Asking the big question: where do clothing brands manufacture?

Map of world

Asking the big question: where do clothing brands manufacture?

When choosing what to wear in the morning it’s unlikely that you think very much about how far your clothes travelled before they reached your wardrobe. But, in the age of growing transparency, customers want to know more about the world of clothing manufacturing and where their clothes are made. So we’re asking the question, where do clothing brands manufacture?

The garment and textile industry operates on every continent (except Antarctica) and 430 million people are estimated to work in garment and textile production. Far from the days of cottage industries and local tailors, the modern fashion world is an international affair. The production process for just one piece of clothing can span multiple continents.

Many clothes travel hundreds or thousands of miles as brands increasingly favour an offshore manufacturing process. While the final stage of production, i.e. clothing factories, may be in one place, the raw materials will likely have come from a different country or even continent. The fabric suppliers in the middle could well be in another part of the world altogether.

Hidden in these murky global supply chains are often ethical and environmental transgressions that can seem jarring with the shiny stores our clothes end up in.

So, where do most brands make their clothes, why do they make them there and why should we care?

Where do clothing brands manufacture?

Understanding where our clothes come from can be a complicated question. One t-shirt can have travelled through multiple countries before reaching your wardrobe. While a clothing business may have its headquarters and design its clothing line in one part of the world, this doesn’t mean that this is where its garment factories are located.

The biggest manufacturer and exporter of clothing and apparel products is China, with 65% of the world’s clothing being made there.

The second largest country for clothing manufacturing in the world is Bangladesh. Garment exports make up close to 85% of the country’s overall exports. Bangladesh’s ready-made garments industry has seen growth in recent years, with its share of global garment exports rising to 6.7%.

Other top garment producers include:

  • Vietnam – Accounting for 5.2% of the global market share, the Vietnamese garment industry is expected to generate $45 billion in exports in 2022.
  • India – Holding a 4% share of the global textile and apparel trade, India’s domestic textile and apparel industry contributes 2% to the country’s GDP.
  • Turkey – The country has a 3.8% share in the global clothing industry. An estimated 500,000 people are employed in the Turkish garment manufacturing sector.
  • Europe – While Europe may represent a large and international industry, it is often reported as a whole. The industry is worth €166 billion, with top manufacturing countries including Germany, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
  • Other players in the global apparel manufacturing industry include the USA, Pakistan, the Philippines, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia.
Clothes on a hanger
Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels

Why are clothes made in these countries?

So, you may be thinking it would be easier for brands to manufacture clothes closer to home. But, this often isn’t the case. Developing countries are big markets for clothing manufacturing because it is often easier there for brands to skirt the rules and exploit people along the supply chain.

Paying less for unregulated conditions

Fewer, less robust, or non-existent workplace regulations make it easier for brands to pay workers less and force them to work in unsafe conditions. While this keeps the production cost down and makes profit margins better, it leaves a trail of exploitation, tragedy and human rights issues along the supply chain.

It’s easy to think that this is in the interest of offering lower prices. However, The Clean Clothes Campaign did its own research and showed it would only add a tiny percentage to the cost of an item to pay workers a living wage. Their breakdown of the cost of a t-shirt makes compulsory and shocking reading.

Breakdown of the cost of a t-shirt taken from the Clean Clothes Campaign website
Courtesy of https://cleanclothes.org/poverty-wages

However, some high quality brands and fashion designers do source from apparel manufacturers that make the welfare of workers the main priority. And this small number of ethical brands is growing. We write about them often. However, this has not been standard practice so far.

To learn more about the Bangladesh garment sector, check out our article 50 Bangladesh textile industry statistics fashionistas should know.

What are garment workers paid?

Generally, working in a clothing factory is hard work. Workers face long hours and physically demanding tasks. In an ideal world, they would get fair pay for their efforts but this is usually not the case.

China

In China, many garment workers earn the minimum wage. While this varies across the country, it peaks at about $350 USD per month. This amount, however, is far below the living wage of around $780 USD per month.

Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, it is a similar story, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at 8000 taka (around £70) per month. This is far below the £330 needed each month to comfortably live in the country. One study even found that many workers in Bangladesh earn the equivalent of just 25 pence per hour.

Infographic about workers wages in Bangladesh and India courtesy of the Clean Clothes Campaign
Image courtesy of https://cleanclothes.org/
Infographic from Clean Clothes Campaign
Image courtesy of https://cleanclothes.org/

Vietnam

Workers in Vietnamese garment factories are often taking home just over 30% of the living wage each month.

Ethiopia

If the question of where do clothing brands manufacture leads you to Ethiopia, workers there have been reported to face even more dire pay levels. The country set its base wage for garment workers in some regions at the equivalent of a measly $26 a month. This makes Ethiopian garment workers some of the lowest-paid in the world.

Eastern Europe

Those working for garment manufacturers in Eastern Europe don’t fare much better. The minimum wage in Serbia was found to be just a quarter of the living wage. Similarly, the minimum wage for Slovakia and Hungary was just a third of the living wage.

