Power relations in the value chain of fashion

6. Feb 2015

The fashion industry is linked to a range of problems concerning child labor, environmental damage and hazardous working conditions. So who holds the power to improve sustainability in the industry?

Fashion production involves 165 chemicals that are harmful to people or to the environment, while the production of just one cotton T-shirt uses 1400 liters of water. Child labor and forced labor is widespread in cotton farming, and in the sweatshops of Asia seamstresses toil for a wage they cannot live on, in unsafe buildings and without basic workers’ rights.

The impact of our clothes on people and the planet is immense. So who holds the power to improve sustainability in the fashion industry? We take a look into the value chain behind our clothes to examine the power, opportunity and constraints of different actors.

The fashion value chain

A T-shirt or a pair of jeans has been on a long journey before they reach the hangers in the fashion store. A cotton item goes through five to six production steps before it is a finished piece of clothing. The journey starts in cotton fields in west Africa; North America; South, East or Central Asia, from where the cotton is sent to ginneries, where it is cleaned for seeds.

The cotton fiber is then traded and often crosses borders before it reaches the spinning mills. Here it is spun to thread or yarn, which again can be traded across borders before it is woven or knitted into fabric that, after dyeing or printing, is used for finished clothes in the garments factories mainly in China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Eastern Europe.

Did you know...

The production of just a single T-shirt requires approximately 1,400 liters of water, equivalent to more than ten filled bathtubs?

CO2 emissions from the production of the average textile consumption of a Scandinavian is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 2,000 kilometers of driving in a family car

A Swedish study has identified 165 harmful chemicals used in the production of textiles
Source: The Nordic Council of Ministers

This DanWatch article was also brought in Less Magazine on January 27, 2015.


Print ink, zippers and buttons might have made a similar journey across the globe before they end up as part of the final clothing product. The journey is affected by linkssuch as farmers, workers, factory owners, designers, buyers and consumers. Each linkand each step of the journey presents a wealth of choices regarding sustainability.

1.The cotton field, Uzbekistan

When summer fades in Uzbekistan, over a million adults and children are ordered out into the fields to harvest cotton. They begin their working day at half past four in the morning facing 10 to 12 hours of hand-picking cotton. It is the state that forces them to harvest the “white gold”, the most important crop of the country. Cotton is an indispensable source of income to a country which is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cotton. But cotton brings with it environmental destruction and massive violations of human rights.

The State of the former Soviet Republic has a tight grip on the cotton production. It
demands the cotton farmers produce a set quota of cotton and dictates a price well below the world market price. If the farmers do not deliver their quota they risk losing their land.
The artificially low prices that the farmers are forced to sell their cotton for to the State, leave too little to pay the field workers, thus the industry relies on forced labor for its survival.

Students and civil servants are ordered to take part in the harvest. Officially they are working voluntarily, but if they refuse they risk being expelled from their studies, failing their exams or losing their job or payments. Their actual choice is limited to taking part in the harvest or finding a substitute. In 2013 an anonymous school teacher told the NGO Uzbek German Forum about his limited opportunities to avoid picking cotton:
“If you do not arrive to pick cotton, what will happen? They will make you work anyway. Pick cotton or quit your job. We are told that this is our duty to the state. If you do not like it, quit. I cannot quit, for who is going to feed my family? So I have to go. I will work my 25 days and then go back to school”.

Several NGOs like the Uzbek-German Forum encourage fashion brands to boycott Uzbek cotton. H&M has, like many other international brands, signed a pledge to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton. But the origin of the cotton is often lost in the long value chain of fashion production. Knowing is the key word here. Only a few brands know where the cotton they use in their products has been grown and for most, full traceability is not a priority.

2.The designer

Barbara í Gongini and Ole í Gongini Jensen are the married couple behind the brand Barbara í Gongini. Barbara is the designer and Ole is the CEO. They welcome me into their design studio which is buzzing with young employees, many of whom are wearing items of the brand. Black is the dominating color but the uniformity of color is balanced with the versatility of shape and structure.

