The Ecological Footprint of a T-Shirt

(These photos are from a documentary "China Blue", about working conditions in a Chinese garment factory.)
Something to think about the next time you go to the mall…
From the time a garment is manufactured in (most likely) a third world country, to its purchase and brief use by a fashionable North American, to its discard and possible recycling at a thrift shop or export by a rag merchant back to the third world, the life cycle of a piece of clothing is influenced by politics, economics, and social pressures.
Take for instance, a t-shirt purchased by a 14-year-old girl at American Eagle. The global corporation’s designers have followed the advice of their “cool hunter” and turned (for example) North American urban ghetto street art into a sanitized, innocuous image that will be screen printed onto cheap cotton fabric in a factory in Sri Lanka. The fabric is cut and sewn into shirts by women and children working long hours in terrible conditions. But they work for cheap, which means that the profit margin is greater for American Eagle.
The shirts are packed and shipped in huge containers by sea, to arrive in a port such as Vancouver. The huge growth in the number of containers means that our local highways are congested with trucks, requiring new highways to be built at taxpayer’s expense. The shirts arrive at their destinations all over North America, are unpacked and sold to trend conscious suburban teens, who wear them for a few months until the urban ghetto look is declared “dead” (possibly by the same cool hunter who declared it hot in the first place).
The shirt then faces several possible fates. It may be simply thrown in the garbage. (In the GVRD, approximately 40 lbs of textile waste per person ends up in landfill annually.) It may be donated to Big Brothers or the Diabetes Foundation, who sell the collected goods to for-profit stores like Value Village. Or it may be donated directly to charities that re-sell the goods to fund programs, like the Sally Ann or the SPCA.
But what if the shirt is not sold? It will probably be baled and trucked to a used clothing warehouse on the east coast, where it will be bought by rag merchants either for use as rags in the automotive or cleaning industries, or to be shipped back to the third world, and sold once again to low income people in public markets. It is entirely possible that the person who sewed the shirt could end up wearing it themselves, a few seasons later, especially if they have lost their job because American Eagle relocated its factory to another country where labour is even cheaper.

(In this photo, the girls are using clothespins to keep their eyes open during long shifts at the factory.)
Contrast this to the practise in many parts of the world until recently, or even in North America prior to the 20th century. Cloth would likely be woven by hand, possibly from locally spun yarn. It might be dyed with locally grown plant materials. It would be sewn into simple garments that utilized every scrap of the precious cloth. These garments might be worn for person’s whole adult life if for intended for special occasions, but most often were worn daily, alternating with one or two other outfits, until too shabby. But the cloth would be mended, turned into patchwork quilts, diapers or cleaning cloths, used until it quite literally fell apart. As it was a natural fibre, it could be composted or burned.
Do we really need so many clothes? Maybe we could rely on own own skills to mend or re-fashion something we already have. Maybe we could consciously purchase only clothes that are made locally, or are organic cotton or bamboo. How about arranging a clothing swap with your neighbours? There are lots of easy, fun ways to dress in a more sustainable way.
And for more on jeans, have a look here: Sew Green


  1. Anonymous6:39 PM

    WOW! That's powerful writing. It's so easy to live without thinking, isn't it? Shopping for clothes in today's global economy has loaded our simple daily activities with political/economic meaning. Maybe it's always been that way.

    You know, I read another article a while back in the Los Angleles Times about how the export of cheap used clothing to African countries is endangering the native textiles industries. It has become cheaper to buy a used pair of pants and a shirt in the market than a native garment dyed with wonderful, colourful patterns. Can you believe that?

    Keep up the amazing writing.

  2. Anonymous6:27 AM

    Hurray! I've been looking at the Wardrobe Refashion website for what feels like days now (and, to make it worse, IS in fact days). I've read more blogs than you can shake a stick at - like your good self, I should really have been working. I'm really pleased to read your blog though; I too am trying to lead a more environmentally sound life, although mine doesn't seem to have blossomed into creativity yet (too much work thanks to my various inefficiencies), so I'm wearing very old clothes and ones which I've bought from charity shops which don't fit so well. I look a mess, but rather that than wearing clothes which have:

    a) wreaked environmental havoc all over the world (cotton pesticides, chemical dyes etc) and

    b) travelled further than me.

    The idea that a t-shirt can travel so far, only to be sold for tuppence and binned a week later is an absolute travesty and in some ways I feel it more acutely here in Britain where cheap clothes have only really taken off in the last couple of years, making them more disposable still. At least before, if you had to spend close to a tenner for a cheap top, you might be more inclined to hang on to it!

    I intend to sign the pledge in a couple of months after I've got my house in order (well my flat anyway - I've been there a year already and still have no furniture as I'm looking to buy secondhand and haven't had the opportunity yet).

    After that, I'll wear my (still) ill fitting clothes with pride!



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