The Life & Death of a T-Shirt

Most of us have about 4 to 5 if not more t-shirts in our closet this very moment. We wear them to the gym, to bed, maybe to the beach. We might have purchased them at concerts or received them for a 5K or 10K race. Some of us might even have a handful of plain t-shirts as basic wardrobe staples. Needless to say, the t-shirt has been an integral part of our fashion history but what about the journey of a t-shirt from concept to conception? How does it end up at a concert merchandise booth? Where was it before it arrived in our Amazon Prime boxes? 

T-shirts have a lengthy journey before they even make it into our lives, and unfortunately, they do not always have a happy ending once they move on from our wardrobes. There are 5 main stages that a t-shirt typically goes through in the course of its existence: Materials, Production, Retail, Usage, and Disposal.

The material stage involves farming practices that include irrigating, fertilizing and harvesting. Cotton is not as harmful as other fibers but according to the World Wild Fund for Nature, it can take more than 20,000 liters of water to make a t-shirt. Harsh chemicals such as insecticides and pesticides can be toxic to humans, animals, and the environment. This is one of the many reasons why it is important to purchase organic cotton products.

Next, we move into the production stage that takes a raw product and turns it into a tangible good through spinning, knitting, dyeing, cutting, and finally the sewing of the garmentThe Ethical Fashion Forum has stated that the global textile industry is responsible for 40,000-50,000 tons of dye into our waters making fashion one of the largest polluters in the world, second only to the oil industry. Thankfully, some fair trade organizations have incorporated environmentally friendly natural dye methods into their production systems that do not endanger workers health or pollute our waters.

Then comes the retail phase. This is where the t-shirt is purchased by wholesale vendors and becomes available for purchase in department stores, boutiques, and online. Once the t-shirt is purchased, it makes it’s way into our closets and becomes a member of our wardrobe family partnered with jeans, leggings, shorts and skirts. We might have close relationships with our t-shirts or they may make rare appearances when it’s close to laundry day or we need to toss on something easy to help a friend move. Regardless, t-shirts are like that old faithful friend that never goes out of style and always there when we need them.

Now, there are a couple of ways that we can look at the “final” stage of life for a t-shirt. That day comes around every now and again when we clear out our closets. Maybe it’s for a garage sale, spring cleaning, or maybe it’s another attempt at fung shui, but most of us do go through a cleansing phase where we get rid of things we don’t wear anymore or don’t want anymore. Sadly, this has lead to the execution of many fallen t-shirts. If a t-shirt is not offered new life with a new owner by way of thrift store donations, garage sale, or clothing swap, then it can, in fact, end up in a landfill where it begins it’s slow and agonizing death. The EPA has estimated that the average U.S. citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing a year, including many t-shirts. Due to the expedient timeline of fast fashion, clothing is making its way to landfills at a rapid speed, unlike any other timetable that we’ve seen before. As a t-shirt decomposes in a landfill, it can release methane, which contributes to global warming. Dye properties can also fuse into the soil leading to contaminated water that can further harm humans and animals.

I have taken a pledge to ensure that my clothing selections do not harm people, animals, and our environment. This includes t-shirts. Instead of tossing out old t-shirts, I have made a promise to myself to make smarter buying decisions starting with ethical fashion companies such as Prana and Patagonia that make it their mission to reduce their carbon footprint through organic and ethical practices through each phase of a garment’s lifecycle. We do have the ability to get creative with our t-shirts once the original intended use is no longer an option. We can cut off the neckline and Flash Dance it out like Jennifer Beal, or we can stop using paper towels and cut up old t-shirts to use as cleaning rags. The point is, we need to think about the impact that a single t-shirt can have on millions of lives and our environment for future generations to come.