Los Angeles

Even in LA in the United States, it has been reported that those employed by clothing manufacturers work 60- 70 hours per week and earn as little as 2 to 6 cents per garment made.

Turkey

In Turkey the pandemic and hyperinflation has meant that workers earning the minimum wage are taking home just a quarter of the living wage rate. Reports have found that one in three Turkish garment workers are earning the minimum wage.

Southern Italy

Whilst the label “Made in Europe”, or even more “Made in Italy” might fill us with confidence, a disturbing article by the New York Times shed light on shady practices in Southern Italy. Here, home workers are paid a pittance to hand sew garments for luxury brands.

To find out which brands pay their workers a living wage, see our article: Making fashion fair: 22 brands that pay a living wage.

How are clothes manufactured?

Hidden behind the fancy clothes in glittering stores on the high street is a tale of exploitation and unsafe conditions. Accidents are common in the garment sector, with only the worst in the industry making global headlines. Workers are often forced to work in cramped, poorly ventilated and poorly lit conditions.

Unsafe working conditions

Unsafe working conditions in the industry have led to tragic disasters. Disasters such as the Rana Plaza collapse killed over 1,000 garment workers and a factory fire in Pakistan’s garment industry led to the death of over 300 people.

Unpaid and poorly paid overtime

Workers in countries such as Bangladesh and China commonly work overtime, with this often paid at a basic rate, or not at all. One study found that 97% of factories surveyed in Bangladesh relied on excess overtime to meet industry expectations.

Unsafe practices

Workers in many factories are exposed to unsafe practices, such as sandblasting, and dangerous chemicals, without adequate protection. Excessive noise, extreme temperatures and risk from repetitive motion are also risks many garment workers face daily.

Unsafe conditions and workplace accidents led to a recorded 56 incidents, 131 deaths, and 279 injuries in the garment sector between January 2021 and June 2022. In reality, this number is likely to be far higher due to poor reporting.

Factory where clothes are manufactured
Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

An environment that foots the bill

The environmental impact of the fashion industry has been increasingly in the spotlight in recent years. The sector accounts for a greater carbon dioxide output than international flights.

Fashion produces 300 million tons of plastic, and garment production has doubled since 2000. On top of this hefty environmental bill, many unethical factories along fashion supply chains engage in illegal dumping and unsustainable production practices.

The fashion sector produces 20% of the world’s wastewater. Dyes and chemicals being dumped in local waterways have turned rivers black in Bangladesh. Reports have found at least 700 washing and dyeing facilities in Dhaka dump wastewater and other toxic waste into waterways.

See our articles for more information on water pollution in the fashion industry and toxic dyes in clothing production.

The pollution generated by the clothing sector varies depending on location. Developing countries where clothes are more likely to be produced generally have less strict regulations than countries closer to home. 

This hidden environmental impact makes it even more important to know where our clothes are made.

Why should we know where our clothes are made?

Understanding who makes our clothes and where is important information. It gives the power back to consumers to purchase from companies that produce clothing ethically. For too long companies have hidden behind murky supply chains and greenwashing campaigns, while workers and the environment suffered for our fashion.

Knowing where big clothing brands make their clothes, knowing what they pay their workers and what conditions workers are facing allows an informed choice. It allows us all to shop in line with our ethics and to lobby our favourite brands, if necessary, to improve supply chain practices.

Like in any industry, in the fashion sector, money talks. By buying from ethical brands and demanding unethical brands do better, we can help to reshape the fashion industry into a clearer, kinder and greener one.

Knowing where our clothes come from can also help us factor in the carbon footprint of transportation. Shipping accounts for roughly 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. This number could rise to 17% by 2050.

Knowing where clothes were made, we can shop for styles made closer to home and help reduce shipping emissions too.

Where do big clothing brands produce?

There are some truly gigantic names in the fashion sector. So, we’re also taking a look at some of the biggest clothing brands to find out where they manufacture.

It’s important to remember that most brands don’t publish complete lists of where they make their clothes. Even those that do can have such complex supply chains that even knowing where the final stage was carried out, it can be hard to understand a garment’s origins.

Where are Zara clothes made?

One of the original names in fast fashion, Zara produces an estimated 450 million garments every year. Meanwhile, Zara’s parent company Inditex, has reported bringing over a billion products to stores in just one year. To keep up with this immense level of production, Zara supply chains span multiple continents.

Zara bag on bench
Photo by Ben Tofan on Unsplash

The majority of Zara’s clothing is produced domestically in Spain, with a large number of products also produced in Portugal, Morocco and Turkey. The brand also sources from manufacturers for clothes in countries including China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and India.

Inditex has been reported to have over 1,800 suppliers and to work with over 7,000 factories around the world. A business model of rapid production paired with the extreme size of Zara’s supply chain can make it impossible to trace a specific clothing article back to an individual factory.

Where do H&M manufacture their clothes?

