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A simple cotton T-shirt doesn’t seem so simple when you begin to trace the various steps in the now-standard vast global process from cotton farm to clothing shop.

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 manner possible. It may seem counterintuitive, then, to divide the process into manufacturing hubs scattered around the globe.  But when you factor in the dramatically lower labor and material costs offered by suppliers in developing countries, the global supply chain model begins to make more sense.

In fact, the “Made In …” label on your shirt, actually only reveals one of the many probable places that the garment passed through along the way.

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.

Most major retailers remain fairly secretive about their suppliers. And many brands have little or no connection with second-tier suppliers (who provide the raw materials). Gap, for instance, only provides 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 the names and locations of what it claims is 95 percent of suppliers it contracts with – about 800 factories in Asia and Europe.

To help flesh out the incredibly complicated process of making a deceptively simple garment, NPR’s Planet Money team a few years back ordered its own t-shirt and traced its far-flung manufacturing path through the global economy. Scroll through the fascinating five-part series below, or watch it full-screen here.

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Matthew Green

Matthew Green runs KQED’s News Education Project, an online resource for educators and the general public to help explain the news. The project lives at

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