Where’s the impact of a cotton t-shirt?

Where’s the impact of a cotton t-shirt?


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Last time, we looked at the impact of an Easter egg. We found that the aluminium wrapper came from distant bauxite mines, that cocoa production had a terrible human rights record, and that dairy production took a considerable carbon toll.

This week, we’ll be looking at a cotton t-shirt. T-shirts have their origins in 19th Century undergarments, and since their adoption by miners, dockworkers, and much later Marlon Brando, have become wardrobe staples. We’ve chosen three key areas of the story of a t-shirt to examine: cotton farming, dyes, and clothing manufacture.

Help us fill in the gaps by adding your comments below, as well as suggestions about alternatives and ideas for what products we could cover in the future.

First off, let’s think about how cotton is grown. Approximately half of the world’s fibre comes from cotton; sadly, it’s also one of the most environmentally detrimental crops grown, largely because of the use of toxic pesticides. A disturbing report by the Environmental Justice Foundation outlines the danger: while cotton crops cover only 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, they use 16% of the world’s pesticides. Furthermore, US$2 billion of chemical pesticides are used on cotton crops annually, US$819 million of which are toxic enough to be classed as hazardous by the EU – between 22 million and 77 million agricultural workers are hospitalised on a annual basis due to exposure to pesticides.

As 99% of cotton farmers are from the developing world – which produces 75% of cotton globally – farmers in these communities bear the brunt of the environmental and health dangers. Due to subsidies supporting producers in the US, Europe and China, the market price for cotton has been falling since the 1950s and many farmers, as well as exporting countries, have been adversely affected. Vince Cable estimates that removing subsidies would increase farmers’ incomes in Sub-Saharan Africa by 30%.

Concerns have also been raised about the water footprint of cotton, which the WWF estimates is 20,000 litres for 1kg of fibre – enough to make a t-shirt and jeans – as well as the use of genetically modified crops, which account for 45% of cotton production.

The world – and our wardrobes – wouldn’t be the same without colour. However, dye production comes at a considerable human and environmental toll. Annually, we produce 7 x 150 metric tonnes of dyes, the great majority of which are synthetically produced. Concerns about the ingredients of dyes have led to some, such as several azo dyes, being banned by the EU.

One such dangerous component is beta-napthylamine, a type of aromatic amine. Studies have indicated increases in bladder cancer, diseases of the genitals and unitary organs, lung cancer, prostate cancer, mental and heart diseases, among others. Dioxins, similarly dangerous chemicals, are also used in the bleaching process and have been shown to accumulate in the food chain.

Dye production also decimates waterways: factories are often located near water sources, to enable them to release untreated effluent, reducing once life-full rivers to lifeless sludge. Fires are another major concern – from Rhode Island, to India, to Scotland, the list of catastrophes goes on.

Finally, let’s take a quick look at the t-shirts get assembled. Despite the travesty of sweatshop labour reaching mainstream attention in the 1990s, the great majority of clothing labels still produce their garments in devastating conditions.

The problems are well known: requirements to work excessive overtime, payment based on productivity targets, discrimination against workers in unions, uncertain work agreements, sexual abuse, the non-payment of minimum wage. That most of these conditions are illegal demonstrates the urgent need for inspection and auditing; however, factory workers are often trained to lie to inspectors, thwarting the process.

Women make up the majority of the workforce in most factories. Many enter employment to earn money for marriage or for a family; however, women are frequently prohibited from marrying or forming attachments. Pregnant applicants are often screened, while pregnant workers are required to work hours detrimental to their health.

A recent report by the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation randomly surveyed a number of factories and found conditions like those mentioned above to be commonplace. Companies sourcing from these factories included Forever 21, Marks and Spencer’s, Mountain Hardware, Ralph Lauren, Victoria’s Secret, and many more besides.


What are the impacts of the things we buy? Where is the energy used? What are the impacts on other people and the environment?

Where’s the Impact? is an innovative teaching resource exploring the ecological footprint of products. There are literally thousands of processes involved in the production of any given product – to raise awareness about the impacts of production, pupils use a set of cards to tell the story of a product from beginning to end.

A special offer on the game is available until the 31st of March. £21 for 1-4 copies, £19 for over 5, £17 for over 10 and £15 for over 20. Buy Where’s the Impact from the CAT Eco Store 01654 705 959 or email education@cat.org.uk.