Barbara is in the middle of a meeting with designers and sales staff, but takes the time to explain how sustainability is an integrated part of the brand and of the ideas behind her design:
“Our design challenges tradition. Not only the aesthetics of fashion, but also the modes of production and consumption. We aim for multifunctionality and changeability through interaction with the user. This enhances the lifecycle of the clothes and challenges the tendency towards shifting trends and the need to buy new.”

This approach to the sustainability challenge seems to be a source of creativity rather than a limitation to the design process. As Barbara moves on to talk about the production process she admits that this part is much less “sexy”, but nevertheless important. She uses the production of leather items as an example and begins with the choice of material: “We use, for example, leather made from cow-, lamb- and goat-hide, to avoid using leather from caged animals. Then we look at the processing, which for conventional leather products entails a lot of chemicals, such as chrome in the tanning process.”

These chemicals pose a risk to the local environment, to workers at all tiers of the production chain as well as to consumers, so Barbara has made a choice, even though it has a certain smelly disadvantage: “We use only vegetable tanning which is based on natural tannins from plants. It took a while for our customers to accept this, as this process means that the finished products have a distinct odour of “animal”. At first, some of our retailers called us to complain. However, when we explained the reason for this, they accepted it and in a way it became a quality in itself. It helped to highlight the sustainability of the product, which otherwise cannot often be seen – or smelled – in the final product.”

Determination and compromise

In the particular case of the smelly leather Barbara stuck to her sustainable choice. This is not always the case though. Barbara prefers organic raw materials, but this does not fit well with the predominance of black in her collections.  “Black dye is simply not available ecologically; it cannot be made. So we have to lower the bar and aim for low impact color instead.”

Barbara and Ole are in no doubt that working with sustainability entails a lot of doubts, compromise and prioritising. Sometimes it is not clear what the most sustainable choice is.  Organic cotton for example, is produced without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and spares the local environment, farm workers and those who process the raw cotton. But some say that organic cotton consumes more water and that it is often transported over further distances, thus emitting more CO2 than conventional cotton.

Sustainable choices require immense knowledge of a range of issues, and sometimes you have to compromise between them. Barbara tells me about their leather manufacturer in Pakistan: “They employ women, which I really want to support, because this is not common in Pakistan, where women are often not allowed to work or even go to school.”

She is not 100 % sure about the way they handle their wastewater though. The manufacturer is connected to a treatment plant, but Barbara has not been able to obtain documentation to confirm that the water is actually clean enough after processing. She has chosen to stick to this supplier even though she is not able to evaluate the wastewater treatment: “Sometimes you simply fall short of expertise. So in this matter I simply have to trust the company and the authorities.”

Balancing sustainability and economics

Internally in the company of Barbara í Gongini there is a constant balancing between the concerns of design, sustainability and sales. They have to make a profit and continue the growth of the company to keep the bank happy. According to Ole the general focus of society on economic growth is a major barrier to the transition towards sustainable fashion: “As long as the sustainable choice comes at a higher price than the price you have to pay if you choose to make a major environmental impact, it will be difficult to change the industry.”

Though sustainability often comes with significant costs Ole has a few tips on “free” choices a clothing company can make. It starts in the design process where adjusting the design to the width of the fabric can minimize waste. He recommends operating locally, thus minimizing the use of resources – both economically and environmentally – on transport and warehousing. By having only a few suppliers Barbara í Gongini skips the expensive freight costs of transporting samples back and forth between the headquarters and the suppliers, and travels to the suppliers in person instead. A simple tip is to ask the supplier what packaging he offers, and choose one that is recycled or degradable. These rather simple choices should be within the power of every clothing company.

The garments factory, Bangladesh

Working conditions in the garments industry of Bangladesh have attracted attention from the world press time and time again. Stowed together in unsafe factory buildings, more than four million workers toil for low wages producing clothes for consumers all over the world. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building housing several garments factories in April 2013 focused the attention of the world on the harsh conditions in the garments industry.

Seamstresses Laila, Shila and Anzu Ara, who DanWatch met a year after the collapse, worked on the sixth floor of the building. When they showed up for work on the day of the collapse rumors  about the safety of the building were already flying around. The area in front of the factory was filled with nervous seamstresses too afraid to enter the building. The message from their boss was clear though: “No work means no pay” and the workers brushed aside their concerns, entered the building and started their working day. Less than an hour later, the building collapsed.
“I heard a loud bang and turned to run toward the stairs – the next thing I remember is waking up in darkness hearing the screams of my colleagues shouting for help,” Laila recounts.

