Inside The Factories Making Ethical + Sustainable Tshirts
Published: June 29, 2020Updated: June 29, 202011 min read
Last year I did a post about designing and shopping for the perfect white t-shirt. I jokingly called it my "White T-Shirt Contest". The goal of the post was not to tell you what to buy but, to educate you on how to shop so you could make more educated purchases yourself. Teach a person to fish, right? This year I am giving an update to the post and teaching what to look for when buying ethical fashion and sustainable tshirts. And, giving you the behind the seams scoop on what your fav brands factories are like.
This isn't just another one of those sustainable shopping guides, thrown together by an "influencer". All of the brands I am about to mention - I know their supply chains. I have never actually worked with any of these brands, but through my time spent in India, I have come across where they are making their products, and make a lot of my clients products in the same factories. So, here's the tea.
How To Shop For an Ethical and Sustainable Tshirt
Start With Quality
If you haven't already, check out the post from last year that walks you through the process of what to look for when shopping for quality. To me, when it comes to talking about ethical and sustainable fashion, the most important box to tick is quality. You can buy the most perfectly manufactured and conscious shirt, but if it falls apart after a few washes, or shrinks, or loses its color. Then, what's the point? It will just lead you to consume more.
Watch Out For Planned Obsolescence
Here's a secret. Most brands don't want their products to last. And, it's not just fast fashion, it's even sustainable ones. The term for this is planned obsolescence. Because, if their stuff really did last forever, they would go out of business with no new customers. Brands need you to come back to them season after season and make new purchases.
Apple and other tech companies are famous for this practice. When your phone or laptop gets old enough, apple will stop allowing you to make updates, essentially forcing you into buying a new product. But, usually by that time thanks to a carefully calculated product that is just good enough not to break all the time, but not good enough to last a long time, you probably already replaced it for a newer shinner model.
Again, shirt brands do this too.
That is why learning how to shop for quality is so important. Before you dive deep into a brand's supply chain, etc, you need to first make sure they are making a product that is actually worth buying.
If you still haven't clicked over to the short sleeve sustainable tshirt quality post. Here is a quick recap on what to look for when shopping for items that will last.
How To Check If Your Shirt Is Good Quality
Look At The Neck Fabric
You want a shirt with rib fabric here. Rib fabrics have more stretch and recovery, so your shirt won't stretch out at the neck when pulling it over your head.
Check The Body Fabric
The best type of knit fabric for t-shirts is something called interlock. This is a type of knit construction that is strong and will resist wear and tear.
What Fibers Are Used?
Look for long or luxury fibers like Supima. And, you all probably know my controversial opinion on polyester. A little polyester can add strength to your shirt (because poly is a stronger fiber than cotton) and make it last even longer. Look for no more than about 20% polyester.
Sustainable Tshirts vs ethical T-shirts
Everyone has a different opinion on the meaning of sustainable and ethical. In mainstream media, they are often confused and interchanged. For the sake of this article lets define them like this.
This will cover the materials that go into making a sustainable tshirt and their environmental impact.
What are the shirts made of? Cotton, hemp, polyester, rayon? Recycled materials? Here is a secret. There is no right answer to the "most sustainable fiber" every fiber has its own set of pros and cons.
Natural, comfortable, breathable durable.
Sometimes murky supply chain, often tied to unethical labor conditions, even 100% organic cotton is questionable.
Shopping for cotton? Here are a few tips:
Choose organic and certified fair trade whenever possible. This helps ensure living wages and good working conditions.
Natural, bio degradable, even more, durable than cotton.
Hemp takes time to break in (it can feel really stiff at first), and there is a lot of transportation in the supply chain (read greenhouse emissions), because many countries still ban growing the fiber. For example, in India, all hemp comes from China.
Shopping for hemp? Read This First:
Don't judge a book by its cover, these fibers take time to break in, but, trust me, they are worth it. And, as always organic clothing is always better than conventional
Did you know that rayon could actually biodegrade faster than cotton? And, is generally considered more sustainable than polyester.
Creating the fibers is a chemical-intensive process, that often leaves local areas polluted with carcinogenic toxins.
Tips When Shopping For Rayon
Choose closed-loop rayon systems like modal and Tencel that don't pollute local environments.
One of the pros of polyester is that it's great at wicking away moisture.
