The environmental impact of a $10 cotton t-shirt

What is the environmental impact of a cheap cotton T-shirt?

From the cultivation of cotton to the manufacturing process and eventual disposal, the lifecycle of a cheap cotton t-shirt leaves a significant carbon footprint.

 

Is cotton a sustainable crop?

Cotton, the main material used in t-shirts, is notorious for its high water consumption and heavy reliance on pesticides. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it takes approximately 2,700 liters of water to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt. In regions where water scarcity is a concern, this level of consumption contributes to the depletion of already strained water resources.

Additionally, conventional cotton farming employs a significant amount of synthetic pesticides and insecticides, which not only pollute soil and water but also pose health risks to farm workers and nearby communities.

 

What are the working conditions in clothing factories?

Behind the allure of cheap cotton t-shirts lies a darker truth – the exploitation of labor. Many of these garments are produced in countries with lax labor regulations and low wages. Workers in these regions often face hazardous working conditions, long hours, and meager pay.

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an advocacy group focusing on the global garment industry, the race to produce cheap clothing often results in violations of workers’ rights and unsafe working environments.

 

How are t-shirts dyed?

The vibrant colors of cheap cotton t-shirts come at a cost to the environment. The dyeing process involves the use of numerous chemicals that can pollute water sources and harm aquatic ecosystems. Chemical runoff from textile dyeing has been linked to water pollution, which can have far-reaching consequences on local communities and wildlife. Sustainable alternatives, such as natural dyes and eco-friendly dyeing techniques, exist but are often overshadowed by cost considerations.

 

Where are t-shirts made?

The global supply chain of the fashion industry contributes significantly to carbon emissions. Cheap cotton t-shirts are typically produced in one part of the world, then shipped to various destinations for retail. This transportation process releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The Carbon Trust, a leading organization in sustainable certification, estimates that the transportation of clothing items accounts for a substantial portion of their overall carbon footprint.

 

Where do t-shirts go when we throw them away?

Cheap often means bad quality. The short lifespan of many cheap cotton t-shirts contributes to the growing problem of textile waste. Landfills are inundated with discarded clothing items that take years to decompose, releasing harmful chemicals into the environment during the process. Furthermore, the decomposition of textiles in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a pioneer in promoting circular economy principles, reports that less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new clothing, highlighting the urgent need for improved disposal practices.

 

So what can we do?

If a t-shirt is very cheap, it is likely to have a huge environmental footprint. But not all expensive T-shirts are better! The most important is to look at the origin of the T-shirt, the materials used, and the quality. It’s better to buy less often and keep it for longer! Click here to read our article on the impact of Fast Fashion.

Things you can do instead of buying cheap cotton t-shirts:

  1. Choose second hand clothing. This is the most sustainable option by far, because you are not contributing to the production of new materials, just reusing what’s already there.
  2. If you are not wearing a piece of clothing anymore, do not just throw it away in your bin! Choose to donate it, re-sell it, or even use it as a cleaning cloth, but don’t send it to landfill!
  3. Choose brands that work with natural fabrics that require less resources than cotton, like hemp, lyocell, or recycled cotton.
  4. Choose brands who embrace slow fashion, who work in small batches to avoid waste, and make the best quality pieces of clothes that will last forever!

 

Sources

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – “Cotton’s Impact on Freshwater”

The Guardian – “Cotton carbon emissions: how the shirt on your back affects climate change”

 

Where can I find sustainable t-shirt brands?

If you are looking for a large choice of sustainable clothing brands, visit The Ethical Choice, our eco-brand directory. 

Otherwise, find our selection of the TOP 10 best sustainable t-shirt brands:

Pact is a clothing brand that use organic cotton and eco-friendly production methods to create comfortable and high-quality apparel.

Pact also prioritizes fair trade practices and transparency throughout their supply chain, ensuring the well-being of both people and the planet.

They use 100% organic cotton. Organic cotton is grown without the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides, which is better for the environment and the farmers who grow it.

Pact also uses recycled materials in their packaging and offers a recycling program for used clothing.

Pact is based in San Francisco, California. They sell a variety of clothing for men, women, and children, including underwear, T-shirts, socks, and loungewear. They also sell home goods, such as towels and bedding.

