which are found in synthetic dyestuffs poison the wildlife and aquatic life that live in rivers and waterways where dye waste from factories is released. Of course there are natural dyes which mainly come from the plant kingdom. Before the accidental discovery of chemical dyes by William Perkin in 1856, all cloth was coloured using these natural pigments. The main reason for the switch to chemical coal-tar derived dyes was because they could produce stronger colours that could be repeated without shade variation and were faster and cheaper to produce on an industrial scale in comparison to the land usage and the efforts needed for farming dye plants. Most dyes are fixed onto fibres with the aid of metal salts and while they are currently still components of modern chemical dyes, there’s an interesting debate against the use of natural dyes by the synthetic dye industry suggesting that the same metal salts used in their own products are toxic in relation to their use with natural dyes.

Photo source –


Considering scale and cost, it’s clear that an industrial transition from using synthetic dyes to using natural dyes is unrealistic at this point in time. Also, the industry view on the need to produce exactly the same shade repeatedly is a moot point that would need a huge paradigm shift to consider natural dyes as being acceptable in manufacturing. The dyestuff industry is big, it’s not leaving the textile manufacturing sector anytime soon and the global demand for clothing isn’t about to make a seismic transition either. Herein lies the challenge – to make safe the process of colouration of cloth for people and planet. The industry is responding to governmental enquiry and public outcry at the gravity of the situation and with new governmental legislation like REACH, which will both eradicate and monitor the use of toxic and dangerous chemical in all industries, together with the drive to develop new industrial dyeing innovations, there’s hope that things can improve.


photo source – the guardian online


The ongoing  battle to raise awareness of the issues of water pollution from the fashion and textile industry has long been fought by Greenpeace and their Detox campaign. Since 2011, with the launch of their first report ‘Dirty Laundry’, the environmental activist group have relentlessly sought to bring to attention the very real problems posed by the manufacturing processes of the textile industry. Producing a series of subsequent reports each one more clearly espousing the need to pay attention to finding realtime solutions in the face of the enormous increase in clothing consumption globally, Greenpeace continue to be the original ‘voice of reason’ and defender of the planet’s water.


manufacture – factory – employees

retail – packaging – stores

What might be the ethical and environmental implications of your clothing choices?


What might be the most ethical and environmentally-friendly choice?

What will happen to your clothes at the end of their life-cycle

s4s apologies – page under construction