But, it's made of petroleum, and extremely slow, if not nearly impossible to biodegrade.
Tips When Shopping For Polyester
Choose recycled fibers. Or, try a blend of of fibers!
Dyes + Finishes
The chemicals that give your clothes color are some pretty toxic and made from harmful chemicals that have been known to cause cancer and other health issues. Here is one of my accounts from a dye house that I was in that I wrote about for VOX. While plant-based, natural, eco friendly dyes sound great, the problem is, they only create a small range of colors. And, those colors are generally not very colorfast. Meaning they will fade quickly over time.
If colors are important to you, search for brands that use azo-free and low toxin dyes. Also, try to research how brands neutralize or reuse their dye water. Basically you want to make sure they aren't dumping chemical colors into local water systems.
Style + Fit
Here's the thing. You could be buying the holy grail of sustainable t-shirts. But, if you don't like the way it looks, or it doesn't fit right, it's going to sit in the back of your closet, and then eventually end up in a landfill. Pretty wasteful if you ask me. You're better off buying something a little less "sustainable", and actually wearing and using it.
What Is The Factory Like?
Does the factory the shirt was made in have any eco-features? What do they do with their waste? How do they recycle and reuse water? Do they have solar panels on their roofs? What do they do with factory scraps?
Many factories these days collect fabric scarabs and have them made into paper hangtags, and other paper goods. I have also seen factories turn scraps into rugs.
What does their supply chain look like? Is the supply chain global? Or, is everything local?
This is an umbrella term for the labor involved in making an ethical tee.
What Are Ethically Made Labor Practices?
Are there fair labor practices in place? Ask brands what they pay their factory workers.
Don't Trust The I Made Your Clothes Campaigns
And, here is something I look for while visiting supply chains that might be harder for you - I like to interact with the workers. You can tell a lot by how people behave.
I once visited an "ethical" factory in Delhi. One day I plan to expose this girl because she is anything but ethical. She actually pays her workers 1/2 the legal rate of sewers through a loophole. The women she "saves" and hires are considered unskilled workers so she does not have to pay them sewers rates - she then goes on to sell the shirts she makes for 2x a normal factory claiming "empowerment". Does that sound "empowered" to you? Paying your workers 1/2 of what they would get in a typical factory? Then charging brands double, while pretending you are doing good deeds?
But, wait, there's more. When I visited she had this whole speech about how if you took any photos of the women you had to show them to them so it was a "mutual exchange". Sounded ok in theory. But, every time I would share a photo they were in, they were totally uninterested from looking up form their sewing machines. All they wanted to do was work.
What does that mean?
It means they were afraid to stop working.
Typically Indian's love, love, love to have their photos taken. And would welcome a break to socialize.
I dug a little more because I found the behavior odd. And found out the owner (who in case you didn't realize yet was a white suburban girl from the midwest) had them on a sliding payment plan.
She pitched the idea to me like this - they are rewarded when they do well, because she wanted to encourage hard work. BUT, what I heard (and most likely what the women in her factory felt) was they are punished when they don't work to her standards.
Unfortunately, there is no way for you as a customer to learn all of this unless you somehow get invited into brand's factories. That is why I guess you have to rely on people like me. On the ground and willing to share how it really is.
Time To Spill The Tea, These Companies I think Have Pretty Good Supply Chains Based On What I Have Personally Seen
Love, love, love people tree. And, for so many reasons. First of all, the factories that they produce in India are great. Secondly, they have been at this for a long time, like before sustainability was cool. I have watched them grow from selling at random cafes around Goa to being an internationally recognized brand.
Personally, I vibe a little more with their older styles. But, their new stuff is cute too. Here are a few of my favorite recent shirts from them. How cute is this cat shirt?
What I like. If you are unhappy with the fit of your order, pact offers a free size exchange or refund within the first 60 days. Fit is so important when it comes to clothing, and I give them props for focusing on this. So many brands get wrapped up in materials, and taking photoshoots of workers (more on that in a minute), they forget about the most important thing clothing should do, make the wearer feel good wearing it.
pact uses organic and fair trade certified cotton, and also uses low impact dyes. Which is great.
