Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Secret Life of T-shirts

I found this really good write up about what goes into the making of an average t-shirt at emagazine.com. It's quite the eye opener.


COMMENTARY: The Secret Life of T-Shirts
The Toxic Legacy of Conventional Cotton Clothing, and Why You Should Seek Alternatives

By Brian Clark Howard

The conventional cotton in most T-shirts is responsible for 25% of the world’s pesticide use.

Whether you got it at a rock show, thrift store, vacation spot or trendy boutique, chances are you own a favorite, well-worn T-shirt. Soft, comfortable and cool, the tee is the ultimate laid-back attire, but can just as easily be dressed up with a sports coat or simple skirt and accessories. But there’s more to the T-shirt than wearability—the wardrobe staple leaves behind a serious environmental impact.

Toxic Fields

Most T-shirts are made of cotton, or at least a cotton blend. Unfortunately, the fabric of our lives has a huge impact on the environment and workers' health. Conventionally grown cotton occupies only 3% of the world's farmland, but uses 25% of the world's chemical pesticides. In the U.S., which produces cotton on 1% of agricultural land, 10% of all agricultural chemicals are used on the crop. A 2000 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that eighty-four million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on cotton in the U.S., ranking it second behind corn. Seven of the top 15 pesticides used on cotton are considered "likely" or "known" human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And it's not just pesticides. Conventional cotton farmers also use heavy inputs of synthetic, petroleum-derived fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other substances, which affect soil, water, air and living things for years to come. Further, 75% of the conventional cotton grown is now genetically modified, a fact that worries critics of the technology, who fear it could contaminate natural organisms and lead to super pests.


After harvesting, cotton is often treated with chlorine bleach to whiten it. Not only is chlorine toxic at acute doses, but it can also be a skin and lung irritant at lower concentrations. The fabric is also frequently treated with formaldehyde resins—often to render it "easy care”—another highly toxic chemical.
Traditionally, colors are created with dyes that may contain heavy metals, such as chromium copper. Even some so-called “natural dyes” can be mixed with heavy metals to prolong their color.


If you made T-shirts in art class, chances are you used screen printing. Although there are less-toxic screen printing techniques available today, most major operations rely on the old methods—including an ink called plastisol, a variation of the toxic-to-produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Discharge printing is faster and produces more vibrant colors, but often uses toxic chemicals as well. For example, zinc formaldehyde sulfoxylate (ZFP) is often used to print light colors onto a dark shirt. But again that includes formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that it might not be a good idea to wear such shirts to sleep or while working out.


Our economy is global, and so are our T-shirts. Much of today's cotton is grown in the Middle East and India, yet garments are most commonly made in East Asia. Finished products are typically shipped from China and elsewhere to North America and other markets. That results in a substantial use of fuel (often the very dirty stuff burned by container ships), not to mention release of greenhouse gases, particulates and other pollutants.

Plus, it's not uncommon for shipping companies to spray fabrics with insecticides in transit.

Buy Local, Buy Organic

You can help decrease the footprint of your wardrobe, and still look great, by buying locally produced goods, especially stuff made from fibers sourced in your region. Yes, it can help to buy American, although as the above notes sometimes only part of the entire process happens domestically.

It's always a good idea to buy used clothes, or swap things with friends, family or even strangers (swap meets can also be a lot of fun). Used clothes already exist—they don’t consume energy during growing, production and distribution like new clothes—so their overall carbon footprint is a lot less.

You can also find an increasing selection of clothes made from organic cotton, or alternative fibers like bamboo, hemp or recycled materials. These greener goods keep coming down in price, and in many cases are cost competitive with all but the very cheapest, low-quality duds.

Organic cotton, in particular, is grown without synthetic pesticides and herbicides, using techniques that replenish and maintain soil fertility and biodiversity. By buying third-party certified organic, you have greater assurance that the product is produced with genuine sustainability in mind. In the U.S., no genetically engineered materials are allowed in organic products.

The good news is that the farming of organic cotton has been on the rise. That segment increased 152% during the 2007-2008 crop year, according to the Organic Cotton Farm and Fiber Report 2008 by Organic Exchange. Next time you’re shopping for a new favorite tee, look for the organic label.

BRIAN CLARK HOWARD is the Home and Eco Tips editor for The Daily Green


rojan said...

That's very true Brian. But for retail businesses with growing demands, it's necessary to provide as many products as the store can take. And if the provider manufacture green products, well and good. We're actually happy to have such products in the line of nursing uniforms that we carry. And we'll be happy to support the advocacy.

Tim Carn said...

That was such an incredibly insightful article! It is amazing how much energy and waste can go into the making of one shirt. The best way that I have come up with and been able to implement into my life has been buying all clothes second hand. Though the damage of creating the item has already been done, buying it second hand causes no farther pollution. In all actuality, it is even better for the environment than buying organic because there is more energy being used and raw materials being purposed for the first time.

Custom T-shirts said...

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