Laila, Shila og Anzu Ara were lucky. They were all dug out of the ruins alive where more than 1100 workers lost their lives. On that fateful morning they did not see it as a viable option to refuse to go to work. They were too dependent on their wages and their jobs to stand up to their employer, and they did not have a trade union or similar workers’ organization to help them stand united against their boss.
“They could see the cracks in the building that morning, but even though they were afraid they still had to work. At the end of the day it is about putting food on the table so they would still go to work,” says Kasheful Hoda, researcher at the Bangladeshi Society ‘Research Initiative for Social Equity (RISE).

Since Rana Plaza there has been an increased focus on the safety of workers and trade union rights in general. The desire for unionization and to push for better wages and working conditions is growing, but it is not without risk. Garments workers who have attempted to organize unions and fight for fair salaries and workers’ rights are harassed or fired and there have been examples of protesting or striking workers who have been beaten up or had their homes raided. Many garments workers are too afraid to lose their jobs and thus their livelihood in the fight for better working conditions. The power relations between garments workers and manufacturers are still far from even.

The manufacturer is under pressure

An improvement of wages and working conditions for garments workers would mean higher production costs for the manufacturers and this is a challenge for them.
Mahiuddin Faruqui, manager of a garments factory in Bangladesh, which supplies several European brands, and former Vice President for the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BKMEA) says the manufacturers are under pressure from the buyers: “Since Rana Plaza it has been hard for the factory owners and many factories have closed. We have to use a lot of money in securing the buildings. But the price for our products remains the same. The buyers do not want to pay more. They still try to push the price down.”

Kasheful Hoda from RISE stresses that the buyers have placed their orders in Bangladesh because of the low wages:
“If buyers were interested in paying a higher price, they would have had their things made in Eastern Europe. They come here for the cheap labor, and their desire is reflected by the attitude of factory owners and the government of Bangladesh.”

After Rana Plaza many international brands have committed to work for improvements in the garments sector. The minimum wage has been raised and more than 1,000 factories have been inspected and ordered to make safety improvements. Whether the commitment of the fashion brands goes deeper than the search for cheap manufacturing remains an open question.

3.The CSR Manager

Morten Lehmann is CSR-manager with the second largest Danish fashion retailer, IC Group. He believes that knowledge, prioritization and partnerships are the key drivers of sustainable development. Since February 2013 IC Group has been a member of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a multistakeholder-coalition of over 80 brands, suppliers and NGOs, promoting methods of measuring sustainability and engaging members in dialog and common approaches towards sustainability. I meet him to discuss the opportunities and challenges he experiences in his work with CSR in fashion.

The fashion industry has major social and environmental impacts: Child labor, living wages, use of chemicals  and climate impact to name just a few. As a CSR-manager Morten Lehmann has to take all of these into account and prioritize his efforts. He does this by identifying not only the biggest challenges of his company, but also where they have the best chance of doing something about it. Knowledge is essential in this process and new learnings can change priorities. Morten was recently surprised to learn more about the climate impact of different tiers in the supply chain: “Until recently we thought that the climate impact of our business was primarily located in the cotton fields where our raw materials are produced, which is tier five in our supply chain. However, we found out that there is a major climate impact from the consumption of energy in the factories where our garments are sewn. These are tier one in our supply chain, where we have much more leverage.”

This leverage is exercised by inviting suppliers to training sessions where the analysis is presented and suppliers who have cut down on energy consumption share their experiences. This approach is encouraging and effective says Morten: “We do not approach them with pointing the finger and the argument of ‘because we say so’. We rather provide facts, knowledge and tools. We do not just facilitate the change we desire, we also offer them the opportunity to save some money.”

