Today, LOCAL is on everyone’s lips, on social networks, in the marketing campaigns of brands and distributors but also in so-called “greenwashing” campaigns.
But what does “local” mean and is it consistent for all sectors?
Local: the exact definition says “particular to a place, region, country”. It can also be said: “which comes from a nearby environment, usually the region, the country, or sometimes nearby countries or Europe”. In all cases, we are talking about being close to the cultivation or extraction of the raw materials.
To explain the concept, let’s make a comparison with the food sector, where Local makes sense.
For example, Belgium is a major apple producer, and apples can be stored for months (with the right method). However, the central purchasing offices of some supermarkets continue to import apples from South Africa and apple juice from Chile (for example). This has a huge and unnecessary negative ecological impact. The social impacts are also not negligible when we understand that some apple growers in Belgium have to export their apples to Russia (except when Putin puts an embargo on Europe in political negotiations) because they cannot find buyers locally.
When we understand or become aware of this, it is obvious that promoting local is THE SOLUTION for the FOOD SECTOR. Promoting the consumption of seasonal and local food, from our orchards, fields, farms, is essential for the survival of our farmers, in order to limit their indebtedness and allow them to live with dignity.
If local is the solution for the food sector, then is it the same for all sectors?
Sorry to disappoint you, the answer is NO. Since the merits of Local are mainly linked to the origin of the raw material, for other sectors it is on a case by case basis. It depends on the sectors and sometimes even on the ranges or products within a sector.
Let’s get back to our main topic!
Is it necessarily more ETHICAL to produce cotton linen or clothing (organic or not) in Belgium, France or Europe?
I am sorry to disappoint you again or to challenge your belief in this regard, but the answer is again NO. Well, not always, or not for everything. It is to be nuanced, and to become aware of it once again you have to take the time to understand and not focus on preconceived ideas inculcated by brands, social networks or by a certain press…
Raw materials and neo-colonialism
First of all, there is the question of the neo-colonialist attitude; is it normal in the 2020s to go and look for (not to say swindle, if we observe the sourcing practices of certain brands) a raw material in a developing country, trying to buy it as cheaply as possible, in order to import it raw (cotton bales) or semi-processed (yarn or fabric) to Europe to add value in clothing factories in our rich, developed countries?
Is this not what the ancestors did in Africa, Asia and South America by stealing or buying cotton, gold, minerals, diamonds, … By normalizing slavery, under the pretext of preaching the good word, by behaving as abominable human beings without scruples ready to spill blood and pain to enrich themselves, their families, their countries, their royalty, by developing on the backs of the countries of the South.
Do you think that today modern slavery, child exploitation, keeping poverty levels artificially low, and colonialism are totally different from the slavery of yesteryear or no longer exist? If you think so, you are mistaken, and our experiences and travels, both private and professional, have shown us the disastrous effects of neo-colonialism. However, we are not extremists in our ideas, and we do not say that it is always bad to import raw material from a southern country to transform it in a northern country, it all depends on the case by case and how it is done.
However, we do not support the claim that it is more ecological and ethical to produce cotton products (organic or conventional) in Europe, as this is a totally false belief if you understand all the different aspects of this production.
Then there is of course the question of the transformation of cotton into yarn, and then the manufacture of unbleached fabrics, dyeing, finishing and packaging (cutting, stitching, packaging), because yes, unlike other more direct sectors (cocoa, coffee, bananas, …) where traceability is simpler and more direct, the textile sector has this complexity of having an extremely long value chain with often many stages of production or intermediaries.
To be clear, it is not more ethical to claim MADE in France or MADE in Belgium, or MADE in Europe, if only the garment is made there. Most of the time, this shows ignorance and lack of control of all the production stages upstream. Ask French brands claiming to be “Made in France”, for example, where their cotton comes from, where the yarns are spun, where the materials are woven, and you will generally receive an evasive answer or the name of a very large region of the world such as :
- Why do you want to know that?
- or “it’s confidential information that I don’t know, I’ll have to find out”.
- or “in the Middle East…” to give an exotic name that makes you dream of a thousand and one nights, but which most of the time hides the word “Pakistan” which is a country that is scary because of terrorism, because of the bad press of the last 20 years, but which is nevertheless the biggest producer of linen fabrics in the world and supplies the majority of European brands, in conventional cotton anyway, because they still have very little organic cotton, even if there are small organic farming projects in development.
What is important is to question and challenge the brands on their traceability and transparency, we don’t ask them the names of the factories that they have to keep confidential for their competitors, but a professional and honest brand should never refuse to be transparent on the origin and the conditions of all the transformation and production stages.
Regarding the countries of production, or garment production, since this is what people seem to look at most, there are no good countries and bad countries. In every country in the world that produces textiles there are very good factories, good factories, average factories, bad factories and very bad factories. Whether in Asia, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India or Sri Lanka, whether in North Africa, Central America or Europe, the rule is the same. We have visited thousands of factories in our quarries in more than 25 countries around the world and we have seen everything.
In Europe too there are social problems and scandals, Romanian workers earning 182€ a month in the EU, Italian cities populated by Chinese who emigrated 30-40 years ago and work hard for 3€ an hour for luxury brands or Made in Italy clothes. In Portugal a sewing worker sometimes earns barely 400-450€ a month and still has to live with their parents at 55 with their children, as the salary no longer allows to pay the current rents.
