In March 2016, I was lucky to get to visit a textile factory in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. Since then I have learnt a lot about the water and soil pollution from textile dyeing units, and a lot more about sustainable vs fast fashion. I am personally an advocate for buying less and reusing more, and during my fleeting visit I did not have the opportunity to ask questions about pollution and proper waste treatment.
It was however a wonderful peek into the textile export industry that has put Indian produce on the global map, and this is a gist of that experience.
“Madam, please give me 5 star rating on the app” says the taxi driver as I jostle about getting my bags onto the over-crowded railway station entrance. “Sure, sure” I mumble half asleep. The strong smell of raw fish jolts my senses out of lethargy and I elbow my way through the human soup to the early morning Shatabdi taking me to Coimbatore. My mission is to see textile factories in the humble town of Tirupur, and I am armed with a million questions. Little do I know I am about to get a lesson in globalisation, international trade, and government policies.
From Coimbatore, we cruise down the National Highway for the hour long drive to the heart of knitwear factories. I expect to see fashionable winter sweaters, but am soon proven terribly wrong. The owner of the export factory explains to us that T-shirts are also “knit” as opposed to being woven with wefts and warps (as bedsheets and sarees are).
His factory purchases yarn from suppliers around India (mostly Gujarat) and processes them two ways. “Solids” where the white yarn is knit into fabric and then dyed, and “Yarn Dye” where the raw yarn is dyed first, and then knit with other colours to produce texture and patterns on the textile. Printing and embellishment (like laces, buttons, glitter) come later.
We then head to the dyeing factory trudging through dust tracks and barren land. “Is this land not fertile enough for any kind of agriculture?” The driver explains that most local residents prefer to work in textile factories for better pay and limited work hours, and so the land just lies idle.
But there has also been a lot of talk about the industrial effluents affecting agricultural land in Tirupur.
The fabric is dyed in massive machines that are imported from Germany, to make clothes that are often exported to… Germany. The owner explains that these machines are time efficient and minimise water usage as well.
The dyed fabric then gets transported to the tailoring unit, where it’s cut, printed/embellished and sewed to the brand’s standard designs and measurements. After that they are packaged, complete with price tags in international currency, and ready to be shipped.
Some of the clothes we see are being made for Carrera (Italy), Heritage Cross (USA), Coles (Australia), Kik Clothing (Germany), DKNY (USA), Tommy Hilfiger (USA), Triumph Motorcycles (UK), Avella (Australia), and Disney (Paris).
I follow a factory worker around, sneakily taking pictures of the manual screen-printing process. He’s tired from having already printed his share of soccer T-shirts, but is happy to demonstrate once more.
How strict is the QC process?
Brand specifications are strictly enforced, right down to colour, yarn, GSM, print quality, tailoring measurements, finish, and packaging. Only 5% variation is acceptable, and anything that doesn’t adhere to these criteria is rejected and goes to the local factory reject outlets (after all branding has been removed and not before the style is introduced in the international market).
The owner tells us that the demand fluctuates quite a bit. Orders from Europe have been down by a whopping 70% over the last year, with Germany and UK being the only exceptions. USA and Australia continue to consume a large number of imported textiles from India.
How are the clothes transported?
They are flown to the port at Tuticorin, and then shipped to the respective countries. Some brands ship to different retail locations, whereas some like Coles send everything to Australia, and then distribute to global markets from there. The owner explains that their biggest competition comes from Bangladesh, where labour is somehow cheaper, and manufacturers get better tax breaks from the Government.
How does the Indian consumer get access to these clothes?
Factory rejects! But also, while many brands design only for their specific countries, those like M&S, Zara, and Tommy Hilfiger are now simultaneously introducing styles across global markets. Strangely, many of them have the same measurements for European and Indian retailing. No wonder it’s so hard to find well-fitted trousers!
The next time you go to Paris and come back with a T-shirt to show off, remember it was probably made in your own backyard!