Keep calm and save your cotton t-shirt – Part 1


One of the most common items in everybody’s wardrobe is a cotton t-shirt. We all love those cool logo tees from our favorite brands and designers or those with probably a thousand reiterations of “keep calm and carry on” phrase printed in any possible context. Yet we know so little about what it actually takes to make this simple and much-loved piece of clothing.

Well, unfortunately, it takes way more resources and energy than it seems. And the environmental and social impact of a conventional cotton production is one of the worst in the textile industry. Here are a few facts about cotton and making your favorite t-shirt that might surprise you: 

1. It takes around 2,700 litters (713 gallons) of water to produce one cotton t-shirt – this amount of water is what 1 person could drink for 2.5-3 years*! Cotton is a very water intensive crop to grow and requires extensive irrigation. What is more troubling is that it is mostly grown in already water distressed regions of the world like India, Pakistan, China, Southern US, Uzbekistan, and Africa.

2. Large amounts of potentially harmful chemicals are used in conventional cotton agriculture, as it can only grow with synthetic oil-based pesticides, insecticides and fertilizers. Despite occupying only about 3% of agricultural land it uses 16% of all insecticides and 7% of pesticides produced globally. Even more chemicals are used in fabric dyes to achieve those trendy seasonal colors we all like! Not only these chemicals are a health hazard to farmers and garment workers, they are also causing a major land and water pollution. When used in fertilizers and pesticides they are absorbed by farm lands, and many textile factories in countries with limited environmental regulations often just dump their production wastewater into local rivers.

3. Most of the cotton t-shirts production takes place in countries with very little labor protection where workers are paid below minimum wages or even forced into labor. If you paid $10 for that last t-shirt you bought, there is very little chance that workers who made it were paid fairly. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a garment worker’s wage is only 1% – 3% of the final price of most clothing*, while brand+retailer takes more than 75%. It is estimated that only additional 2% added to this cost would double the workers’ wages. Here is a great visual illustration of an average cost breakdown on a $10 t-shirt:

4. The estimated CO2 footprint of one t-shirt is 2.35kg* meanwhile an average t-shirt weights only 150g! Just think of all the energy required to grow the crops, to make the yarn and knit it into fabric, to ship it to the garment factories and sew a t-shirt, and then finally to transport it across the world to reach the final consumer.

5. Final and maybe most surprising fact here is that a lot of the energy consumption – more than 50%*! – happens not in the production and transportation of a cotton t-shirt, but actually in caring for it! Meaning it is us, the consumers, who continue to increase the carbon footprint of a t-shirt every time we wash, tumble-dry and iron it.

Here is a very impactful video made by TED-Ed that illustrates the complex lifecycle of a simple t-shirt in 6 minutes. I think, this video deserves more than 1.6 million views, so please share it!

I admit, this information may be difficult to digest and probably comes as shock to many of us.  Cotton is a natural fiber and it has a potential to be good, but the industry must change the way it’s cultivated, and put more sustainable practices, safety standards and regulations in place. Fortunately for you as a consumer, there are already alternatives and solutions available to reduce cotton’s environmental impact! Read part 2 where I share a few ideas and tips that each of us can easily implement into our daily lives to make a little difference.

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