The Global Sports Top

When Together Street asked me to write about the origins of my favourite item of clothing for Fashion Revolution Week, I first had to get my head around a few things. Firstly, the thought of me being involved with anything resembling 'fashion'. Secondly, I wondered if the origins of my item of clothing would be as gritty as Logan and finally, the idea of favouring some clothes over others. This last point was a genuine issue; I see clothes as functional and having to pick one to research was melting my brain. But then this happened and I knew. If anything was ever going to be my favourite item, it was my Irish rugby top after we finally won the Grand Slam. 

Let's rewind for a moment. Once upon a time, there was a young man with terrible hair called Brian O'Driscoll and the old Lansdowne Road Stadium was the only stadium anyone (in Ireland) had ever known. I give you: 2004. My shirt is from a time when Ireland were fully committed to their traditional roots of heroic acts and not winning anything, and (thankfully) it's not as tight-fitting as the tops worn by today’s team and their supporters.


The first step I took in trying to find out more about the origins of my top was to contact the manufacturer. Unsurprisingly, they couldn't give me much information so I cheated a bit and looked into the story behind the latest go-faster tops from Canterbury. Before I got in touch with the company the only thing I knew about the shirt was that it was made of polyester and something called Vapordri+ technology. I don’t know what that means and I don’t expect anyone to tell me, but Canterbury states it'll keep you “comfortable whether training or cheering your team on” (because we all know how hard supporting can be).

I got in touch with Canterbury to ask about the raw materials, how these materials are produced, how many components there are and how and where the shirts are made. They were pretty responsive; within a day their Customer Service department had forwarded my questions to the right person and sent me the following answers:

  • The shirt is put together at a factory in China that specialises in rugby shirts
  • There are several components that are made throughout China/Taiwan including the crest, the knitted fabric and heat transfers
  • The fabric is knitted at a Chinese mill
  • The basic raw materials (polyester and cotton for their Classic version) are bought in — they didn’t say where they came from

They also pointed me towards their parent company Pentland’s corporate social responsibility report that sets out broader targets, and it was interesting to see that they were one of the founding members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, an organisation that seeks to improve workers’ conditions throughout the supply chain. The report included a lot of good stuff,  but they only provided information about Tier 1 factories that are used as production and assembly sites. There was no information about where the raw materials come from or how they're processed, and no specific information regarding the making of Canterbury's clothes.

Though the response was quick and they did send some details, it hasn’t helped me to really understand how ethical the process is. Pentland does have some broad requirements (such as workers receiving a living wage) but there are no specific details as to what that looks like in this case. Are we talking about absolute minimum or is it a comfortable wage?

What I did learn about was the complexity of the system. In my head, there was a single factory that brought in all of the raw materials and then completed all of the processes on site. Instead there is a factory in Taiwan that only produces crests and there are containers of heat transfers roaming the earth looking for a shirt to transfer to. We may know that a lot of clothing is made by hand and it can feel quite simple, but this highlighted the global scale of these logistics. 

Looking at the story of my shirt hasn’t changed my understanding of what ethical means (still quite blurred) but it has illuminated how difficult it will be to change things. Making one ethical shirt on scale involves changing practices, wages and technologies at various sites across several countries. The effort and energy to make that happen is phenomenal (and expensive) and that is just one shirt. We all want ethical clothing but we also need to have patience —  easy ethical shopping will be a long time coming.

Matthew Gaston