In a sprawling industrial facility a few miles outside of Łódź, Poland, sheets of wet wool are being pressed through giant mechanical rollers. Deeper into the maze, past bales of raw wool piled to the ceiling and machines processing snake-like tubes of fluff, the wool emerges through lightning-fast machines as finished yarns. The noise is deafening, even through the industrial-strength earplugs workers and visitors are required to wear.
The next day in Biella, northern Italy, it’s a similar story – ear-splitting volume, and machinery as far as the eye can see. Robotic machines are dying wool in canisters, weaving them into rolls of fabric. Both of these facilities are owned and operated by Tollegno, an Italian wool mill that’s been in business since 1900. Tollegno’s team of textile engineers have worked their entire professional lives with this most delicate of materials, expertly teasing out consistency and quality from a natural resource that fluctuates year by year, batch by batch.
We’re here to see how knitwear is made. Or, more precisely, we’re witnessing two steps of the long, globetrotting journey that merino wool takes. Swedish label ASKET – which has made transparent, publicly-available production information a core part of its business – has invited Highsnobiety to take a look inside its supply chain, as merino wool is transformed from raw material to finished product (a trip that ASKET paid for, we should disclose).
Clothing production is a murky business. Supply chains are long, complex, and fragmented. Highly specialized facilities scattered across the globe take care of different steps of production, before sending it on to the next. Each of these steps is run by different facilities, often by different companies, who are acting as middlemen – they have no direct relationship to either the raw material or the finished product. It’s like a giant game of Chinese whispers, between enormous facilities filled with advanced machinery and human expertise.
The smoke and mirrors of globalized supply chains are a huge hurdle for the fashion industry, which is, clearly, in dire need of change. It feels almost redundant to mention the countless reports and articles out there, documenting the colossal environmental impact of clothing production, but still – progress is slow. That’s because fashion brands are giant, lumbering beasts, which have been making clothes in the same way for decades. If they’re silent on where their clothes are coming from, it’s often because they don’t even know themselves; they’re just dealing with suppliers, who are in turn dealing with their suppliers, and so on, until you get all the way back to the raw material. That distance can actually be convenient for brands who are reluctant to change their ways. When every step is being handled by someone else, it’s easy for the guys at the top to pass the buck.
“The complexity of brands’ supply chains are often unknown to them,” explains Dio Kurazawa, whose company The Bear Scouts helps brands pivot towards more responsible production. “Many have a very distant relationship with their makers.”
“For too long, the industry has been allowed to grow supply chains that are so obscure and convoluted, they are impossible to untangle,” adds Tamsin Blanchard, Special Projects Curator at Fashion Revolution. “When something goes wrong, it can be too easy to pass the blame or shrug off responsibility.”
But there’s a new generation of labels who are seeing opportunities in this tangled mess. In the face of growing skepticism at fashion’s impact on the planet – and consumerism as a whole – labels are seeing the business potential of honesty and transparency. If you tell the world where your products are coming from, how they’re made, and why they cost what they cost, then you’ll build a solid relationship with the growing demographic of conscious consumers – so the thinking goes. That’s certainly where ASKET is coming from.
“We want to explain to our customers what it means to make great clothing,” explains the brand’s co-founder, August Bard Bringéus. The ASKET website offers a comprehensive traceability program, explaining how far back the brand is able to track certain products – for example, merino wool pieces can be traced all the way back to the source, while they’re not yet able to figure out where the elastane used in their boxer shorts is coming from. The website also gives explainers on the pricing structure behind its pieces; the fabric for one of ASKET’s knits, for example, costs €10, labor €17, and transport €2. “We do this because we want to be accountable for our supply chain, we want to be proud of our products, and we want to show the entire journey,” Bringéus adds.
Transparency is a big commitment for a brand, requiring regular audits and inspections throughout the supply chain, collaboration with suppliers, time, and manpower – and therefore money. Unsurprisingly, it’s a pretty niche concept right now, but it’s catching on. “It takes time to assess and to uncover all corners of your supply chain,” explains Rune Orloff, a sustainability strategy consultant. “Plus, it’s not really sales progressive, meaning it’s nothing you can connect directly to growth.”
On Noah’s blog, you’ll find insight into how American tariffs and Canadian wage increases have affected the brand’s prices. American label Everlane has catapulted itself into the fashion spotlight with what it calls “radical transparency,” while browsing through the Nudie Jeans webshop will bring up a production map showing the factories it works with, right down to their real-world addresses. On the Patagonia website, you’ll find the suppliers and factories listed underneath product descriptions, with blog posts explaining the difference between minimum wages and living wages, and the ins and outs of sourcing feather down. You can even download a list of its suppliers as a spreadsheet. Even H&M, the fast-fashion bogeyman, has an enormous, publicly-viewable database documenting its first-tier suppliers (such as the ones turning fabrics into clothes).
“Brands that truly show the transparency of their supply chain are not afraid of other brands copying them, not afraid of being called greenwashers, and certainly not afraid of making mistakes,” explains Jordan Nodarse, whose label Boyish Jeans proudly details its manufacturing processes online. “Transparency is a tool that should strengthen your brand.”
In ASKET’s case, tracing their merino wool required them to go all the way back to Australia, to buy wool directly from a sheep farmer. That’s because wool is often sold at auction, where it’s blended with different batches, making it untraceable. The label bought 4,300kg of wool, enough for 15,000 garments, which is a pretty big gamble for a fledgling brand. ASKET’s production team then took the wool through every step of the supply chain themselves, rather than buying it directly from a mill, who would, in turn, have bought it from auction. After it was sheared in Australia, the raw wool was then cleaned in the Czech Republic, spun into yarn in Poland, knitted into panels in Italy, and linked into finished products in Tunisia. “Our belief is that when you better understand the material, the complexity and the craftsmanship involved, you’ll understand the inherent value in it and respect it more, ultimately moderating our pace of consumption,” explains Bringéus.
However, opening up to the public about sourcing and production doesn’t answer any of the more difficult questions facing the industry. The process of clothing production is inherently harmful – extracting and processing raw materials, dying fabrics, and transporting them around the world all leave a negative imprint on the environment. Providing consumers with an honest view on what goes into the process of making clothes is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but it does nothing to directly reduce fashion’s enormous global footprint.
“Transparency alone is not enough to fix the industry’s problems, but it is a necessary first step towards wider systemic change,” explains Blanchard. “It is impossible for companies to make sure human rights are respected, working conditions are adequate, and the environment is safeguarded, without knowing where their products are made. That’s why transparency is essential.”
There’s also the issue of supplier confidentiality. Many of the labels mentioned here choose not to disclose the actual names of the factories they work with. As The Fashion Law pointed out, H&M is actually more transparent than Everlane in this regard, despite the latter’s “radical transparency” marketing pitch. ASKET has taken a similar stance – the brand lists the number of employees, average salary, working hours, and location of its suppliers, but not their actual names. “We're still a small fish in a big shark tank, and relative to our size, we invest disproportionately in finding and screening our manufacturing partners and often work with custom-developed fabrics,” explains Bringéus. “It's not the right time to openly share that type of information quite yet.”
Fashion is in dire need of change, and transparency is just one part of this archaic, slumbering industry that is ripe for transformation. The issue of corporate responsibility isn’t going to go away – it’ll only become more important as the forest fires rage and the ice caps melt. “Trust will be an important word for brands in the future,” explains Orloff. “Too many brands throw around tricky words like conscious, sustainable, impact neutral, green, and so on. Certified proof of action will inevitably become the norm.” And while the future of the fashion industry doesn’t look great, what’s clear is that the old way of doing things doesn’t cut it anymore.