  • Pact is certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which is the world’s leading standard for organic textiles.
  • Pact is also a member of the Fair Labor Association, which works to promote fair labor practices in the global supply chain.
  • Pact offsets its carbon footprint by investing in renewable energy projects and carbon offset programs.
What we liked / disliked

🟢 All clothes made from certified organic GOTS cotton

🟢 They have a give-back program to donate old clothes instead of throwing them away

🟢 Member of Fair Trade Association

🟢 Recycled and Recyclable packaging

🔴 Cotton (even organic) is a crop that requires a lot of water to grow

Amour Vert is a sustainable clothing brand that use a variety of sustainable fabrics, including organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Tencel.

Amour Vert also uses water-saving and energy-efficient manufacturing processes.

Amour vert believe in circular fashion: they use deadstock fabric, plant trees with American Forests, and sell pre-loved clothing through their resale marketplace, ReAmour.

Amour Vert is based in San Francisco, California. They are a certified B Corporation and sell a variety of clothing for women, including dresses, tops, bottoms, and outerwear. They also sell accessories, such as shoes, handbags, and jewelry.

  • Amour Vert are transparent about their sustainability practices and publish an annual sustainability report.
  • Amour Vert is a member of the 1% for the Planet movement, which donates 1% of sales to environmental causes.
What we liked / disliked

🟢They use fabrics like recycled polyester and Tencel

🟢 They have a resale marketplace called ReAmour

🟢 They are very transparent about their sustainability efforts

🟢 Recycled / compostable packaging

🔴 Nothing

BAM

BAM Bamboo Clothing is a sustainable clothing brand that uses bamboo as its primary material. Bamboo fabric is soft, breathable, and moisture-wicking, making it a great choice for all types of indoor and outdoor activities.

Bamboo is a fast-growing and renewable resource that requires less water and pesticides to grow than cotton. BAM Bamboo Clothing also uses eco-friendly manufacturing processes and packaging.

BAM has a zero-waste policy: they recycle any waste that cannot be reused. They only work with ethical suppliers who meet their high standards for social and environmental responsibility.

BAM Bamboo Clothing is based in London, England. They sell a variety of clothing for men, women, and children, including T-shirts, hoodies, dresses, and jeans. They also sell accessories, such as bags and hats.

What we liked / disliked

🟢 Transparent about their sustainability processes, including ingredients, supply chain, work conditions, and objectives.

🟢 Use bamboo as their primary fabric

🟢 They have a zero-waste policy

🔴 It’s mostly active wear only

Tentree is a clothing brand that plants 10 trees for every item sold. Tentree has planted over 65 million trees in over 30 countries. This helps to offset the carbon footprint of their products and support biodiversity.

They also use materials such as organic cotton, hemp, tencel and recycled polyester.

Tentree uses water-saving and energy-efficient manufacturing processes. They also have their own circular system called “Circularity” that allows you to send your old clothes in exchange for store credit.

Tentree is based in Vancouver, Canada. They sell a variety of clothing for men, women, and children, including T-shirts, hoodies, dresses, and jackets. They also sell accessories, such as bags and hats.

  • Tentree is a certified B Corporation, which means that they meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
  • Tentree is Climate Neutral Certified
What we liked / disliked

🟢 Transparent about sustainability efforts, materials, supply chain, and objectives.

🟢 “Circularity” solution to send your old clothes in exchange for store credit instead of throwing them away

🟢 The use of more sustainable crops like hemp.

🔴 Their offset program Climate+: planting trees to offset your carbon footprint is a start, but we know that it’s not a perfect solution, and should not be considered as a miracle solution.

Patagonia was founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, a rock climber and environmentalist. Patagonia’s mission is to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Patagonia uses a variety of sustainable materials in its products, including organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Tencel. 

Patagonia supports environmental causes through its donations program. The company donates 1% of its sales to environmental organizations.

Patagonia is based in Ventura, California. They sell a variety of clothing and outdoor gear for men, women, and children. Patagonia also sells accessories, such as bags, hats, and sunglasses.