Trust and dialog instead of demands

Morten has a strong belief in dialog and trust with the suppliers rather than demands and check-ups. The membership of Sustainable Apparel Coalition facilitates this. Sustainable Apparel Coalition represents over 40 percent of the global market share of the apparel and footwear industries. It has developed an index to measure sustainability performance called The Higg Index, and it is a great tool to measure the environmental and social sustainability performance and assigning an overall sustainability score. Traditionally, only buyers have been measuring their suppliers, but The Higg Index measures both production facilities and brands. “It is like Facebook – when you connect with a supplier or buyer you can see their score. In this way, our suppliers can see that we are not perfect. This encourages the suppliers to be honest, to admit their strengths and weaknesses, so we can work with them.”

According to Morten the work with The Higg Index includes the suppliers in the sustainability discussion in an unprecedented way. Suppliers have participated in the development of the tool and they can see the score for both suppliers and brands. They are informed by The Higg Index about not only their own performance, but also the performance of their buyers. High performing suppliers can share their experiences with others, thereby altering the traditional relationship of buyers telling suppliers what to do.

Knowledge becomes an effective tool

The Higg Index is not only a measuring device; it also offers examples on how to improve your score. Morten Lehmann sees this as an effective tool which empowers not only CSR-staff but also designers and purchasers to ask the right questions and make the best choices. Their choice between for instance different materials or washing techniques is exchanged into score points mirroring the sustainability effect. Thus they can use The Higg Index to get an immediate evaluation of the available options, and to highlight the easy gains where there is a relatively huge improvement for a small effort.

One thing is knowledge; another thing is internal business structures that allow you to make use of your knowledge and prioritize sustainability. Currently, there is not a strong business case in terms of end consumer demand for sustainability efforts. Morten regrets this. “Today, whether you do something or not makes relatively little difference to the customers. It would be fantastic if our customers would demand and value sustainability even more. It would give the CSR-departments much more leverage internally in clothing companies. But for this to happen we need to make it much more easy for the consumers to make the sustainable choice”.

For now, The Higg Index score of a company is only available to its employees and its business partners. It is not available to the public, and a brand is not even allowed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to advertise it. It could be an empowering tool for the ethical customer who wants to buy sustainable clothes, but who these days is badly equipped to evaluate the overall sustainability of a piece of clothing or a brand.

The knowledge-driven and systematic approach to sustainability that The Higg Index is part of also empowers Morten Lehmann in the dialog with stakeholders: “I am proud to be able to meet critical stakeholders, be it the press, NGOs or the authorities, with a thorough explanation of why we do not necessarily do as they wish, but might have chosen another approach which in the end is more sustainable.” As with the suppliers, he appreciates dialog and cooperation with different actors who can all contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry: “Companies, authorities, unions, NGOs and consumers, we need to be clear about the expertise of each of us, and when we should work with who. We have different competences but we share the responsibility.”

4.The consumer

Consumer information about clothes is often limited to parts of the history of the item, for example, the country of final production, which is usually stated on the product: Made in China or Made in Bangladesh. But where does the cotton come from? Where has it been cleansed, spun or dyed? And under what working conditions – not only in the final production but throughout the value chain? The cotton in a blouse, which has been sewn under good conditions at a garments factory in Bangladesh, might have been picked by forced laborers in Uzbekistan and the yarn might have been spun by child laborers in Pakistan.

Common certification schemes often only focus on a selected part of the value chain or certain sustainability issues. The Oeko-Tex certification as an example guarantees that the clothes are free from substances that could be harmful to the consumer, but it does not take the overall impact on environment and health in the production of the clothes into account. The EU Ecolabel takes the whole supply chain into account, but only with regards to the environmental impact, not the social.

It is not easy to figure out which sustainability issues different certification schemes address and how, but the consumer is not powerless. She can inform herself about the schemes and the sustainability issues relevant to different products and choose the most sustainable options. She can raise her concerns in the shops or towards the clothing company, or even on a political level. She can also make the more radical choice to simply not buy new clothes, or buy second-hand clothes instead. Garments production is however a complicated affair with a diversity of sustainability issues in a complex supply chain.

ThemeThe Tragedy of Textile

Miserable working conditions and ruined lives


The story behind the clothes in your wardrobe often tells of great cost of people and the environment. From usage of water and pesticides, child labor in cotton cultivation to oppressive working conditions in deadly factory buildings in sewing factories in Bangladesh.