It’s still Plastic Free July and with a focus on the environment, I thought we’d take a look at the lifecycle of a t shirt. The t shirt is a clothing staple around the world and it is estimated that about two billion t shirts are sold worldwide each year.
The lifecycle of any product or garment looks at it’s environmental and social impact at each stage in its life, from textile production, through design, manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal. At each stage, the amount of energy and resources that are used and the amount of waste and pollution that is made is estimated.
While we are aware of the environmental impact of the food we eat, we tend to be less awareness of the real costs of the clothes we wear. I’ve written about 8 reasons to pay an extra dollar when you shop.
The impact a garment has on the environment is spread across its life cycle. In the case of a t shirt, the way the cotton or polyester is made and dyed, how it is designed and put together, how it is distributed for sale, and how it is used and disposed of, can vary from one t shirt to another. No two t shirts made from the same fibre necessarily have the same environmental impact and not every cotton t shirt is the same. So what makes the difference?
In a world of mass consumption and ‘fast fashion’, manufacturing is primarily driven by price. This means that prior even to the design of a garment, the wholesale price will be set. Every decision, from the level of design detail, to the amount of fabric used, the choice of cotton, the quality of seams and the process of manufacturing, are driven by the need to meet this predefined price. This inevitably leads to sourcing cheaper materials, cheaper labour, and cutting corners where possible to keep costs low.
While a t shirt may be cheap, the impact of cheap manufacturing on the environment and workers is generally at a higher cost. For example, cheap textiles often use dyes that contain harmful AZO chemicals that are hazardous to people and the environment, and workers are frequently underpaid and may work in unsafe conditions. Under these conditions we see the typical cheap, poorly made t shirt that is the signature of fast fashion.
As a t shirt moves from the production stage of its lifecycle to the next stage – when it is purchased and worn – it continues to have an impact. It is at this stage of the lifecycle that the t shirt is washed and worn. The biggest environmental impact at this stage is the amount of water that is used to wash it.
The other important factor is the lifespan of a garment: the time between cradle and grave. Different studies have asked people to estimate the length of time they keep their clothes, and the results vary considerably, depending on the type of garment and how long it lasts. This is where the cheap manufacturing associated with fast fashion continues to have an impact and results in a shorter life span for the t shirt.
At the end of it’s life, a t shirt can be reused and made into something of lower quality (such as cleaning cloths) or more usually ends up in landfill. A U.S study estimated that only 15% of clothes were recycled, with 85% ending up in landfill. Many clothes that are donated to opp shops, still end up in landfill, when they are not sold or are judged to be not good enough to sell.
The overall impact of a t shirt during its lifecycle differs considerably, depending on how it is made and whether or not it is reused. One way we can reduce the impact of a t shirt, is to extend its lifespan. Extending the lifespan of a t shirt means buying better quality garments in the first place. This may mean resisting fast fashion and instead opting for something that is durable, is not the latest flash-in-the-pan trend, and is a little more expensive. A high quality garment can be handed down and sold-on several times before it is downcycled into a lesser quality item.
We can take some responsibility for the impact of the clothes we wear when we understand how what we pay also effects our perception of its value. If something is really cheap we generally perceive it to have a low value and this has an impact on how we treat and care for it. We don’t expect a cheap t shirt to last long, because we perceive it to be of poorer quality. This means that when it shows signs of wear we may more easily throw it out and replace it with the next cheap item of fashion, rather than repairing it, or even taking more care of it during its life.
Fast fashion started taking off during the 1990s, so for many younger people it’s all they’ve known. Some older folks, like me, may remember growing up with ‘good clothes’ and ‘around-the-house’ clothes. We went out in our good clothes, and when we came home we had to take them off and hang them up to keep them in good condition. Here are a few tips to extend the life of your t shirt
1. Quality: Start by buying quality. Look for a thick, sturdy weave. Avoid very open, loose weaves – it is more likely to lose shape. Check for quality seams. Buy natural fabrics.
2. Cost: Consider all the costs involved in making the t shirt and then compare it to the price you are being asked to pay. The lower the price, the lower the manufacturing costs need to be to meet this price.
3. Care: Wash on a gentle cycle or handwash it to keep it in good condition. Dry it out of the sun, to avoid fading. You may not need to wash a t shirt as often as you think. Before washing, try hanging it up to air first. When you’ve worn it, put it away to prevent creases, and to make sure it still looks good tomorrow. Learn to repair clothes.
5. Pass them on: Pass on clothes to other people when you no longer want them. In the case of children’s clothes, they can be passed on to younger siblings and friend’s kids when they are outgrown. Donate good t shirts to opportunity shops. Cut up old t shirts for repurposing as diy shopping bags or to use as rags.
Understanding the impact over the lifecycle of a piece of clothing helps designers, manufacturers and consumers make better decisions to reduce the impact and extend the life of clothing. How do you extend the life of your clothes? Do you repurpose your clothes into other things? We’d love to hear your ideas.