Sew What? The Impact of the Apparel Industry’s Global Supply Chain

Skya Nelson, owner and creative director of Fed By Threads
Skya Nelson, owner and creative director of Fed By Threads

By Aimee Welch.

Look at the shirt you’re wearing right now. Do you know where it was made? Any idea about the process, the resources or the labor it took to get that shirt to the store where you bought it? The truth is, the apparel industry is one of the most destructive industries on the planet. And if you knew the “true cost” of that shirt, you probably would have thought twice before buying it. “We’re in a war without sides. Everybody’s on the same side. They just don’t know they’re on the same side yet,” says Skya Nelson, owner of sustainable clothing company Fed By Threads (FBT) and originator of the SEW TRUE educational series to teach students, specifically Greek life, the impact of the apparel industry’s global supply chain.

Fed By Threads isn’t fighting the war alone. Many organizations have made sustainability a priority, and are working together to make a difference. On February 21, FBT hosted a lecture at UA to discuss the importance and benefits of sustainable clothing. The lecture is part of a larger-scale effort by FBT, the Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, the University of Arizona (UA), Tucson Federal Credit Union and other partners to educate college students about the apparel supply chain. SEW TRUE is the collaboration of these eco-conscious organizations and people.

SEW TRUE is specifically targeting Greek life because of the group’s ability to organize and effect change, and because they buy a lot of T-shirts. There are 5,000 Greek life students at UA, each required to buy approximately 24 shirts, for a grand total of 120,000 non-sustainably-made shirts every year. “These are people who should be leading the way on campus toward sustainable apparel purchasing… they’re the most highly organized shirt purchasers on campus,” says Nelson. “What we’re trying to do is get them to stop buying those sweatshop-made, unethically made T-shirts.”

On March 28, a follow-up film screening of the documentary The True Cost will be shown at UA, followed by a Q&A session with a panel of representatives from the sustainable apparel industry, and Lina Srivastava, co-creator of the My City project, and the lead on the Transformational Change Leadership storytelling project.

The Truth Hurts

The SEW TRUE events are designed to be fun and educational, but the sobering facts about the apparel industry’s global supply chain are hard to take lightly: It takes 600 gallons of water to make one T-shirt. One out of every six people on the planet works in the garment industry, and 168 million of them are children between the ages of 5 and 14. Most mass-produced clothes are treated with toxic chemicals that are harmful to textile workers and the environment. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface.


graphic illustrating amount of clothing thrown away by consumers 2018

The road to change is long, but sustainability experts say education is the key. “The overall message of The True Cost is important to students, the University, and Tucson communities because we too often ignore the environmental and social impacts of fast fashion or the production of cheap clothing,” says Trevor Ledbetter, director of UA’s sustainability department. “The fashion industry is one of the most environmentally destructive industries in the world, second only to the fossil fuel industry… something few people realize.”

Nelson says the SEW TRUE initiative isn’t about reprimanding anyone, but about educating them.

The True Cost of Sustainable Clothing is Lower than You Think

Price is a key driver for apparel purchasing, but most don’t realize they’re paying about 25 percent more for their non-sustainable shirts than they would pay with FBT, and their choice helps others. Every FBT purchase helps secure and distribute emergency meals for food banks. For the SEW TRUE events, all donations will be matched by the Tony Robbins Foundation and used to help provide meals for Feeding America and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Nelson says, “It’s kind of a no-brainer. It costs less, it does good, and it meets their social responsibility requirements for being part of the Greek organization… how can they not?”

Tucson Community Comes Together to Effect Change

Nelson says the SEW TRUE events have been a team effort. Longtime partner Manish Shah, CEO of Maya Tea, a sustainable Tucson tea company, says, “The message of sustainability and conscious consumption should register with virtually everyone. College students and young people, in general, are beginning to form their beliefs and habits around these topics. It’s important for them to get this message so it can be a part of their thinking going forward.”

Graduate student Deanna Kulbeth became involved with FBT last year as project manager for the Cooper Campus Outreach Team at UA. “I have learned so much about sustainability since then,” Kulbeth says. ”One important learning is that I will never be able to unlearn this information, therefore I am responsible for living it,” she continues.

Educating and changing the mindset of students like Kulbeth is exactly what needs to happen to make positive changes in the apparel industry and beyond. Ledbetter says, “One of the more effective ways for us to move the needle in our existing economic systems is to put our money where our values are, and once educated in this subject, I hope our students can start to do just this.”

Fed By Threads makes eco- and human-friendly apparel, with every purchase contributing to emergency meals.

Aimee Welch is a freelance writer and editor. She’s a graduate of The Ohio State University (go Buckeyes!) and is currently putting her journalism degree to good use as editor of Green Living Magazine. She spends the great majority of her free time shuttling her two kids to hockey and soccer events… and loving every minute of it.


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