You go shopping, try on a super-soft t-shirt. OMG, you have to have it! So you buy it, leave the store, life goes on. I mean, what else is there to say? It’s just a t-shirt, right?
Making a t-shirt is much more complex than having to sift through piles of them at your local Urban Outfitters. Even more complex than being sewn at a factory in India or China, or buying the fabric from a mill. It all starts on a cotton farm with lots and lots and lots and lots of water and chemicals.
Cotton makes up 2.4% of global agriculture. In the United States alone, there are approximately 18,600 farms totaling over 9.8 million acres of land and producing about 17 million bales of cotton annually. The U.S. is the third largest producer in the world, following China, which produces about 33 million bales of cotton, and India at 26.8 bales (according to a 2012 study).
Although cotton farms make up only a small percentage of the total of global farms, proportionally they use an alarming amount of agricultural chemicals; around 16% of insecticides and 6% of pesticides of the total purchased worldwide.
It takes a combination of energy, natural resources, and enormous amounts of water to turn that cool tee you’re wearing into a usable textile. The problem is most of the water used to process cotton is polluted by agro-chemicals and gets discarded without being treated or cleaned.
To achieve that lovely color that brings out your eyes so nicely also requires the use of dye, many of which contain harmful chemicals and salts which are also discharged into rivers and streams without first being filtered or neutralized, devastating nearby aquatic ecosystems.
The most common dyes used are the Azo dyes, organic compounds used to treat textiles, leather goods, and even some foods. These noxious dyes release cancer-causing chemicals such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, all of which can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. As of today, the only country to have banned their use is the United Kingdom.
20% of all the cotton in the world is genetically modified. Many of these modified strains are becoming immune to certain pesticides, leading to the use of more harsh chemicals. These chemicals are devastating not only to the ecosystem but to the health of farmers and their families.
Insecticides and pesticides find their way into the ground, water, and air from water-waste and soil absorption. This is where the “lots and lots and lots” of water comes in. It can take more than 20,000 liters of water to produce 1kg of cotton. That’s the equivalent to one t-shirt and one pair of jeans.
The pesticides and dyes affect the health and livelihood of farmers, farmers’ families, and nearby communities. In the US alone, many children are born with birth defects caused by the proximity to dirty agriculture. There are also emergent studies on the effects of pesticides on farmers’ mental health, which may be one contributing factor to the high international rates of farmer deaths by suicide.
The US now has strict labor laws prohibiting child labor, but these laws do not apply in other countries. For example, Uzbekistan has little transparency when it comes to manufacturing and employs forced child labor. Garment factories globally are paying workers, mostly women, less and less to decrease the manufacturing cost of each garment. Some make just pennies a day and work in unethical conditions and cramped spaces, with few breaks and long hours.
The cost breakdown of a USD $14.00 t-shirt looks something like this:
- Factory Overhead $0.07
- Agent $0.18
- Factory Margin $0.58
- Materials and Finishing $3.69
- Freight-Insurance-Duties $1.03
- Labor $0.12
- Cost to retailer $5.67
- Sold at a 60% markup: $14.00
The least amount of money is spent on labor and materials, leaving many of the garment workers and the farmers a less-than-living wage. Not to mention the environmental impact the farming and processing have on our global ecosystem. The facts are quite harrowing when you consider what goes into a cotton t-shirt.
So, how can we buy better? By making conscious decisions about our clothes and the implications our purchases are having environmentally and socially.
Thankfully, many brands, both large and small, are making changes to the industry. New agriculture and organic cotton farming are changing industry standards. Still only a very small percentage of the commercial cotton farms are organic, keeping organic cotton at a premium price. Some smaller businesses are grouping organic cotton orders to meet minimums. This keeps costs less for the brand, savings which are passed along as more affordable clean cotton to the consumer.
The Better Cotton Initiative is implementing new technologies. To reduce the use of water, drip irrigation systems are being installed in processing facilities to cut water consumption by nearly half. In states such as California, where water is often scarce due to numerous droughts, this new system is making cotton production much more sustainable.
Farming organic cotton also has its benefits. The two main advantages are water consumption and the absence of harsh pesticides and insecticides. In addition to keeping harmful chemicals out of the ecosystem, organic farming methods keep them off of our skin in the clothes we wear. It’s also better for the farmers’ health since they do not have to come into contact with cancer-causing chemicals during farming and harvesting.
Along with an uptick in organic cotton production, there has been a surge in companies developing new, sustainable textiles. This includes Pinatex, a leather alternative made from pineapple, Tencel, a soft, color-fast textile made from wood pulp, and fabrics made out of recycled water bottles. Other organic materials like coffee and banana fiber are also being generated into usable textile fibers.
We are entering an exciting time of textile innovation and creativity in the manufacturing industry. So next time you’re wondering about the origin story of the shirt you’re admiring in a store window, check the label and do your due diligence to uncover whether you’re buying dirty cotton, or investing in the next wave of progressive textile products.
Arielle Toelke is a makeup, special effects, and custom props artist for film and television (Instinct, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Sinister et al), as well as the designer and creator of the eco-conscious fashion brand Four Rabbit. She frequently writes about sustainable living and business practices. Visit fourrabbit.com to learn more, or follow on Facebook and Instagram.
See more from Arielle about sustainability and planetary wellness, along with many other great stories, in our print issue ONE!