It's summer again. Time to pack away all those heavy wool sweaters and pull out your t-shirts. We all have our favorites. We all probably have a lot of them, in fact; piled in the closet, jammed in the bottom of drawers, emblazoned with logos from sporting events and fundraisers, commemorating concerts or special events. But do you ever stop and think about what the impact of a t-shirt is on the planet? You'd probably be surprised to learn what's involved in the lifecycle of just one t-shirt.
There are 5 major stages in the lifecycle of any garment: material, production, shipping, use and disposal. Let's follow a cotton t-shirt through its lifecycle, one step at a time.
According to a study published in 2009 in the UK, the material, production and transport phases of one t-shirt weighing approximately 6 ounces produced in India uses: 700 gallons of water, .22 pounds of fertilizers, .01 pounds of pesticides and 1.2 pounds of fossil fuels! ...One T-shirt!
The material phase of the lifecycle involves farming, irrigating, fertilizing, harvesting and ginning. While cotton is a natural fiber and ultimately not as harmful to the environment as manmade fibers like polyester, it still takes a toll in the material and production phases.
China, India and the US are the three largest producers of cotton in the world, and the US is the world's largest exporter of cotton. Commercial cotton farming uses an immense amount of water, and the use of pesticides is rampant across the globe, especially when it comes to cotton farming. According to the EPA, studies have shown that farmers spend an average of $4.1 billion on pesticides annually. Furthermore, 25% of all pesticides used in the United States are used on cotton crops.
Once the cotton is grown and harvested, so begins the production phase: spinning, knitting, wet process, bleaching, dyeing, confection, cutting and sewing -- these processes also use a great deal of water and energy. Commercial dyes and bleaches are harmful pollutants and can ultimately contaminate groundwater.
After the t-shirt is produced, it enters the transportation phase where it is shipped to distribution warehouses and retail outlets. Often times this involves overseas shipping. Take a look in your closet. Chances are that the vast majority of your cotton garments were made in China or India. Garments can be shipped via plane, ship or truck... all of which spill CO2 into the atmosphere. Calculations from 2000 show that CO2 emissions from light trucks alone amount to 1.15 pounds per mile.
Once the t-shirt reaches the retail market it is purchased, thus entering into the use phase. This phase may seem like the least environmentally detrimental portion of the garment's lifecycle. But take into consideration the number of times you've washed and dried your favorite t-shirt. Washing machines are certainly becoming more efficient. However, the average American household does nearly 400 loads of laundry per year, using about 40 gallons of water per full load with a conventional washer. Such excessive water use combined with the immense amount of energy used by dryers provides evidence for the dire need for conservation efforts.
The final stage of life, which is disposal, involves incineration. This is another process that releases harmful emissions, or involves a landfill where cotton takes years to break down. Current U.S. records show that an estimated 15% of clothes and shoes are recycled, which means that consumers send a shocking 85% of these materials to landfills.
We all need new clothes every once in a while, but let's all try to keep in mind what goes into the production of clothing... it has a real impact on the planet.
There are a lot of things you can do to help reduce your impact. Reuse and recycle clothes. If they're too worn out to wear, cut them up and use them as cleaning rags. Donate them to charity or another organization that recycles textiles. When possible, make an effort to buy organic cotton. Turn down the thermostat on your washer, and line dry your clothes when the weather will allow it.
More details on the lifecycle of textiles check out this video by USAgain LLC.