  • Patagonia is a certified B Corporation, which means that it meets high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
  • Patagonia is a member of the 1% for the Planet movement, which donates 1% of sales to environmental causes.
  • Patagonia also has a number of environmental initiatives in place, such as its Worn Wear program, which repairs and recycles used Patagonia products.
What we liked / disliked

🟢 Transparent about sustainability efforts, materials, supply chain, and objectives.

🟢 Worn Wear program to repair clothes instead of throwing them away

🟢 The use of recycled polyester and tencel fabrics

🔴 Nothing

Outerknown is a sustainable clothing brand founded by professional surfer Kelly Slater and designer John Moore in 2015.

Outerknown focuses on circularity. Outerknown aims to create products that can be recycled and reused, and to minimize waste throughout its supply chain.

The company uses a variety ofmaterials including organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Econyl, a regenerated nylon made from ocean waste.

  • Outerknown’s Take Back program allows customers to return their used Outerknown products to be recycled or repaired.
  • Outerknown’s Fair Trade Certified factories ensure that workers are paid fair wages and have safe and healthy working conditions.

Outerknown is based in Carlsbad, California. They sell a variety of clothing and accessories for men and women, including T-shirts, sweaters, jeans, swimwear, and shoes.

  • Outerknown is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of brands and organizations working together to improve the sustainability of the apparel industry.
What we liked / disliked

🟢 Transparent about sustainability efforts, materials, supply chain, and objectives.

🟢 Outerworn solution to send your old clothes in exchange for store credit instead of throwing them away

🟢 The use of Econyl, a regenerated nylon made from ocean waste

🔴 Nothing

Alex Crane is a young New York clothing brand (founded in 2016) that use materials like linen, organic cotton, merino wool, cactus and raw leather.

The brand also uses natural dyes, natural rubber, coconut and organic softeners.

What we liked / disliked

🟢 Very nice designs

🟢 Very transparent about each material used to make the clothes

🔴 Lack of transparency and information about the brand in regards with the production process, supply chain, working conditions, etc.

Organic Basics is a sustainable clothing brand that designs clothes for all bodies and all sizes.

They design their products to last and offer a repair service to extend the life of their clothing. They use organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Tencel in their products.

Organic Basics is based in Copenhagen, Denmark. They sell a variety of clothing and accessories for men and women, including underwear, socks, T-shirts, and leggings.

  • Organic Basics is a certified B Corporation, which means that it meets high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
  • Organic Basics is a member of the 1% for the Planet movement, which donates 1% of sales to environmental causes.
What we liked / disliked

🟢 Transparent about their production process and their factories

🟢 Designs for all bodies

🟢 Use fabrics including Organic Cotton, Tencel™ Lyocell and recycled nylon

🔴 Nothing

Mate the Label is a clean fashion brand. They use organic cotton, recycled polyester, and low-impact dyes in their products.

They also avoid using synthetic materials, which can release harmful chemicals when they are produced and washed.

They use organic cotton, which is grown without the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides.

They manufacture their products locally in Los Angeles, California, which reduces their carbon footprint. 

They have a recycling program

Mate the Label is based in Los Angeles, California. They sell a variety of clothing for men and women, including T-shirts, sweaters, jeans, and dresses. They also sell accessories, such as bags and hats.

  • Mate the Label is a certified B Corporation, which means that it meets high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
  • Mate the Label is climate neutral certified. 
What we liked / disliked

🟢 Transparent about their production process and supply chain

🟢 Manufactured in Los Angeles

🟢 Only natural fabrics and dyes, they avoid synthetic ones.

🟢 Women-centered company

🔴 Nothing

Everlane is a clothing brand that  share the cost breakdown of each product on their website, and use sustainable materials and manufacturing processes whenever possible.

Everlane is committed to radical transparency. They publish a sustainability report each year, which details their progress on their environmental goals. They also share information about their supply chain and manufacturing practices on their website.

They use organic cotton and recycled polyester in their products. They have a repair program for their products.

Everlane is based in San Francisco, California. They sell a variety of clothing for men, women, and children, including T-shirts, sweaters, jeans, and dresses. They also sell accessories, such as bags and shoes.

Everlane is a certified B Corporation, which means that it meets high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

What we liked / disliked

🟢 Transparent about their production process, supply chain, materials, fabrics, distribution centers and even their office

🔴 Not vegan

easyecotips
Author: easyecotips