Taking a step behind the label. What the labels tell us (and what they don’t).

If you are reading this, the chances are you care about the impact that you have on the world around you. In a recent study by ThredUp, nearly 2 IN 3 consumers admitted they believe their individual consumption habits have a significant impact on the planet. 

But what can we as consumers do about this? And how can we navigate the complicated task of understanding just what the impact of our clothing consumption might be? Unfortunately, in this same study, 37% of consumers think many of the claims made by brands about sustainable fashion feel like greenwashing.

One of the fastest ways to understand the sustainability impact of a garment is to look at the label. But the problem with looking at the labels for our clothing, is the labels don’t actually tell you a great deal about what is actually in your clothes.  

Whilst the food industry has had enormous change and visibility in recent years, thanks to campaigns and regulations, the fashion industry is still catching up to the transparency and traceability it needs to give visibility to consumers on just exactly what goes into making the clothing that they wear.

Ok, so there are certain key things you can understand from looking at the label. You might read the materials within the product. Perhaps it is a polyester cotton blend or an acrylic fibre. Of course, there are also the care instructions: how to wash your outfit to make it last longer and look its best. And yes too, there is the part of the label that will tell you where it is made. 

But what exactly isn’t written on the care labels that really ought to be there? And how can you discern the good items from the environmentally harmful ones?

In this article we walk through some of the key things to understand behind the clothes you wear, and why this matters.


Who made my clothing?

Take the timeless, simple white t-shirt. Even though it might seem simple at first glance, it is actually a pretty complex item. The sleeves, for instance? Someone sewed that. Or the collar, also? Someone else worked that seam. 

In fact, it is estimated that any one item within your closet may have upwards of 50-100 steps along its journey to reach you. From the farmer who picked the cotton, to the factory that made the zips, buttons or thread, to the dyehouse and the stitching. Every stage of the process has its own part to play. And every item you own has countless hands that it has passed between to become the final product. 

Yes, you might be able to read where it was made on the label. But this only ever tells you the final stage in the process. You will not read about the many hands that made it, the factors at play within its route to reach you, the conditions in the factory, or how the livelihoods of the people who made the garment were supported with good wages and safe working conditions. It would be a very long label if so. 

So what can you do about it? Message your favourite brand and ask them. 

What went into making my clothing?

Like with fast food, when, there is a reason something tastes so good (trust us you don’t want to know the ingredients), most fashion is the same. 

For something to be created from a raw material into the beautiful piece of clothing you see in front of you, a lot of steps need to take place. Ok, you might be able to read the raw materials within the garment. But how did those raw materials become the item that you are holding in your hands? 

There is a complex set of chemicals used to treat and manufacture clothing, to refine the fibres, process, dye and finish an item before it reaches you. Not all of these processes are very good for you or the people who made it. 

So how can we find out what this information might be? 

The problem is that a lot of this information is still not known or available to tell. Despite big brands making moves to disclose their supply chains, the highly opaque and diverse nature of supply chains, mean that it can be incredibly difficult to trace this information altogether. Even though many brands make moves to show that they are tracing these products, many still do not know. 

And, friends, this is a huge problem. 

The solution

Even though consumers are increasingly demanding that brands show more transparency, there is still no unified system in place to easily explain the sustainability credentials of garments.

The good news is there are innovations coming into play all the time that are challenging traceability and transparency in fashion. 

Take one of our favourite brands [NEED BRAND NAME], who have developed a system where you can scan the label and see this process. By using technology to showcase the story that the garment was created, a connection is made between consumer and maker. 

Equally, as a general rule of thumb, if you are shopping with a smaller, sustainable conscious brands, the chances are they will have taken steps to trace this. 

NB - this is not a given. Make sure you ask them!

At Comhla we have curated a range of brands that produce their products using responsible sourcing practices and materials. Our mission is to make it easier for shoppers to care about the world and get dressed. We bring together fashion brands and businesses under three key categories of Buy Well, Mend and Extend. We create an inspirational place for shoppers to connect with them. And we support the businesses themselves on their sustainability journeys.

What can you do to make a difference?

  1. Shop responsibly, try to choose smaller sustainable brands that know their supply chain and ask diligent questions.
  2. Check out the brand’s website – are there any details on how the product was made and where? 
  3. Look out for sustainability credentials. A great way to understand the sustainability of a product is to know if the product has been certified. 
  4. Ask the brand directly – get to social or reach out by email to show the brand that you care. Every question will represent a voice that will show the brand that these aspects of your purchase are important.