Girl holding H&M bag
Photo by Fernand De Canne on Unsplash

Much like Zara, the H&M supply chain is vast. The brand works with over 600 suppliers and over 1,500 tier-one factories that operate across Europe, Asia and Africa. Suppliers in China and Bangladesh produce most of the brand’s clothing lines. Over a million people are employed by H&M supplier factories.

In these global, mass production, supply chains, H&M has not remained free from controversy. Workers along the brand’s production line have been found to be living below the poverty wage and there have been reports of abuse at supplying factories.

The H&M group, including H&M, Arket, & Other Stories, sources from forty countries and works with 265 separate factories in just Bangladesh. This huge supply chain makes the estimated three billion clothes the company sells every year.

As with Zara, the size of H&M’s supply chain can make it hard for a shopper to be sure of where exactly an individual piece of clothing came from and the conditions in which it was produced.

In saying this, H&M do score relatively well on the Fashion Transparency Index and Remake’s Fashion Accountability Report. While this does not guarantee good working conditions, it does point to more accountability than many other fast fashion brands in the industry which can only be a good thing.

Where do Primark manufacture their clothes?

The slightly smaller cousin of H&M and Zara, many Primark clothes begin their journey in China, Bangladesh, India and Turkey. In China alone, Primark states that it has 449 supplier factories. In both India and Bangladesh, the company has over 100 supplier factories.

The fast fashion retailer also sources from Pakistan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Romania, with its full supplier list including suppliers across Europe and Asia.

Where are designer clothes made?

Map of world
Photo by Jack Stapleton on Unsplash

It isn’t just fast fashion brands that source from global supply chains, some of the most well-known names in the luxury sector also have international suppliers.

Many Marc Jacobs bags are made in China, while the final products stocking Calvin Klein shelves may have started out in Bangladesh. Prada, another standard name in the luxury sector, manufactures at over 21 sites including in Romania, France and Italy.

Burberry still manufactures at least a percentage of its clothes in the United Kingdom and Chanel’s haute couture range is made in France. Clothing items from Hugo Boss come from suppliers in areas including Turkey, Germany, Poland and Italy.

Many luxury brands use clothing manufacturers across Europe. However, brands in the luxury industry aren’t always the most forthcoming in publishing full clothing supplier lists. This can make it difficult to make an informed choice when buying luxury clothing.

TRANSPARENCY CAMPAIGNS

There are some great campaigns to try and improve transparency in the fashion and garment industry. These campaigns are asking clothing brands where they manufacture, and holding them accountable for conditions along the supply chain.

Fashion Revolution

Started in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, Fashion Revolution has become a global movement. It advocates for transparency, and fair and safe conditions in the fashion sector. Perhaps the most well-known campaign by Fashion Revolution is the Who Made My Clothes Campaign, in which consumers are encouraged to ask brands, who made my clothes?

To learn more about the Who Made My Clothes movement check out our article The Who Made My Clothes movement: is it changing fashion.

Clean Clothes Campaign

Operating in 45 countries, the Clean Clothes Campaign works at both a global and local level to protect workers’ rights and safety in fashion supply chains. The organisation offers support and solidarity to workers facing worker violations as well as lobbying governments and companies, organising training and working with labour rights campaigns.

Girl looking at clothes label to see where her clothes are manufactured
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels

LABOUR BEHIND THE LABEL

Working with a variety of organisations, unions and individuals, Labour Behind the Label fights for fairer and safer conditions in the garment industry. The organisation promotes consumer awareness and asks shoppers to push for change. The organisation also pressures governments and companies to enforce fairer conditions and provides a platform for workers’ voices to be heard.

Resources

When looking for ethical brands that use the best clothing manufacturers in terms of worker care, these handy resources for checking transparency and supply chain practices are a great place to start:

Fashion Checker – Information on some of the biggest brands, including if they pay a living wage and have transparent supply chains.

Open Supply Hub (previously Open Apparel) – Free, structured data sets for various sectors including apparel, standardising information about manufacturing facilities across the globe and making it easily available.

Remake – Advocating for garment worker rights, Remake produces its annual Fashion Accountability Report where it reports on actual actions and progress made by the world’s biggest fashion brands.

Certifications – The best factories are endorsed with quality control certifications such as SA8000, SEDEX, SMETA or the Fair Wear Foundation. These attest that the people who make your clothes do so under decent working conditions. It’s a good idea to look out for their logos on a brand’s website.

A COMPLICATED ANSWER TO A SIMPLE QUESTION

Where are clothes made? It should be an easy question with a straightforward answer. But, in the complexity of the modern fashion industry, it is an answer that often spans multiple continents, supply chains, and covers a multitude of ethical missteps.

In such a global industry, knowing where clothes are made and by who has never been more important. It gives us, as shoppers, the choice to support ethical brands and to vote with our feet against fashion that is built on exploitation.

So, maybe it is time to ask your favourite apparel brand, where do you make your clothes?

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