You knew it was coming. The most versatile and ubiquitous clothing item. A basic that you’ll always have in your wardrobe throughout the seasons that are made to go with your capsule wardrobe — the classic T-shirt.
Originally worn as an undergarment, T-shirts gradually grew into casual clothing after World War II and popped onto fashion shows for their sexual apparel. Printed tees also became popular as a form of self-expression during the 1900s after A Streetcar Named Desire and Disney characters like Mickey Mouse made an impression.
Whether you are looking to revamp your clothing line or want to know more about the items you currently wear, the T-shirt is one of the easiest places to start to revisit with an ethical and sustainable lens.
Read on to see what we got up our sleeve today.
At a Glance
Most T-shirts today are made out of cotton. With the total cotton market worth around $12B, over 2 billion T-shirts are sold worldwide every year, with 60% Americans owning more than 10 tees alone. Because of fast fashion at the turn of the century, many t-shirts are fairly cheap, anywhere from $1 - $15. The most expensive was over $400,000 with nine carats of black and white diamonds.
As always, this comes with many environmental and human costs. As we discussed in our first article on denim, cotton itself is a fairly safe product given that it is a natural fiber and biodegradable.
But cotton uses a lot of water during farming, even more so in hotter climate farming communities. The contamination in groundwater, rivers and the air from chemicals and pesticides used during cotton production is also incredibly toxic for all of the surrounding communities. Similarly, the amount of child labor and lack of labor laws leads to lower prices, but is an incredibly unethical approach to clothing production.
Although this all sounds very bad, and it is, there are many innovative companies taking a chance at revisiting the T-shirt lifecycle with organic cotton and other more sustainable material like hemp to completely replace cotton.
While T-shirts can be made from a variety of material, we’ll focus on cotton shirts as it is predominantly the most common fabric used. Cotton is very easy to dye and blends well with other fibers.
Let’s take a look at how a typical cotton T-shirt gets created:
Farming: After several months of forming cotton bolls, cotton gets harvested with plenty of water and dry weather.
Processing: Cotton gin machines separate cotton from the seed. The cotton is compressed, spun, and knit before being bleached white with hydrogen peroxide.
Cutting: A T-shirt design is styled based on certain dimensions and then cut out into stacks of bodies, sleeves, and collars.
Sewing: Laborers then sew together the bodies, sleeves, and collars with sewing machines. Additional stitching and seams may be added to the shoulder, neckband, etc.
Printing/Dyeing: Additional printing or dyeing is performed to add graphics or colors.
Finished: T-shirts are then checked for the final product before being packaged and delivered.
Different parts of the process add to huge amounts of water, chemical, and energy usage. It takes about 766 gallons of water to make one single white T-shirt, and with 27M tons of cotton produced yearly, it’s clear how we use over 62B tons of water per year. An outrageous example comes from the draining of the Aral Sea, where over 26,000 square miles of irrigation used for cotton and wheat depleted it in 2014.
Pesticides are also used during cotton farming, partially to keep insects away and to kill off cotton leaves to make harvesting easier. Even though cotton takes only 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land, it consumes over 16% of insecticides and 7% of herbicides, more than any other crop in the world, with over $3.3 billion spent on these chemicals.
These pesticides then bleed into the production process, with chemical waste flowing out of clothing factories, polluting over 67B tons of groundwater, and filling the surrounding air with dangerous chemical particles that are breathed in. It also causes soil degradation and erosion, damaging the local ecosystem. Some of these chemicals include Aldicarb and Endosulfan, both toxic pesticides linked to comas, seizures, diarrhea and death. This doesn’t include the colored or graphic T-shirts which add additional chemicals.
In addition, the amount of energy produced during this entire process is responsible for more than 220M tons of CO2 being annually produced. We’ll talk more about shipping pollution in a future newsletter edition.
Currently, there are five main countries that produce 75% of global cotton — India (6.1M tons), China (5.5M tons), USA (4.1M tons), Brazil (1.9M tons), and Pakistan (1.7M tons).
The cotton industry employs ~300 million people, almost the same as the population of the entire U.S. According to Unicef, 170 million of these workers are children, often starting out at 5 years old.
How did these children end up in the cotton industry? Sometimes they have no other choice but to work and support their family, or they are recruited and forced to work. In many cases, they aren’t paid anything, and those that are make less than $1 a day. This keeps them locked in a “circle of poverty” as they also lose out on an opportunity to get an education.
Child laborers are directly involved with cotton pesticide application, often with no protection, leaving them more vulnerable because of their growing organs and typically smaller bodies. These harmful pesticides can cause dizziness, trouble remembering, feelings of depression, tremors, nausea, paralysis, and death. Unfortunately, poison that is ingested can be passed on through generations which can cause spontaneous abortions still birth, sterility, behavioral abnormalities, and cancer.
Numerous studies have shown that these cotton-related pesticides have caused over 350,000 farmer deaths a year and a million hospitalisations. The lack of education about these pesticides and their damage to the local environment and toward farmers often come at high costs, leading many to meet bankruptcy and commit suicide.
Laborers also endure physical and sexual abuse, left exhausted and in poor health after working long hours for weeks on end. They are given unrealistic harvest quotas per day and are punished and beaten if they fail to meet their quotas.
So far this year, 76 million hours of child labor have been used towards producing cotton ,which has produced over 36 billion dollars in profit so far (and it's only been 4 months!).
