My first visit to a garment factory

I have been talking about sustainability in the fashion industry for what feels like a long time, but I felt I needed to see the root of the issues for myself. Finally, the opportunity came along when I had the chance to visit a garment factory in India. The experience left me feeling more inspired than ever on my journey towards finding solutions for a more sustainable fashion industry.

I set myself the goal of travelling the same journey as my clothing had travelled. I wanted to visit the places where my clothing was made & meet the people who helped to make them. I  felt this was the only way I could really understand the issues involved during the journey our clothing takes to get to our wardrobes.

So I took a pair of black trousers from my wardrobe, which I had recently bought from H&M in Oxford Street, London. I realised they were ‘Made in India’.

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India is key to the future of the fashion industry. Firstly, historically and to this current day, it is a key location for the textile industry & garment manufacture. It has the second largest population in the world: Indians aren’t just employed in the garment industry, but are going to be a very important market for fashion brands. Due to India’s current pace of economic development, within a global background of climate change, sustainability in the fashion industry is going to be very much influenced by what happens in this country. So I decided I needed to make a trip to India.

The Indian Government had been promoting two campaigns, ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’. Make in India aims to encourage international companies (eg Fashion) to manufacture in India, whilst Digital India considers technology access of the Indian population. During my talk at Interlaced earlier this year, I spoke about how sustainable fashion and technology need to work together to tackle sustainability at the speed needed. I was accepted to join a trip to coincide with Digital India with The British Council led by Indogenius, along with 30 other entrepreneurial students.

Before beginning my trip to India, I browsed H&M’s supplier list, which anyone can access via their website, and discovered a number of factories located in India.

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My journey began in Mumbai, where I happened to meet just the right person. After sharing our mutual passions for sustainability in the fashion industry, they introduced me to a social compliance officer. They then agreed to meet me in Bangalore, to discuss their work assuring social compliance within garment factories (this includes ensuring standards for working conditions inside the factory are met).

Location: Bangalore (Bengaluru), Karnataka, India. 

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I jumped in a taxi, and headed towards the Western outskirts of Bangalore city to where we had arranged to meet. The journey from the city centre lasted longer than expected, and as I had discovered in India, you don’t need to travel far to feel like you’ve landed in a completely different culture. From the tech. city landscape of half an hour ago, I was now in a village setting with twisting roads. I began to notice large looming buildings, with signs telling me they were manufacturing sites, many featuring the word ‘textiles’. Soon enough, the driver told me we had reached our destination.

Entering the building I passed through security and realised I was inside a factory compound. I sat and waited in a black marbled reception area. Soon enough I was greeted by the face I had hoped to meet, and we continued to an office room. We discussed the social compliance issues when it comes to quality checking factories in India, and considered how my own entrepreneurial ideas would make realistic sense. I was told we were actually sitting underneath a garment factory, and there was another surrounding us in the same compound. My curiosity just had to make me ask to see it for myself!

Before entering the garment factory, these were my pre-conceptions: there would be a lot of women sewing clothing, in cramped conditions, it would be hot, it would smell.

The reality: women sewing clothing was only a part of it.

First, textiles that arrived in the factory were washed in large industrial machines operated by men. In this factory, they were encouraged to wash in the most efficient way possible to reduce water usage (Take note, this factory was ranked quite highly in terms of social compliance). Next, this huge amount of textiles were dried and treated.

We took the stairs to the next level of the factory, where the materials were taken to be cut. A laser-cutting machine had been programmed to accurately cut the material to size.

Men and women laid stencils of shapes over the fabrics, which would make up clothing when sewn together. This allowed them to check the best layout of the shapes to reduce material wastage. I noticed the lines marked out on the floor, directing workers to areas around machines which were safe to be standing in.

I will never forget the moment I reached the top of the stairs to the next level of the factory. Rows and rows of sewing machines and people were all I could see. Each person in a row represented a particular stage of the sewing process, for example sewing on a collar or a button. As the garment was passed on to the next person in the row, gradually shapes of material became a complete garment. I watched in amazement at some of the talented women completing their tasks at super speeds. I tried to understand their stories, yet felt embarrassed that I didn’t know quite what to say to them as an observer not working as hard as them. I wish I could have spoken their language.

At the end of each row a woman was stood up, checking every garment thoroughly for quality control. The factory manager spotted me, and hurried over, recognising how out of place I was. He had a huge smile, and shook my hand, asking for my own story. He asked me to try on one of the shirts they had just finished, I hesitated, but put it over what I was wearing. I think everybody had a laugh. However the seriousness of the social & environmental issues surrounding me remained in my mind. I took the shirt off, and remembered I was wearing my black trousers. Those same black trousers from H&M, which were bought in London, and Made In India (Although I don’t know if in the same factory). This is a photo of me wearing those same trousers in the factory in India:

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So how did I feel after my first visit to a garment factory?

Initially, I felt proud, that I had actually travelled this far to learn more about where my clothing really comes from. I felt even more motivated than ever before, to continue on my mission to exploring the sustainability issues of the fashion industry. I was inspired by the hard working attitude of the factory workers. I was also surprised by the number of people and processes involved. Our clothing and the people who make our clothing have amazing stories to tell, and I want to hear more!

So I decided this is just Part One of my story following the same journey as my clothing. I want to go further back, and actually meet the people who made the textiles and materials which went into constructing my trousers. To continue my journey I need to find a way to visit South America, where a variety of textiles are produced.

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