Illustration of a sewing machine

Does a garment really travel around the world before it is bought?

How many kilometres has that nice t-shirt you just bought travelled: 100? 1,000? 10,000? Focus on the journey of our clothes.


In our wardrobes and wardrobes lie (very) frequent travellers. Without us even realising it, most of the clothes we buy have crossed several borders, sailed many seas, surveyed one, two or three continents, and travelled hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. From the cotton fields to the shop on the corner, the journey of your favourite T-shirt was long and complicated! So much so that you can say that every piece of clothing you buy has travelled around the world?


Garment life cycle: a complex journey

It is difficult to evaluate precisely the distance travelled by a garment as the production and distribution channels vary so much, depending on the brand, the country and the type of product. There are many parameters that modify this final distance. One thing is certain, however: transport is present at every stage of a garment's life cycle.

Concretely, here are the four main sequences in which a garment will move:

🧵 Between the place of extraction and the place of transformation into fibre.

This involves transporting the raw material to the factory where it will be made into textile. This is for example, the journey from the cotton field to the spinning mill. Or between the oil well and the factory that uses it to produce synthetic textile, such as polyester.

🏭 Between the production of fibres and the manufacture of the garment. This time, the raw textile (the spools of cotton yarn, balls of wool, rolls of polyester, etc.) are transported to the factory that makes the actual garment.

🏬 Between the place of production and the place of sale. This is the distance travelled between the last factory and the shop where we buy our clothes.

🗑 Between the first user of the garment and the moment when the garment itself ceases to exist. This refers to the kilometres travelled by a garment that is being disposed of. There are various options: the garment goes to the bin (to a landfill); to recycling (to a sorting centre); to second hand (to a new user); or to donation (to an association and its beneficiaries). Depending on the case, a few kilometres are added... or thousands (when the donated garment is sent to a distant country).

It should be noted that intermediate stages are frequent, even systematic. Thus, the single stage of manufacturing may take place in different places: cutting of the garment parts in one factory; assembly in a second; "finishing" (bleaching, dyeing or printing of the textile) in a third... Sometimes these intermediate stages take place... in different countries. The distribution phase also includes various intermediate stages: packaging location; storage location; logistics warehouse; shop; post office if the garment was ordered on the internet, etc.


As you can see, the more geographically dispersed the garment's life cycle is, the more kilometres it will travel. And basically, apart from that beautiful jumper knitted across the street by grandma, with local wool spun locally, the vast majority of our clothes have been through a lot of hardship...


Jeans, king of the globetrotters

As mentioned, determining the exact distance travelled by each garment is complex. However, some people have tried to do so, tracing the long route taken by a garment throughout its life in minute detail. One example, in particular, has remained famous: jeans.

A number of studies have looked at this star garment of our time, which is sold in excess of 2 billion units worldwide each year. In France, the very serious Agency for the Environment and Energy Management in France (Agence de l'environnement et de la maîtrise de l'énergie = ADEME) has published a study on the subject. Its conclusions are speechless: from the cotton field to the shop, a pair of jeans can travel up to 65,000 km. That's 1.5 times around the Earth.

How is this possible? There are two main reasons. Firstly, the principle of specialisation, which means that a host of different economic players specialise in each of the stages of production and distribution of the garment. As a result, the process is highly fragmented, and the garment circulates from actor to actor, thus travelling a long industrial path. Secondly, the principle of maximising production costs, which means that the company seeks to produce where it will cost the least. In the fashion industry, this is mainly done in Asia and Africa.

An example is the jeans studied by ADEME: the cotton is grown in the United States, then sent to India to be spun and woven. It then goes to China to be sewn. The dye comes from Brazil and the metal for the buttons from Namibia. Once the jeans are finished, they are sent to Tunisia to be sanded: this gives them the worn effect that is so appreciated by consumers. Finally, the jeans are sent to Europe, to the shelves of our shops.


An ecological cost to be taken into account

Today, according to ADEME, the clothing sector emits 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 each year, i.e. 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And if consumption trends were to remain the same (in particular the success of polyester, which emits three times more CO2 than cotton), the textile sector's share of global emissions could reach 26% by 2050...

Paradoxically, transport is a minority factor in the carbon footprint of a garment. Indeed, it is the extraction and production phase that emits the most greenhouse gases. However, it is a fact that every kilometre our clothes travel emits CO2. In the context of global warming and the ecological crisis, it is important to be aware of this.

So that these kilometres travelled are not lost, and to improve the carbon footprint of our wardrobes, the idea is to maximise the use of our clothes. There are three simple things we can do:
- give priority to necessary and useful purchases ;
- make our clothes last as long as possible (long live sewing!);
- give them a second life when they are no longer needed, by donating or recycling them: never throw clothes in the bin.


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