A simple t-shirt goes unnoticed in the big pile of clothes in our wardrobe. Sometimes we can’t even remember where it came from and when we bought it. It merely exists for as long as we can remember. Yet, the journey of a t-shirt in our wardrobe is complex and often spanning across continents. This journey is filled with its share of tragedy, suspense and crimes.
We take a look at how a t-shirt ends up in our wardrobe. A fair warning, this life cycle may not be a happy read, but it does end with an upbeat afterthought.
A t-shirt is generally made using a cotton or polyester, or a blend of the two. Neither of these is sustainable options.
Cotton, which is widely accepted as the lesser evil out of the two is a thirsty plant. It takes up to 2,700 litres of water to grow cotton required for a simple t-shirt. That much water can account for roughly three weeks of consumption by an average human.
It is not just the water consumption that is scary. Cotton is generally produced in India or China- countries that are well known for poor working conditions. Then there is the use of pesticides and chemicals which does not just harm the farmer’s health but also the ecology.
The problem with polyester is far more grave. Polyester is a petroleum-based fibre that works essentially like plastic. It is non-bio-degradable, non-renewable and carbon-intensive. So, a polyester made t-shirt pollutes the environment, requires intensive care and stays in the environment for a long time.
Organic cotton. Unlike conventional cotton, it uses 70% less water and next to no pesticides. WWF has partnered with initiatives like the Better Cotton Initiative to teach farmers in developing nations to grow better organic cotton.
There are tons of alternatives available in the market today. Fabric made out of bamboo, hemp, or wool are some options. Then there is always the option to pick up pieces from brands making clothes out of recycled or upcycled fabrics.
Making the switch from cotton or polyester is not easy. So we suggest you go about it one clothing piece at a time. Buying products that are made of blended fabric is a big no-no since these are harder to breakdown when disposed of. So stick to 100% pure fabric.
The next step in the t-shirt making process to turn the fibre into yarn, and the yarn into fabric. Once the fabric is ready, it is dyed and finished.
The process of fabric production involves spinning and knitting. Both of these tasks require intense amounts of energy. Adding to this is the fact that fabric production is carried out in third world countries. Here electricity cuts are frequent, resulting in reliance on diesel-run generators.
Next is the dyeing stage, which has its fair share of sins. You see, there are two kinds of dyes- natural and synthetic. Natural dyes are extracted from plants which means it does not harm the environment or the humans handling it. Even if natural dyes wash away in nearby streams, the particles dissolve.
Synthetic dyes, on the other hand, are harmful on several levels. They require an intense application and washing, resulting in greater water consumption. With every wash, various toxins are released harming to only plant life but also animals. These toxins also harm the people treating the fabric, often resulting in severe skin diseases.
Even though the advantages of natural dyes are apparent, the industry continues to choose synthetic alternatives because it is much cheaper and quicker. In a world run by trends, synthetic dyes provide a variety of colours in time to make it on the shop floor as per fast fashion calendars.
Brands that choose and use natural dyes. Of course, fast fashion brands do not yet fall under this bracket and making the switch is hard but eventually worth it.
Cut and Sewn
Once the fabric is ready, it is finally cut and sewn together to make a t-shirt. Sounds easy enough, and yet there is a significant human cost involved.
High demands are met by rapid production. This means someone, somewhere is required to sit for long hours to meet our crazy wants. And this someone is usually sitting in a dingy factory that is not well lit or ventilated. The hours are long, and the pay is meagre. According to a study by Fashion Revolution for every t-shirt sold at Rs. 2,499 (€29), the labour earns 0.6%.
The human impact is not the only concern at this stage. Textile waste is another concern. All those small pieces of waste fabrics end of in the landfill. Smart planning and reusing waste fabric can be swiftly done, and a few brands to take the initiative to do the same.
Research the brand. Check how much they pay their workers and what conditions are they working in. The emotional value of your garment increases when you know #WhoMadeMyClothes :).
Transportation and Distribution
Once the garment is ready, it is packed and transported into warehouses. Transportation = Carbon Emissions. The emissions are greater when the warehouses are located not just in a different country but a far off continent altogether.
The warehouse is where the clothes undergo a quality check. If certain garments don’t pass, they are transported back (more emission). These are then either sold in street shops or contribute to the pile of textile waste. Third world countries and developing nations like India are known as textile dumping nations.
Whatever clothes pass the checks are sold in the hundreds of chain stores. If clothes are not sold in a season, they find their way back to the dumping nations. It is surprising to see so many clothing stores in a 5 km radius as compared to say a water refill station or public toilets. Makes you rethink our priorities no?
Transportation is probably the stage where we, as end-users, can fix it. So, use what you have, consume less and buy clothes manufactured and sold locally. Ditch those fast fashion brands.
Use and Consumption
We are finally in the deep territory on the consumer phase. From here on all the onus is on us.
I am sure, after reading this, you may be thinking of what more harm can our consumption do. But trust me, the user phase contributes significantly if not equal to the life cycle of a t-shirt.
It is at this stage where the product is finally tested. Retailers may not directly share with us how to use or care our clothes and instead use coded language found on the labels. Labels that we choose to ignore.
That is where the problem starts. We wear a t-shirt occasionally and wash them very frequently. Wash them at the wrong settings as well, resulting in high water and energy consumption. We think washing with water is the only answer and ignore anyone who tells us to let the fabric breathe some air. Before every wear, we iron it when we could fold it better or hang it to avoid creases.
These may seem like small insignificant details. But consider them for every garment in your wardrobe. Or every garment in every person’s wardrobe. That is when the problem gets ‘grave’.
Care Better. Read the labels, adopt good practices, share with friends and preach it like a cult. Your clothes will thank you and stick around longer.
The last stage, I promise. You made it this far; you deserve to know what afterlife lies for your beloved t-shirt.
First, we need to discuss the early deaths our t-shirt face. The reason- our displeasure, new trends or fungus infestation as the t-shirt was crumpled in a dark corner of your wardrobe.
The first two cases arise out of our need to look trendy every time we step out. The fact that social media encourages a new you with every post does not help with the case. What will help though is your commitment to rewire and refashion. There are ample of influencers giving out inspiration; it is time to use it.
Next, learn to repair. Discarding pieces because of a tiny hole or a simple rip is not a good enough reason. Pick up the sewing kit and spend a Sunday afternoon mending your ripped t-shirt. Or if you are feeling too creative, refashion it into a new item.
If reinventing is not an option, donate it. Remember though to wash and donate only clean garments that can be reused by someone else.
If the t-shirt has no hope, use it as a rag. As Indians, it is a sin to throw off an old piece of cloth before using it as a rag. I can almost hear my ancestors scream in their graves. Cleaning cloth, dusting or car washing – there are multiple solutions.
When there is no more hope, bid it goodbye. If your t-shirt were made keeping the environment in mind, it would eventually decompose back into nature. If not it will linger on longer harming the planet each year it lives.
I may have stated the solutions for this stage above already. But a quick recap hurt no one. Remember to Rewear, Reinvent and Repurpose.
So now you see how the dots connected. Purchasing and owning a t-shirt is simply a click away. It is the history that gives importance to this piece.
Congratulations, you have reached the end. This article was a heavy read. You may be feeling sad or downright guilty that you can’t look at your beloved t-shirt in the eye. Sorry if I harmed this loving relationship in any way. But the fix is easy. Choose better on your next purchase and keep learning!
Sanjoli is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Fashion Journalism. She has contributed to publications like MensXP, Mindless Mag and Sustain: The Mag in the past. Sanjoli enjoys writing and reading about fashion. She is currently trying to live more sustainably.