tshirt carbon footprint

What's one piece of clothing everyone owns? A basic cotton t-shirt.

It is also probably the most worn item in your closet. But have you ever wondered what the environmental impact of this ubiquitous cotton T-shirt is? 

Ecological footprint is defined as the impact of a person or community on the environment, expressed as the amount of land required to sustain their use of natural resources. While estimating the footprint of meat and fossil fuels is comparatively simpler, it's no easy feat when it comes to clothes. In order to calculate this, the entire life-cycle of the T-shirt must be brought into consideration - starting from creation, usage to disposal. As part of this process, the amount of water and energy used, waste released, carbon footprint and air pollution generated needs to be measured. 

Here's a step-by-step approximation of the environmental impact left by one T-shirt (here come the scary numbers

  • The cultivation of cotton itself for one shirt produces more than one kilogram of CO2. The World Resources Institute (WRI) states that cotton requires 24% of insecticides, 11% of pesticides, and uses about 3% of the world’s arable. 
  • According to the World Wildlife Fund, it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the cotton for a single T-shirt.
  • The spinning process that is followed accounts for another kilogram of CO2
  • Manufacturing the cloth releases 3 kilograms of CO2
  • Dyeing alone leaves 0.01 kilogram of carbon dioxide per wear (even more in case of dark textiles as compared to lighter ones)
  • The remaining processes of packing, compilation of the catalogue, storage and dispatch produces 3 kilograms of CO2
  • A total of around 7 kilograms of CO2 is generated before the customer takes the t-shirt home
  • Extensive research conducted by Sandra Roos, a PhD student at Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden, shows that 22% of a garment’s climate impact came from transportation to and from the store.
  • According to National Geographic, one load of laundry uses 40 gallons of water 
  • Additional processes of drying and ironing increases the level of CO2 to almost 12 kilograms
  • On an average, 3.3 kilograms of CO2 is produced before disposal, if it’s assumed that it will be washed around 55 times before it becomes rubbish

While adding up these statistics will not give an exact percentage of footprint generated, they give us a basic understanding of how the entire life-cycle of a single T-shirt affects the planet, which ultimately calls for conscious usage and disposal on part of the consumer and more sustainable production on the part of the manufacturer. 

As a consumer, you can do your bit by shopping from sustainable brands and adopt sustainable fashion or buying pre-loved garments. Once you have purchased a T-shirt, it is impossible to undo the processes that have already taken place prior to purchase but you can reduce the overall footprint by reducing the number of times you wash the shirt, and when you do, wash with cold water and air dry. When the shirt has reached the maximum number of wears possible, either donate it or give it off to brands that make clothing out of cloth scraps and waste. 

Some resources to educate yourself on the Ecological Footprint of your clothes:

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