How heavy is that T-shirt you’re wearing?

A Fashion Staple’s Heavy Impact on the Global Environment

It’s winter again. Time to pull out your heavy wool sweaters and pack away those T-shirts. We all have our favorites – in fact, most of our T-shirts are probably piled in a closet, jammed in the bottom of drawers, emblazoned with logos from sporting events and fundraisers, or commemorating concerts or special events. But did you ever stop and think about what impact a T-shirt has on our planet? You’d probably be surprised to learn what’s involved in the life cycle of just one T-shirt.

There are 5 major stages in the life cycle of any garment: material, production, transportation, use and disposal.

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 – just one T-shirt.

Those figures add up to a 6 ounce T-shirt contributing 5.25 pounds (84 ounces) of climate changing greenhouse gases before it is even worn once. By making sure the T-shirt gets used again by someone else after you are done with it, you can save the environment from the impact of making another T-shirt.

The material phase of the life cycle 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 U.S. are the three largest producers of cotton in the world, and the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Commercial cotton farming uses an immense amount of water and more pesticides than any other crop. According to the EPA, 25 percent 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 overseas. Take a look in your closet – chances are the vast majority of your cotton garments were made in China or India. Garments are mainly shipped via boat, train or truck, all of which spill CO2 into the atmosphere. Calculations from 2000 show that CO2 emissions from light trucks alone amounted to 1.15 pounds per mile.

Once the T-shirt reaches the retail market it is purchased, where the use phase begins. 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, during the typical 50 washes that a T-shirt goes through during its use, the washing and drying cycles add between 15 and 22 pounds of CO2 emissions, depending on water temperature and appliance efficiency. By washing in cold water and line drying, emissions can be cut down to 4.5 pounds during the use phase – and it reduces your utility bills, too.

The final stage of the life cycle — disposal — involves incineration, which releases harmful air pollutants or involves landfills where cotton takes six months to decompose. Current U.S. records show that only 15 percent of clothes and shoes are recycled, meaning that a shocking 85 percent of these materials are sent to landfills.

We all need new clothes every once in a while, but there are a lot of things we can do to help reduce our impact. Reuse and recycle clothes, for example. If they’re too worn out to wear, cut them up and use them as cleaning rags. Drop them off in a collection bin to be reworn, reused or recycled. When possible, make an effort to buy organic cotton. Turn down the thermostat on your washer to cold, and line dry your clothes when space or weather allows it. Let’s all try to keep in mind what goes into the production of clothing. It has a real impact on the planet.

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