The environmental impact of making a t-shirt

I had a glance through my t-shirt drawer today. I have 2 drawers full of t-shirts in my closet, ranging in sizes, colours and styles. I have t-shirts from my early 20s, t-shirts from events and some that were gifted to me. I probably have a few t-shirts in there that I have borrowed from friends. Overall, there are probably 30-40 t-shirts in all colours of the spectrum! This got me thinking. What is the impact to the environment from the purchase of a single t-shirt? I had never really thought about it. T-shirts are such a basic necessity. We use them everyday. I wear a t-shirt under my professional attire, to work-out, at casual events. It is safe to say, I am a t-shirt kind of guy.

To answer that question, I started with a bit of research. I had to first understand what regulations are in place by the government to control and monitor environmental impact. This lead me to a recent request by the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee (this article also has some amazing facts!). The chair of the committee has requested information from ten of the top fashion retail companies in the UK regarding their environmental and social impact. The exact questions are:

  • whether they [companies] pay the living wage to garment workers and how they ensure child labour is not used in their supply chains
  • whether they use recycled materials;
  • how long clothes are kept and how they encourage recycling;
  • whether they incinerate unsold or returned stock;
  • what steps they are taking to reduce the risk of microplastics contaminating the ocean; and
  • what other steps they are taking to reduce the environmental impact of their clothing ranges and how they audit success.

My interpretation of these questions are that they are aimed to understand the post-purchase environmental impact. The real question should be, what is the environmental impact of clothing from the production of raw material to the point of delivery to your house? Don’t get me wrong, the EAC is on the right path and at least questions are being asked. However in order to really understand the environmental impact of our clothing purchasing behavior we must understand the full lifecycle.

Let's now go back to the question, what is the impact to the environment from the purchase of a single t-shirt?
I started with understanding the process of creating a cotton t-shirt. The diagram below summarises the process, materials and actions:

The process of producing a t-shirt

The facts are:

  • 75% Raw cotton production primarily takes place in 4 nations (China, India, Pakistan and the US)
  • Cotton production steps include cleaning, separating and converting to yarn
  • T-shirt manufacturing includes assembly, bleaching and dyeing

Once the t-shirt is produced, it is shipped out to the retailer and stocked until you make the decision to add it to your basket and give it an owner. Now that we have a rough idea of the production process. Let’s break down the environmental impact. I have broken down the process into pre-purchase and post-purchase phases.

Pre-purchase

  1. Since cotton production primarily takes place in 4 nations, the picked raw cotton is shipped to the point where it is cleaned, seperated and transformed to yarn. This takes place in a different country or even continent. The impact is CO2 emissions from shipping and packaging of the cotton. The cleaning process is automated and therefore consumes a natural resource of some kind.

    Cotton

  2. The yarn is then pressed and cut into the desired shape, consuming some form of natural resource since this step is usually fully automated.
  3. The formed t-shirt must then be bleached and dyed. The impact here is water pollution. For every ton of clothes dyed, 200 tonnes of water (some great facts here if you are curious!) are consumed. In most cases, the used water is then drained into local systems and waterways.

    Yarn

  4. The shirt is now ready! It is shipped to the retailer’s depot to stock and sell. The impact here again is CO2 emissions and plastic packaging.

Post-purchase

  1. Once a t-shirt is purchased online, it is shipped via air from the primary retailer depot in the region, to a local depot near you. Again, the impact is CO2 emissions from transportation.
  2. A truck then usually finds its way to your doorsteps and a nice person hands you your brand spankin’ new t-shirt.
  3. Eager with anticipation, you rip open the plastic packaging, discard your current t-shirt and slide into your brand spankin new t-shirt!

You glance at yourself in the nearest mirror realising that your new t-shirt is more like a dress, swinging gently below your knees! What happens next?

Stay tuned for the next article where we will explore the return process!