Large or small, firey red or classic white—conventionally made cotton Ts come with some unsettling environmental problems. The two biggest issues with this wardrobe staple? The production and processing of cotton and the dyes that go into the finished product.
T-shirts are usually made from 100 percent cotton but may also contain a percentage of synthetic fibers such as polyester to reduce shrinkage or boost stability. The detrimental environmental impact of T-shirts is rooted in the farming of conventional cotton, considered to be the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. While only 2.4 percent of farmland worldwide is dedicated to cotton, it accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide sales.
In total, $2 billion worth of chemicals are sprayed on global cotton crops each year, almost half of which are classified as hazardous by the World Health Organization (WHO). The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil microorganisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent of seed used in conventional cotton farming in the United States is genetically modified.
In the United States, an estimated 1/3 pound of agricultural chemicals are used to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Thus, a 100 percent cotton T-shirt is actually comprised of 73 percent cotton—the remaining 27 percent is made up of chemicals and chemical residues.
The farming of conventional cotton is also water-intensive. Producing one cotton t-shirt requires about 720 gallons of water—over four times that used by an average American in a day.
The textile industry generates and consumes an estimated 1.3 million tons of dyes and other synthetic coloring agents worth around $23 billion—the equivalent weight of 441 average-sized cars, like the Nissan Altima. Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil. These dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and cancer-causing heavy metals like chromium VI, arsenic, and cadmium. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes a number of dyes are hazardous due to threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants.
In conventional textile production, caustic chemicals and bleaches are also used to remove all color before dyeing. Throughout the manufacturing process, the fiber and fabric is flushed with water, which creates a potential for wastewater contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and bleach, which produces dioxin—a human carcinogen.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Using genetically-modified seed is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMO crops pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and causing some insects which feed on GMO crops to become resistant to pesticides.
- National Public Radio - The World in a T-Shirt
- Style Will Save Us
- Sustainable Cotton Project
- Sustainable Style Foundation
- Tcritic.com The Daily T-Shirt Blog About T-Shirts"
- T-Shirt News
- Organic Consumers Association - Clothes for a Change: Background Info
- Earth Justice Foundation - The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton
- Organic Exchange - About Organic Cotton brochure
- Organic Consumers Association - Clothes for Change: Background Info
- Institute - The World's Water 2006-2007 Tables
- Fibre2fashion.com - Natural, “Green” Dyes for the Textile Industry
- The Green Guide - Mattresses and Box Springs
- Grist - Advice on natural fabrics vs. polyester