Journey of a T-shirt

Green Lifestyle magazine

Most are aware of the effects our cars have on the earth, why buying organic and local food is good for your health and the environment, but what about the humble t-shirt we wear day to day?


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We all wear clothes every day, and increasingly we opt for the plain and simple t-shirt. What many people aren’t aware of is the complex journey of our humble t-shirts lives. It’s important to understand and appreciate the true cost of our clothes, where they came from and who made them, so that we can purchase responsibly.

You can guarantee most of your wardrobe is a seasoned traveller before you even take it on holiday. These days your average shirt could have travelled up to 15,000 km to get to you. It will have also passed through countless busy hands, a myriad of machinery and multitude of chemical processes, just to give you that favourite comfy tee feel.

Cotton makes up for half our clothing composition which gives us a strong chance our staple garments are made of this very popular plant.

The majority of our t-shirts begin in a field in India, China or Uzbekistan; 90 per cent of all cotton crops are grown in developing countries where clean water is often scarce. Unfortunately the first of many problems begins, as cotton tends to be a thirsty little plant which uses up to 20,000 L to make one t-shirt.

To help the little seed grow and protect it from pesky bugs, the Pesticide Action Network and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) claims that cotton crops use 11 per cent of the world’s pesticides and 24 per cent of insecticides, making it single handedly the dirtiest crop farmed in the world.

These agrochemicals are incredibly toxic. Farmers often rely on dubious irrigation systems and handle the chemicals with low safety precautions, which leads to often fatal implications for the farmers, their families, and the surrounding communities.

Once our seed has grown into a fluffy ball it is picked by hand or machinery and sent to be ginned, combed carded and ready to be spun. China is the major manufacturer of cotton clothing. According to the EJF, in 2006 it produced 17.8 billion items of apparel – which is enough to clothe every person on Earth three times! The average t-shirt can cost brands less than a dollar to have produced. This dollar is supposed to account for the wages, transport and costs of the raw material knitting, dying, printing, quality control. This is where eyebrows can be raised and question of wages really comes into play.

Although many factories ensure they pay their countries minimum wage, often this cannot be justified as a living wage. A living wage as explained by the organisation Labour Behind the Label, describes this as an income that allows workers to eat nutritious food, pay for shelter, clean water, clothes, health care and transport and education. These necessities are not a given under many developing countries minimum wage and worryingly in most factories the exploitation does not stop at indecent pays.

Once our garment is very efficiently constructed, quality control is completed by hand, pressing, swing tags, packaging and packing is done. Our t-shirt is finally ready for it’s journey to us. But often stopping via a series of different international ports to negotiate between trade policies.

We are closing in on the moment now where we as consumers can get our hot little hands on our tee. It is first stored and distributed to shops and finally sold to you.

We wear it, love it, hate it, throw it, pass it, re-use it. Eventually it most probably ends up in landfill among the one million tonnes of textiles dumped each year.

By now this long winded explanation may seem quite harrowing however, we as consumers are the most powerful players in this cycle. The convoluted life story of a t-shirt can be swayed and altered to our wants and needs. Brands are giving us what we want and if we shift the desire of cheap convenient clothing to environmentally and socially responsible clothing, the not-so-pretty life of our t-shirt can become a positive one.

Buying power is not the only option we have to make a difference. Research by the EJF states that although 52 per cent of the total carbon footprint is created during the production and distribution process, we are still looking at a hefty 48 per cent of GHG emmissions in the consumer phase. This is mainly caused by our washing and drying.

Click here to see our pick of some great organic tees.