To be honest, the main image on their about us page of brown hands holding cotton is a little cringe-worthy for me - very much "my first trip to India meeting workers". And, as I scroll down I am equally unimpressed with their decision to use other stereotypical imagery (man in kurta squatting next to a bag of cotton, the dancing Indians in the promo video… ugh). But, I guess I can look past the tourist type marketing. What can you really expect from a white "bro" from Colorado that originally made his money in the granola business?
The good thing I can say, which is really the most important, is that I know their suppliers, and, they do check out.
pact has the product down. They are there with the sustainability component. But, I would love to learn more about how exactly they are helping their workers, and the communities their factories are in.
Here are some of my fave shirts from their collection.
Popular with the yoga set, and another brand where I personally know their factory in India. So, I can say they are doing the right thing.
Pro prAna shopping tip. They often do sales with Zulily, so never pay full price!
Another thing that I think is cool, I don't know if they still do this, but, they used to give discounts to yoga teachers.
These are some of my fav styles that are currently on sale. While a chose all basics to highlight here, PrAna is also great if you are in the market for some funky mandala prints, and loud pops of colors.
The founder of Outerknown is legendary surfer Kelly Slater. The internet has gone crazy for this brand.
This is the only brand on the list where I don't know their supply chain personally. But, I included them for a very important reason.
Here is what I like. They list their suppliers, and not in a cheezy Everlane way. And, here is something I like even more. They have a Chinese supplier listed. For some reason the sustainable fashion community has decided (largely because of the misinformation of influencers) that made in China is bad. And, made in India is good.
This is simply untrue.
I have been in both amazing and horrible factories in both countries. Made in is not an indicator of ethics. I am so happy to see that Outerknown is using its brand power to actively dismantle a long-standing prejudice that China can't make ethical or sustainable goods. Because guess what? They totally can.
While I have never been into any of their factories personally like the other brands on this list, I am keeping them on here because I like what they are doing.
Also, props to them for being able to tell their manufacturing story without it feeling exploitative.
The images of the factories they use are low quality, and to me (based on my decade of time working in factories) looks like real factory visits. These images were probably taken by a team member that was on the ground working, and just snapped a couple of pics. They arent a fancy exploitative photoshoot. To me, they are an accurate view of what the factory is really like. They are raw, and they are real.
For the longest time, I spent hours trying to take nice factory photos. And, what I learned is that, unless you are setting up a professional photoshoot with people posing and acting fake, it is nearly impossible to get a good image. For whatever reason, factory settings just don't lead to amazing photography.
(pact take note - this, is, how, you, do, it.)
Another O.G. in the sustainable fashion industry. Recently I posted about my feelings on Patagonia here.
What I kind of love, is that they recently went against the very market that made them famous. Forever Patagonia has been a staple in the wardrobes of off duty finance bros.
"While they have co-branded here in the past, the brand is really focused right now on only co-branding with a small collection of like-minded and brand-aligned areas; outdoor sports that are relevant to the gear we design, regenerative organic farming, and environmental activism,"
This is something that many small brands don't want to talk about. Sometimes you need to take business that you don't love, just to stay in business. But, as Patagonia has proven, that doesn't mean you always have to partner with those same people especially if they don't align with your values 100%.
As I look at brands going out of business like crazy these days, I can't help but think, maybe if they had practiced a little more flexibility, a little more go with the flow, they might have survived.
Patagonia favs here.
For Wholesale, Try Hea Now
A lot of brands that I work with use Grocery Apparel and Alternative Apparel for blanks, not me.
For blank t-shirts to customize and print on, I am more of a Hae Now fan. That is because they use Chetna certified organic cotton.
Did you know I spent a summer visiting remote cotton farms in India? Wow, do I have some crazy stories from that! But, that is all for another day. Some of the groups of farmers I visited were part of the Chetna collective.
One of the things I loved the most about Chetna, and the farmers they work with, is that they force their farmers to diversify their fields. All fields must grow a percentage of food crops.
Crop diversification is not only important from a biodiversity and soil health standpoint, but also for economic security. By growing food, if the cotton crop fails, and, now money can't be made selling the cotton, at least the village will not go hungry.
If you are looking to buy bulk blanks from crew necks to long sleeves, definitely check out Hae Now. And, as an added bonus their customer service is amazing.
More questions?! Ask them in the comments. What is your favorite ethical and sustainable tshirt brand?