(First published in Thought Catalog March 31, 2104)
The t-shirt, staple of the American wardrobe. It’s casual, soft, simple, personal, social and ‘natural’, right?
Not. It’s an environmental train derailment that spans two continents, which you pull over your head, with something cute printed on it and maybe a pocket for your Tic-Tacs.
One cotton t-shirt takes as much energy to produce and care for in its life as it takes to run a large screen TV for 4 days and nights. It takes over 700 gallons of water to produce a single shirt and a third of a pound of chemicals.
Clothing in this country is at a lower percentage of income than ever. Its price at retail is all out of proportion to its environmental costs.
Breaking this down:
1. Growing the cotton for your t-shirt is killing us.
It’s one of the world’s dirtiest crops. 25% of all the world’s pesticides are applied to cotton. Growing uses a lot of that 700 gallons of water, and that lowers the water table, introduces pesticide and fertilizer runoff to what’s left, beats up the soil, and increases its salinity.
2. Processing the cotton for your t-shirt is killing us.
It takes 10 times more energy to produce textiles than glass. Cotton is no exception. After we grow the cotton, we ship it across the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese make it into t-shirts for us. With the money, they buy our debt, Kobe beef, and Audis, all while stoking their own social and environmental calamities as a result of making — guess what? Those t-shirts for us. Which they then ship back across the Pacific Ocean.
3. Taking care of your t-shirt is killing us.
Your t-shirt has to be washed more frequently, and at a higher temperature than alternative fabrics. Cotton clothing takes more water (not included in that 700 gallons, above) and detergent to clean, and more energy to iron.
4. Getting rid of your t-shirt is killing us.
The low price of that casual, informal t-shirt has introduced a mindset of disposability into our culture. We think nothing of tossing a ‘seasoned’ shirt in the can. Here is a hidden, ‘opportunity cost’: unless recycled, the entire investment we’ve made in that shirt, above, is lost. However, the international sustainability watchdog group Treehugger reports that remanufacturing cotton clothing from recycled product saves an astonishing 97.4% of the energy used to produce it. The US is not yet practiced in curbside textile recycling, but the idea is getting attention.
How to stop this killing spree:
For your next blouse or shirt, start by picking something made of viscose, a.k.a., rayon. This is a class of fibers known as ‘semi-synthetics’ as their chemistry includes naturally occurring polymers. Rayon is made from wood pulp. Fabrics made from it can emulate cotton, linen, wool, or silk. They last longer. They wash at lower temperatures, and need less ironing. They can perform like natural fibers. One newer brand, Tencel, can absorb 50% more moisture than cotton. It would seem that cutting down trees to make shirts can’t be good, but rayon is made from slash pine or hemlock grown in managed, sustainable stands, not from imperiled rainforest species or legacy forests. Finally, if not recycled, it’s 100% biodegradable.
Polyester or cotton/poly blends? That’s the ecological equivalent of the Devil marrying Godzilla.
New semi-synthetics are on the way, some with equally ‘natural’ properties and environmental promise. We need to reward these manufacturers.
Certified organic cotton is much better for the environment through the growing process (though it still needs the 700 gallons of water), but the follow-on dyeing and finishing catch it up to ‘bad’ cotton real quick. And from this point on the lifetime impact of the two are the same. Still, it’s a better choice for the cotton items you must have.
(SPOILER ALERT: I’m not a spokesperson for the rayon industry, and have not received, nor will I accept, any compensation from them for writing this. It is not intended to beat up or single out the cotton, an important crop for many other uses. And, no animals have been harmed in the preparation of this article.)
So here’s what you can do: remember your ‘Three R’s of Environmental Responsibility’:
Reduce: Buy One, Forget One. Most people rarely come out of a store with just one shirt or blouse in their bag, thanks in part to the sartorial gluttony retailers have foisted upon us. We now buy twice the clothing we did 20 years ago, and throwing away 70 pounds of textiles each per year. What happened? Are we wearing stuff out faster? Next time you shop, change your behavior, and the retailers’, and pick just one copy of that shirt or blouse. If you can’t resist an actual ‘Buy One, Get One’ deal they’re running, give the second to a friend.
Reuse: Buy your next clothing item from a consignment shop. That’s right — ‘new to you’ clothes. That is one less garment that needs to be made, and one more incremental incentive to these businesses to keep at it. If this creeps you out, trade an article of clothing with a friend. Start a new tradition. Give the Earth a present.
Recycle: Give or sell your clothing to that consignment shop, above. Better yet, donate used clothing. The charities and thrift shops that accept them need the revenue they get from reselling your items. This becomes even more important as the downward pressure on new clothing prices erodes the appeal of the low price used clothing offers. We need to keep them operating. If it’s not in a condition to donate, with your new rayon shirt on, take the cotton clothing you don’t wear to any recycling center that accepts it for processing.
In the meantime, take your showers in a t-shirt.