7 Steps of Apparel Lifecycle

And How You Can Help!

In modern society, we eat food which we haven’t cleaned or prepared. We drink beverages we haven’t distilled or brewed. And, we wear clothing we haven’t woven or stitched. The amount of hands-on experience we have in creating our own goods is vastly different than it was 100 years ago. We have become hazardously bad at reusing and re-purposing. In today’s economy, that leads to waste in the form of water, raw materials, fossil fuels and various harmful byproducts that are created in the manufacturing processes of many items. In this article we will delve into the 7 steps a piece of apparel goes through during its life-cycle. In understanding these steps, we can do more to perpetuate sustainability efforts and to mitigate the negative effects of production.

Step 1: Raw Materials


Cotton is an excellent clothing source and has been used by humans for thousands of years. Did you know that it can take up to 5,000 gallons of water to create a T-shirt and pair of jeans? 2.4% of the world’s crop share is cotton, but 10 percent of all agri-chemicals and 25% of insecticides are used to grow it. Synthetic fibers are less water intensive but still add to ocean pollution when they aren’t recycled properly. Poor irrigation practices have affected regions all over the world and even changed overall climate in some areas.

Textile Manufacture: Bleaching and Dyeing

It seems pretty simple when you think about it; natural or man-made fibers must be bleached to make it white and then dyed if it needs to be another color. The chemicals produced during these processes include but are not limited to lead, mercury, arsenic, lye and nonylphenol (an endocrine disruptor). With proper disposal of waste, the risks to the environment can be greatly reduced. Our best solution for defeating these environmental concerns is to turn these plastics into recycled fabric. These practices use 50% less energy to produce comparable amounts of cloth. More time and energy must be invested in these efforts; Such processes are currently done by hand. And, that includes cleaning plastic bottles before shipping them to countries where labor is cheaper.

Clothing Construction: Labor Issues

People are aware, hopefully, that the goods we consume are often made by people in sub-par conditions. That said, officials are not finding the same level of egregious human rights violations as in the past, but they are finding widespread minimum wage, overtime and record keeping violations to be rampant within factories. The wages given to employees, throughout the developing world, are minuscule compared to profits.

Shipping: Human Error and Pollution

At every level of clothing production there is a phenomenal infrastructure burden as it makes it’s journey to your closet. Clothing produced in Asia moves on trucks as it makes it’s way from being grown to processed. It then makes a journey across the ocean in shipping containers. Thousands of tons of goods are shipped this way every day. Once it hits our shores, it makes it’s way by truck or train to the wide array of companies that outsource their goods production. Billions of gallons of oil are used to complete these journeys. Accidents involving trucks and even container ships cause catastrophic contingencies for innocent marine life, flora and fauna. The shipping industry is looking at big changes on the horizon in the form of self driving trucks. Hopefully such an evolution will make shipping more efficient while reducing the risk of dangerous accidents on the road. The ability of these trucks to drive without stopping and to drive less aggressively to meet their time goals will be a big step in the right direction.

Retail Packaging: The Art of the Box

Retail packaging comes in a wide variety of sizes and styles. These days, in-store purchases are rarely boxed and when they are, gift boxes are re-used by the consumer. For online retailers, shipping in recycled corrugated boxes or poly-bags reduce environmental impact for the former and shipping weight for the latter. These options do have other impacts; printing, labels, tape, and packing materials all add to the cost of the clothing piece and its environmental impact. By using water based inks, environmentally friendly shipping materials, and recycled cardboard, companies can reduce their carbon footprint.

Fast Fashion and Customer Care

We live in a time when information travels quickly and the next Snap or Instagram story could create an immediate fashion stir. With the ability of factories and brands to identify these trends in real time, some stores are able to come to market with new items in as little as 7 days. This has changed the timeline of a “season” from what used to be months, to a week to week turnover. This means more clothing is being produced at a lower quality. This problem is compounded by the fact that many people wash their clothing at too high a temperature and on a dryer cycle that significantly adds to our individual carbon footprint. It is estimated that 50 percent of a clothing items overall carbon footprint is generated after production. By washing clothes at a cooler temperature, drying them with little to no heat, and ironing less where possible; we can, as individuals, lessen our carbon footprint and that of our wardrobe.

Garment Disposal and Recycling

On average, American’s discard 82 lbs of textiles per year. They also purchase 400% more per year than 20 years ago. These numbers are directly related to fast fashion and the cheaper made materials of which they are comprised. Recycling efforts are effective when clothing is properly disposed-of but as much as 85% of raw textiles end up in landfills. Retail, Re-sale, and Repurposing efforts must be intensified and consumers must become more informed about proper disposal practices.