A basic cotton t-shirt is something that almost everyone has in their closet, whether it's your classic white t-shirt or an old t-shirt from college or high school that you now wear as pajamas (guilty).
You probably even own more than one cotton t-shirt (guilty).
It's also highly likely that most, if not all, aren't made from organic cotton (guilty again).
I was under the impression for a while that cotton was a preferred, natural fiber, and that its impact on the environment was minimal because it is "natural".
Then I watched the documentary "The True Cost" which shares the truth behind the cotton industry and what goes on that most aren’t aware of.
So what‘s so bad about the not so innocent cotton plant? Here are some statements regarding pesticides and water usage I found during my research:
- "It can take about 10,000 litres of water to produce one kilogramme of cotton fabric" - BCI Cotton
- "Cotton pesticides can prevent individual nerve cells from communicating with one another. Effects also include impaired memory, severe depression, disruption of the immune system, paralysis and death." - The World Counts
- "Aldicarp is a commonly used cotton pesticide. A single drop of aldicarp absorbed through the skin can kill an adult. Cotton pesticides so toxic that they were banned under the Soviet regime are still being used in Uzbekistan." - The World Counts
- "The use of hazardous pesticides during cotton production can also be detected in various pieces of clothing made from cotton." - The World Counts
- The amount of USD spend on pesticides on 2/18/20 was $346,410,000, and is growing every second.
Now let's talk about everything that happens to make the t-shirt before you walk into a store and buy it. I wanted to share this life cycle with you for you to fully understand the complexity that goes behind a simple t-shirt versus our mindset that thinks of clothing as something that is quickly disposable.
1. Farmers buy a GMO cottonseed (Most cotton is grown in China, India, and the United States).
2. It is estimated that it requires a minimum of 10 gallons of water per cotton plant in order for plant to grown and flourish. An acre of land can hold approximately 50,000 plants which would equivalent to 27,193 gallons of water for proper growth. Pesticides are also common for non-organic cotton which not only pollutes the soil and the water that goes into the soil, rivers, oceans, or absorbed by other living things. Pesticides have harmful in short and long term effects on the famers', their families, and surrounding neighbors as well.
3. Once the plant is matured, it is "picked" up by specific machines designed to grab cotton effectively.
4. Cotton is then packed and sent to a cotton gin for further refining and cleaning and eventually packed up to be sent to a purification mill.
5. Now the cotton plant will be "purified" which it is cleaned and refined further and whats left is the white fiber we typically think of as cotton.
6. Cotton is then packaged and sold to a textile mill where it will be spun into a yarn.
7. Yarn is either dyed, knit into fabric or sold to a garment manufacturer/factory.
8. Fabric is either dyed or treated before garment production - (ex: printing/dying/special treatment).
9. The pattern is made for a t-shirt. Cotton fabric is cut and assembled into T-shirt.
10. Any post treatments (ex: tie-dye, embroidery, finishes (pockets, zippers, trims) are added and garment is washed.
11. The finished garment is typically sent to design office for approval. If garment fit and overall look are approved - it will be sent into the next phase of production, if not, this whole process will be repeated (step 8-10) until approval.
12. Once approved, the garment is sent to production where anywhere from 100-100,000+ pieces could be made depending on the size of the company.
14. Factory sends finished t-shirts to distribution centers.
15. T-shirts are then shipped out to stores onto shopping floors for you to buy and sell.
16. Designers, factory workers, and everyone it took to make this simple t-shirt no longer think about this one anymore as they have already moved onto a new batch of styles to be made.
I didn't include every detail because there truly is so much that goes into making one single item (first-hand experience). From researching trends of fit to prints to colors - to finally photographing the t-shirt for marketing purposes. In between all that, there is a lot of waste and a lot of time spent in order to make the most profit. The environmental cost is typically not thought of what-so-ever during the development of the t-shirt, let alone any garment. By environmental cost I mean, transportation, (equal) pay for factory workers, workers' rights and safety, transportation costs, carbon footprint, and any other pollution from pesticides used to grow cotton from chemicals and dyes used to make t-shirt.
It's important for designers and companies to shift their way of thinking from a straight line of development to production to find a way to make this product life circular. And by circular I mean finding alternate ways of how this t-shirt can be up-cycled, last longer, have less of a negative environmental impact, or not end up in a landfill to take years to fully decompose - if ever.
It's important for us, as consumers to understand that clothes shouldn't be made to be disposable and to support the brands and companies that understand this and follow a circular cycle rather than linear.