The T Shirt Today
With the rise of fast fashion through brands like H&M and Zara, cotton T-shirts became a core part of the microseasons created as they were a cheap product to produce and sell. This often meant they opted for lower-end cottons, which depends on the density of the fabric, the length of the fabric and if there is a mix of fiber blends.
Here are some of the different types of cotton:
Combed: Eliminated short strands, with straightened fibers. This creates a smooth, soft and strong fabric good for printing.
Pima: Extra long fibers to ensure softness, with high durability that is resistant to pilling, fading and stretching. Supima is the same, but grown exclusively in the U.S.
Slub: Slight lumps in the fabric, created before it is weaved with irregular twists. This allows for a unique, light, airy feeling that is naturally textured without a need for iron.
Organic: Grown without as many fertilizers or pesticides, but costs slightly more.
We’ll also mention some of the blends with cotton:
Polyester: Added polyester allows it to be more heat-resistant, water-resistant and wrinkle/tear- resistant, while also being stretchier.
Polyester, Rayon: Addition of rayon provides a more stretch and additional soft texture.
The Future of T Shirts
Sustainable and ethical fashion continues to have a promising future. Gen Z cares deeply about social justice and the environment, willing to spend more for clothing that does not harm the environment and expects brands to be transparent and authentic about their supply chains.
Brands are no longer cool if it doesn't hold sustainable and ethical practices at its core. With apps such as ThredUp, Poshmark, Good On You and Depop, consumers are finally able to shop more sustainably.
Many organizations look toward the Life Cycle Assessment method to assess the environmental and social impacts of a product’s life cycle — raw material extraction, material processing, product manufacturing, distribution, use, disposal and recycling. This way, they can find ways to improve the overall process, using tools like the Higg Index.
There are a number of organizations that are tackling the cotton industry and making it more sustainable:
For Days created a subscription service for members to pick their tees, wear them out, return them in the same bag they came in, taking care of the T-shirt lifecycle for them.
Better Cotton Initiative has the largest cotton sustainability program globally. They work with farmers on how to harvest cotton more sustainably (what they call "Better Cotton"). They have produced 5.6M tons of "Better Cotton", amounting to over 20% of global cotton production.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 just expanded to the USA, bringing together like-minded companies to develop, modify, and implement circular economic business practices.
Ricoh launched a Direct to Garment printer(DTG) which shortens the preparation process of traditional printing methods and conserves a lot of water.
Additionally, we want to point out that many companies encourage you to wash your clothes less often to reduce the amount of water and energy used, but also to increase your T-shirt’s lifespan before throwing it out. The water temperature doesn’t do much, with less than 1% of climate impact.
Alternatives to Consider
Not all hope is lost! As a consumer there is a lot you can do when purchasing T-shirts that will help reduce your footprint. Consider buying organic, which has several benefits for the planet and laborers, but is still similar to traditional cotton:
Less synthetic chemicals or pesticides
91% lower water consumption
62% lower energy demand
46% lower CO2 emissions
26% lower soil erosion
You can also consider tees that are made of other fabric. Note that there are chemical processes involved for all these materials — find an organic option if you can.
Linen: Very breathable and lightweight, although it wrinkles quickly, remaining creased.
Bamboo: Antibacterial and moisture-wicking qualities, although it is difficult to use in clothing but here is how the fabric is made.
Wool: Soft and warmer, but the collection process is potentially harmful to sheep.
Recycled cotton: Slows down production of synthetic material, but has similar problems to new cotton.
Viscose: Semi-synthetic material made mostly of wood pulp that is lightweight and breathable. Still contains toxic chemicals and contributes to deforestation.
Hemp: Breathable and soft, and requires far fewer chemicals and pesticides than cotton with 50% less water, and lasts longer than cotton. Many brands recommend hemp.
Finding sustainable alternatives to fast fashion is difficult, because many of them are expensive. Here are some alternative brands that use sustainable, nontoxic, organic cotton and have fair labor practices (and that hopefully don't break the bank):
Pact | ~$20+ | Their mission is to build Earth's favorite clothing company. Minimal packaging, carbon offset shipping. Work with fair trade organizations globally. | Buy online
Frank and Oak | ~$35+ | Have very transparent sustainability goals, minimal packaging, carbon offset shipping, purposeful/intentional design that has planet first practices | Buy online
Patagonia | ~$35+ | Patagonia has been at the forefront of fighting environmental issues for the past 4 decades | Buy online or in a store near your
United by Blue | ~$38+ | Each purchase removes a pound of trash from waterways | Buy online
Dazey LA | ~$38+ | Slow fashion, collections revolve around womxn empowerment| Womxn Founded | Buy online
Harvest and Mill | ~$46+ | Made in the USA. Their fabric is regenerative (the cotton grown sequesters carbon) | Womxn Founded | Buy online
The Classic T Shirt Company | ~$52 | Made in the USA | Buy online
What You Can Do
Buy higher-quality, durable T-shirts with more sustainable and ethical material.
Consider buying second hand from thrift stores and donating your older tees.
Do some due diligence on brands you currently wear and how they source their materials by checking their site for a transparency page.
Only wash clothes when they are dirty to extend your T-shirt’s lifespan.
Share your newfound knowledge with friends by linking this newsletter to them! 👕
Questions or comments on this piece? Suggestions on what we should cover next? Send us a note.