Fashion and petrol: a love story – Transport – How far our clothes have travelled?

Fashion and petrol: a love story – Transport – How far our clothes have travelled?
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We all know that we heavily rely on hydrocarbons for our transportation needs. Passenger and freight transport all contribute to climate change by their gas emissions. In fact, transport is the third most important source of greenhouse gas emission.

But how do our clothes contribute to greenhouse gas emission via transport?  Made in China, Made in Bangladesh, Made in Vietnam…. We all know our clothes have travelled before we get them, but how much?

Well, without doing a comprehensive investigation about where our clothes are from (that would be really great thought) , I thought I would investigate the “statistical pants”. What does that mean? Well, by deconstructing a pair of pants and following its trace around the  world via its most statistical likely provenance and trowing some fun facts in the mix, we can have a better grasp of the footprint of our “real” pants.

So lets keep tab of our kilometres on the way and go for a world trip.

Despite some Made in Bangladesh tags being more common, Made in China is still king in the garment export world. With a market share of 38.6%, chances are, our “statistical pants” proudly wears a Made in China tag.

But where in China was it made. After all, China is a big country. Chances are it was made in one of the five provinces that produce 70 percent of China’s clothing. Those provinces are :  Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong in the eastern coastal area.

Of those, Guangdong has the largest economy, so lets start here.

If we keep narrowing things down, we have the town of Humen in Dongguan which is known for its ladies fashion.

First dot on the map and behind the “made in China” is “Made in Humen”

But to make a pair of pants, you need: fabric, tread , button, zipper, needle, scissors, pattern and at least one human being.

Let’s start with the fabric.  The most widely used fabric is cotton. China is one of the biggest cotton producer in the world. However, in 2016/2017, India took over China as the biggest producer.

To feed the factories of China,  Chinese cotton is used but increasingly cotton is imported in large quantities. In fact, China it is the country that imports the most cotton in dollar value.

But where does it import it from? Most likely, India or the United States. In fact China is the biggest buyer of raw cotton in both the United States and India.

As India is the largest producer, chances are the raw cotton comes from India.

Behind “Made in Humen”, there is “Made in India.” In fact,the state of Gujarat has the produces the most cotton. Bharuch, Vadodra, Panchmahal, Mehsana, Ahmedabad and Surendemagar are the most likely sources of cotton.

A likely route would be for the cotton to be loaded at Ahmedabad and sent Mumbai via road and the from Mumbai sea port to Guangdong in China. The voyage would take about 20 days at sea and across approximately 7370 km. This does not include travelling between the cotton field to Ahmedabad and Ahmedabad to Mumbai which would be at least 500 km.

So, our statistical pair of pants does not resemble in any way, shape or form to a pair of pants and it has already travelled 7870km.

Once arrived in Guangdong, the raw cotton would need to be ginned, spinned and weaved.

Chances are that our “statistical pair of pants” is more a blend of cotton than 100% cotton. As we have previously looked at, polyester, or any of its synthetic cousin, is made out of hydrocarbons.  The question is then raised, where those China gets its hydrocarbon from.

China produces some oil but overall, it is a net importer, meaning that it imports more than what it produces. Russia, Saudi Arabia and Angola are the main source of hydrocarbons for China.

West Siberia and the Urals-Volga region in Russia are the most likely source of hydrocarbons in Russia. Of those two regions, Siberia produces the most.

Accordingly, the main material used to make the polyester in our “statistical pair of pants” is likely form this region and thus could also wear a “Made in Siberia” tag and have travelled 4320 km to Guangdong. 

Just keeping km tabs here: 12 190 km.

If we consider only the textile, we already have, “Made in Gujarat” , “Made in Siberia”, and “Made in Humen”. But wait, there is more.  What about the buttons and the zipper?

Where are buttons made?

Once again, most buttons are made of plastic by mixing dyes and liquid polyester. 

As we know plastic and polyester are siblings and made out of hydrocarbons. So we are back to Siberia to get some oil. Then we go to Qiaotou (Yongjia) China. In fact, 60% of the worldwide button production comes from this town.

Well, let’s bring those buttons to Guangdong. That will be 1119 km. Thank you.

Km tab check: 13 309 km

Let’s move on to the zippers…..  If you are wearing clothes with some kind of zippers on you,  have a look at the letters on it….. Does it say YKK? Probably…..  Although, YKK have factories all over the world, including Shanghai, YKK is a Japanese company which, although now struggling to compete with its Chinese competition still maintains its fair part of the zipper market, mostly in the middle and upper fashion market. You can read more here

Let’s then stop by Shanghai to get some zippers then! And do not forget to add to the km tab: 1405 (Shangai to Guangdong). Current total 14714 km.

There are few elements to a zipper: the tape and teeth (or stringer), A tab that slides, a stop preventing the tab to go out of its chain and a  box and pin to open the zipper.

The tape is usually made out of polyester –  So once again, we need to go back to Siberia…..  

Brass is a common metal used for all the other bits which is an alloy made of copper and zinc. The biggest producer of copper is Chile and the biggest producer of zinc is Australia.

The two need to be smelted together and where else than China, the smelting capital of the world.

From Chile and Australia and Russia, then to china, but thanks to Japan, we finally have a zipper. That will be 18,544 km (Chile to Guangdong) and 5,820 (Australia to Guangdong). Total : 39 078 km. Oh dear!

But finally, we are back to Humen…… But we still need to package everything in plastic bags which as we know by now likely originates from the oil rigs of Siberia.

 And off it goes, shipped from Guangdong to Sydney ( add an other 7,492 km)  where it is dispatched via land wherever your shop is.   

Our statistical pair of pants has travelled approximately 46570 km. That is be a bit further than an earth to moon trip or the circumference of the earth.


From India, China, Russia, Australia and Chile, our statistical pair of pants has travelled more than many of us, Yet, it only gets one stamp on its passport: “Made in China”.  And that is quite a frustrating bit for consumers. We do not really know where our clothes come from or their true ecological footprint.

Unless we all plan on making your own clothes from scratch and grow cotton in our yards, we will likely continue to buy from overseas which is reliant on our dependency on hydrocarbon.  Developing trucks, boats and airplanes that uses alternative fuel sources would be one good thing but unfortunately, it is a bit out of every consumers hands. For now lobbying for those alternative fuel sources is one of the best avenue for changing the transport industry or labelling practices.

What we can do is to keep our clothes for as long as we can, buy quality clothes that will last and that we will continue to wear through the years. Looking at buying third party certification for organic and low impact practices also reduces the uses of hydrocarbons.

Now, back to our own suitcase. How about visiting as many countries as your clothes do?

Until next time, travel safe and don’t forget to think about what you put in your suitcase.