Where Does Your T-Shirt Come From? Follow Its Global Journey

Includes interactive visualization (Prezi)

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A simple cotton T-shirt doesn’t seem quite so simple when you try to trace the vast global process involved in making it.

The extraordinary success of fast fashion giants like H&M, Zana and Forever 21 lies squarely in the ability to produce a massive amount of clothing – billions of garments a year – in the cheapest, quickest way possible. It seems pretty counterintuitive that the least expensive way to make a shirt is to buy cotton grown in Texas, mill and dye it in China, manufacture it in Bangladesh, and then ship it half a world away to an H&M or Gap store in San Francisco.  But when you factor in the dramatically lower labor and material costs offered by suppliers in developing countries, this kind of global supply chain model begins to make more sense.

In fact, the “Made In …” label on your shirt, actually only reveals a fraction of the many places involved in the process.

The visualization above takes you through the process – from cotton field to store – of how an average cotton T-shirt is made.  This is, of course, a hypothetical example based on the locales of the world’s top cotton and garment producers. It’s nearly impossible to trace the exact path of any given T-shirt. The cotton could just as likely have been grown in India or Turkey, milled in Pakistan or Mexico, and sewn in El Salvador or South Africa.  But the route below traces a pretty common path.

mapMost major retailers are secretive about who their suppliers are. And many brands have little or no connection with second-tier suppliers (who provide the raw materials). Gap, for instance, only gives a list of the nearly 50 countries where its primary suppliers are located. H&M is among the more transparent retail giants: – it recently released a list of names and locations of what it claims is 95 percent of the suppliers it contracts with – about 800 factories in Asia and Europe.

The map above, produced by the International Business Times, identifies the world’s largest apparel exporting countries. Click on the image to view the interactive version, as well as an interactive map of H&M’s listed suppliers.

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