A Breakdown of the Environmental Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt

When we think of the things that contribute to our individual carbon footprints, some of the first things to come to mind might be beef or fossil fuels, but it might surprise you to know that the clothes hanging in your closet also have a big environmental impact.

A plain cotton t-shirt from H&M might cost your wallet anywhere from €4.99 to €9.99, but beyond the price tag is a hidden environmental cost which we will be exploring today. We will be looking at:

The Rise of Fast Fashion
Water Use
Pesticides and Insecticides
Production and Transportation
Post Purchase Environmental Impact
What Kinds of Changes can be Made

A Breakdown of the Environmental Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt 1

The Rise of Fast Fashion

To understand how the fashion industry got to be the second largest polluter after oil, we have to understand a thing or two about Fast Fashion. The key to fast fashion is to produce clothes cheaply, quickly, and with a low price tag.

Fast Fashion is a concept that came onto the scene in the 1990s. Clothing companies such as Zara and H&M streamlined their production processes from the initial design all the way to the clothing being in consumers’ hands. Using these new processes, fast fashion companies can latch onto the newest trends and design, manufacture, and distribute new styles in a matter of weeks instead of months.

Most clothing companies used to have two seasons per year: a spring/summer collection and a fall/winter collection. Thanks to fast fashion, companies now produce, in some cases, dozens of “microseasons.” For instance, Zara offers 24 new clothing collections per year, and H&M typically offers between 12 to 16 collections.

The price for clothing dropped at the same time that the frequency of new trends for people to follow increased. The result: people started buying more clothes. From 1994 to 2014, global production increased by 400%. By 2014, the average consumer was purchasing 60% more clothing items per year than in 2000 and only keeping each garment half as long. Today, approximately 20 pieces of clothing per person on Earth are manufactured each year.

And the global demand of clothing is only expected to increase, as more people, especially in emerging economies, enter the global middle class. A study published by Brookings Institute found that by 2030, an estimated 5.4 billion people will be part of the global middle class, up from 3 billion in 2015.

Now that we’ve set the scene, what is the environmental impact of a cotton t-shirt? We chose a t-shirt, because it is one of the most common garments purchased worldwide. We chose cotton, because cotton accounts for about 33% of all fibers found in textiles, making it the most common natural fiber used to make clothing.

A Breakdown of the Environmental Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt 2

Water Use

According to the World Wildlife Fund, it can take 2,700 liters of water to produce the cotton for a single t-shirt.


That’s enough for a person to drink 3 liters of water a day for almost 2.5 years. And that’s just for one t-shirt. Think about how many t-shirts you own, and it really starts to add up.

All this water use is putting a strain on our natural resources. According to National Geographic, while it is true that the Earth has a lot of water, 97% of that is salt water with another nearly 2% frozen in snow or ice. What remains is about 1% of freshwater that we can use. About 70% of that water is used for agriculture.

Growing cotton requires a lot of water. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), for areas that are already experiencing water stress, cotton production can be especially damaging. Take for instance the Aral Sea, which has nearly disappeared due to the excessive amounts of water drawn from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in order to grow cotton.

Pesticides and Insecticides

According to TED-Ed, cotton requires more pesticides and insecticides than any other crop in the world. These chemicals can cause cancer, harm field workers, and are damaging to surrounding ecosystems. Some cotton is grown organically, but unfortunately, this accounts for less than 1% of the 22.7 million metric tons of cotton produced worldwide.

Additionally, the WRI states that cotton farming is responsible for 24% of insecticides, 11% of pesticides, and uses about 3% of the world’s arable land.

A Breakdown of the Environmental Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt 3

Production Process and Transportation

So now the cotton has been grown and harvested. What comes next?

According to TED-Ed, the harvested cotton is shipped to a spinning facility, where it is blended, carded, combed, pulled, stretched, and finally twisted into snowy ropes of yarn. These are then sent to a mill, where they are woven into sheets of a rough, grayish fabric. The fabric is treated with heat and chemicals to make it soft and white, and then dyed. Some of these dyes contain cadmium, lead, chromium, and mercury. When released into rivers and oceans, these toxins can cause widespread contamination.

The fabric is sewn into finished clothing. One of the biggest exporters of cotton t-shirts is Bangladesh, with about 4.5 million people employed in the t-shirt industry. According to McKinsey, garment workers face health and safety hazards on the job, and receive low wages in return.

The finished products are then shipped to consumers all around the world. The act of transporting the t-shirts plays a large role in its overall carbon footprint. According to a comprehensive life-cycle analysis by Sandra Roos, a PhD student at Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden, 22% of a garment’s climate impact came from transportation to and from the store.

A Breakdown of the Environmental Impact of a Cotton T-Shirt 4

Post Purchase Environmental Impact

So now you’ve bought your cotton t-shirt. Unfortunately, the environmental costs did not end when you paid for it.

According to National Geographic, one load of laundry uses 40 gallons of water and one load in the dryer uses 5 times more energy than washing. Therefore, how often you wear your shirt in between washes has a big environmental impact in the long run.

Similarly, consider how you dispose of your clothing at the end of its life. According to McKinsey, almost three-fifth of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within years of being made.

This is due largely to flaws in current alternatives. Current technologies cannot reliably turn unwanted apparel into fibers fit for making new goods. The markets are also simply not big enough to absorb the volume of material from recycling clothing.

What kinds of changes can be made

That was kind of depressing. The good news is, the industry is catching onto shifting consumer tastes towards sustainability and some changes are coming.

According to McKinsey, H&M, Zara, and 33 other clothing companies have pledged to increase their clothing recycling by 2020.

Patagonia has taken it one step further, introducing their Worn Wear program that allows customers to send in their old clothes in need of repairs. These are then mended, so that the customer can continue to use the item rather than buying a new one.

Companies such as Rent the Runway are developing clothing rental business models.

While the industry experiments with ways to lower its environmental impact, there are many ways that you, the consumer, can lower yours.

First and foremost, buy less stuff. Of the stuff you do buy, consider shopping second hand. Giving clothing a second life is a great way to lower your environmental impact and as a bonus, it’s also cheaper than buying clothing new. FInally, consider washing your clothes less often, and line drying them to save energy.

All of these changes might seem miniscule, but in the long run, and with lots of people implementing them, they can have a big impact.

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