In England, in the suburbs of London, there are sweatshops with paperless migrants. In Turkey, the use of Syrian migrants from humanitarian camps since the war has become a solution to avoid the increase in production costs with the inflation of the Turkish lira.
In the textile industry, Made in Europe, Made in France, Made in Belgium, Made in Italy, Made in UK, Made in Turkey … are unfortunately not a guarantee of quality and ethics. As already said, everywhere, there is good, average and bad. The only thing that counts is the experience of the brand’s staff, the willingness to know and control without turning a blind eye, the selection of the manufacturing factories, the traceability, and above all the transparency. All this is essential.
Now the second question, which is no less important than ethics: is it more ECOLOGICAL to produce bed linens or clothing in Belgium, France or Europe?
The answer is again NO… Because once again it depends, it depends on the products, the production stages, the raw materials, …
Let’s start with flax (linen)
If bed linen or clothing are made from linen, more than 80% of the fibres are grown in Europe. But most of the wet spinning mills have left Europe. So today more than 80% of linen and hemp fibres are spun in China. The majority of French linen, Norman linen, Belgian linen, Dutch linen, European linen (Poland and the Baltic States) have their fibres going to and from China. And yes you read correctly, so not just one trip like most textile products today, but a double return (go and back) trip. Flax and hemp are naturally environmentally friendly fibres that require no chemicals to grow, and rainwater is sufficient, but the ecological impact of spinning in China is astronomical and outweighs the benefits of growing it.
However, it is not possible to grow cotton in Europe (except only a small amount in Greece) because it requires a warm climate and weather conditions that are absent in our latitudes. Therefore, to wear clothes or sleep in cotton or organic cotton products, it is necessary to import either the cotton, the yarn, the fabrics or the finished products from the countries where cotton is grown.
If we produce bath linen (towels, wipes, etc.) these are terry fabric products, which have the particularity of being very bulky (swelling), and therefore take up almost as much space in a container as raw cotton and certainly more space than compact yarn bobbins
So producing cotton bath towels (organic or conventional) in Europe (leaving aside the paragraph on neo-colonialism above) makes sense because it will limit the carbon impact of import transport.
On the other hand, if we are talking about bed linen (e.g. organic cotton sheets) or compact clothing (e.g. t-shirts), the reality is very different from that described by some “greenwashing” marketing campaigns because, for example, the CO2 impact will be on average :
- 46-58% more to import a container of cotton than a container of finished sheets. (due to production waste from spinning, weaving, cutting and making up)
- 21-28% more to import a container of cotton yarn than a container of finished sheets. (due to production waste from weaving, cutting and making up)
- 13-18% more to import a container of cotton fabric rolls, than a container of finished sheets. (due to production waste from cutting and making up)
Going back to a classic case of a brand producing its cotton sheets in Portugal with imported cotton or yarn or fabric, well the carbon impact of importing the container of these raw materials will be the percentages listed above in addition to importing a finished product into a port in Northern Europe. On the other hand, in addition to this, you will have to add the carbon impact of road transport through Europe which is 3 to 4 times higher than the journey of a sea container from Asia to a port in Europe.
The carbon impact of transport is calculated in gr CO2/tonne/km travelled and on average is :
- 6.2g CO2/tonne/km for maritime transport
- 33g CO2/tonne/km for rail transport
- 90g CO2/tonne/km for road transport
- 704g CO2/tonne/km for air transport
We take the example of Pakistani fabric coming to Portugal:
- Sea transport Karachi-Porto: 10791km x 6,2gr = 66905gr + 1900Km road transport Porto-Antwerp x90gr = 171000gr = 237905gr.
- Compared to a sea transport from India to the Port of Antwerp: 11882Km x 6,2€ = 73671gr.
- So 237905gr divided by 73671gr = a 3.22x higher carbon impact of producing in Portugal with Pakistani fabric than producing a finished product in India and importing it directly to Europe, not to mention the additional percentages of transport of manufacturing waste to import raw cotton, yarn or fabric.
With figures to back it up, here is why it is not more ecological to make cotton products locally, contrary to what the greenwashing champion brands or those who simply lack experience in the textile sector would have you believe.
So you would be right to challenge this calculation by saying that it depends on the factories, that it depends on the batches, that it depends on the origin of the cotton in relation to the origin of the yarn and fabric, etc… This is quite true, but it is always more polluting to produce locally a product made with a raw material imported from far away.
In the ideal of unicorn countries, we should only consume local products with local raw materials (and therefore not like 80% of flax-linen and hemp that have to go to China to be spin and back before being manufactured locally).
For the purists, there is also the choice of not dressing up and living naked on the bank of a river while sleeping on the ground in a hut… 😉
In conclusion, a little reminder about TRANSPARENCY and TRACEABILITY, which are our dadas as you know
What matters is to know, understand and master, to make LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) calculations so that each brand can do its Duty of Care according to the reality of its operations and be able to communicate on it.
We can produce in many places in the world, and it is up to each brand to be able to prove that its choices are not only economic, but also take into account the social and environmental impacts. All the rest is “greenwashing”, Made in France, Made in Italy, Made in UK, … it means nothing if there is no transparency on all the previous steps.
We hope that you will see more clearly with these explanations (a little long admittedly), but necessary to be as complete as possible.