Procurement of Resources
For the clothing industry, the chain of production starts with the procuring of resources. For every pair of pants, every dress fibre is needed. Often, this will be cotton. This means that a field is required on which to grow and harvest the rather fragile plants. Cotton is susceptible to frost and thrives in arid climates while at the same time it is needs large amounts of water. The production of it has always been subject to capitalist profit interests and a constant contest of underpricing. Historically the harvest of cotton reached its low point with slavery and the colonial exploitation of workers. But even today production is mainly happening in economically weak countries. In Uzbekistan, for example, children are picking cotton and in India workers are getting paid next to nothing for genetically modified cotton while production is putting a heavy drain on the respective countries’ water reserves.
Separation of Fibres and Seeds
After harvesting the cotton, the fibres need to be separated from seeds and dirt. Usually, the separation will be done in the same low wage countries that harvested the cotton.
The cotton fibres will be spun into yarn at sinning mills so they are usable for the production of flat fabrics. Many a time, this step will already happen in a country different from the harvesting country. Still, the countries that will produce for the lowest of low wages will usually house the respective factories. This is lamentably common for the value-added chain of production in the textile sector.
Weaving/Knitting and Finishing
In weaving or knitting mills the yarn will be worked into fabric. This, too, happens in low wage countries. Afterwards and usually in a different place, the fabric will undergo the finishing process in which – through various chemical processes – the look, feel and durability will be altered. Cotton is usually yellowish and will therefore be bleached. Synthetic resins will be added to keep the fabric from shrinking. And for reasons of stabilisation the fabric will be dunked into sodium hydroxide. The finishing will, consequently, be done in countries with low or non-existent environmental statutory requirements so that the pollution of ground water with toxic waste poses no problem. Nature as well as inhabitants and workers who handle these chemicals will suffer considerable (health-) consequences.
This includes the cutting and sewing of fabric into actual garments. Since this step has not been fully automated as of yet it requires many workers to do the manual labour. Due to the constant underpricing of the competitive capitalist market, this can only be lucrative if production is outsourced to countries featuring no labour rights and especially low wages, like Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The fast pace of the fashion industry leads to an unprecedented consumption of clothing – an average of 60 pieces each year. Every single piece will necessarily be worn less and the pile of textile garbage is growing rapidly. The reverse conclusion then is that the products need to be appropriately cheap and therefore that workers need to be employed under inhumane conditions and with little pay to make the clothing that will be replaced the next season.
Most often our clothes will be disposed of in recycling banks. Here they will be sorted into different categories: valuable pieces will go to domestic second hand stores and resold there. Less valuable clothing will shipped to Eastern Europe or Non-European countries. The trade with clothing from recycling banks is a profitable business while having a catastrophic carbon footprint – just as the textile industry in general.
Attire that isn’t fit for wear any longer will often be recycled or rather downcycled. In practice that means that clothing fabric will be reused for cleaning rags or similar things. Alternatively, the fibres could be reprocessed and respun into yarns. This is, however, complicated by the fact that most fabrics consist of fibre blends of natural and synthetic origin.
Capitalistic exploitation logic seeps through all industries including the textile industry: Garments need to be made cheaply and quickly. Environmental protections and labour rights cannot be considered at this point. Consequently, the individual steps of the production process need to be located in different countries and a piece of clothing will have travelled thousands of kilometres before arriving in our stores. These endless transports are nevertheless cheaper than local production since European wages are – if we wanted to follow this logic – too high to be profitable leading to this disastrous ecological calamity.