The Altar Of Ethics and Environmentalism

The t-shirt off our backs. Will they be sacrificed at the altar of ethics and environmentalism? Giles Hobbs, founder of T-Shirt Studio delivers his take on the ethics of t-shirt production and the environmental issues surrounding it:

Please excuse the slightly reactionary nature of the title! This introduction to a coming series of articles about cotton, t-shirts and their future aims to be objective, however it won’t, as is common these days sell itself by buying into the established pitch. That is that modern agriculture does nothing but terrible things to our planet and people and just like the cotton sheet used to make a scary phantom costume, cotton itself is the new monster.

Whether you’re a t-shirt fanatic, just buying some personalized t-shirts for an event, a buyer for a store, or a one of the many online t-shirt shops or personalized garment printers, we all have to look at the evidence and make our own decision about the role t-shirts and cotton will play in our futures.

However it’s not a simple decision. Environmentally sound and ethical manufacture, sale and use of t-shirts doesn’t just come down to cotton and how it’s made. A brief search of the internet might suggest it does, with many, sadly varying figures quoted about quantities of water and chemicals used in the manufacture of the shirt on your back. I will look at some figures in more depth in later articles, and also put these figures in some perspective, but many quotes put water use at 20,000 liters per kg of cotton produced. This however on a par with many agricultural crops and cotton is arguably a more versatile and essential crop than many. It’s versatility is amazing, but in general cotton and t-shirt manufacture makes for scary reading.

The cost to people and the environment are varied and complex, but yet so are the benefits. Yes, T-shirts use vast amounts of chemicals and water in production, are often transported (as cotton or the final product) half way round the world, and the people involved are often treated terribly, but, however disturbing as all these things are, something about t-shirts makes them hard to hate. More than that, what makes them so easy to love? Their power to influence whole generations, their cultural significance over so many decades, and the role they play in so many peoples identities makes them a part of our soul. T-shirts have become powerful tools for charitable awareness and consciousness raising in general. Look back through recent history. It’s hard to imagine life without rock and roll or any other significant musical genre, as it is with iconic vehicles. T-shirts have also played such history changing roles and I think we’d all hope they continue to do so. The modern personalized t-shirt industry has given the t-shirt a new way to enthrall us. By allowing us to wear truly unique clothing, not only t-shirts but hoodies and other garments we can really express ourselves through what we wear. But the power of t-shirts has a flip side, which I’m reminded every time I hear of another religiously inspired design of hatred blazoned across a t-shirt.

It’s clear that something needs to change. Most of the change needs to take place in our attitude of the buyer. Businesses will quickly adapt to meet a change in buying behaviour. If we all started buying organic/fair-trade tomorrow, the t-shirt companies would be buying nothing but the same the following day. However other arguments suggest that organic cotton doesn’t solve the problem at all, and surprisingly polyester steps in as champion.

One of the biggest pitches for the benefits of polyester come down to the energy saved ‘after’ the shirt is bought, in cleaning, drying, and it’s increased lifespan. Our responsibility doesn’t end when we walk out of the shop. According to many, the environmental impact of how the shirts are cleaned might lead us to assume that it is indeed greener to be a soap-dodging hippy! There are lots of great tips on how to clean green. We’ll look at them all in closer detail.

What about the future. Right now discussions are taking place about the coming food crisis. Every inch of land will be re-evaluated, and every growing practice analyzed. We may be headed for disaster, or for a agricultural revolution that could change everything.

The coming series of articles will examine all these complexities that surround the t-shirt, our most beloved of garments.

Coming articles: The cost of cotton | Shipping shirts | Fairly made? About fair-trade. | Back in plastic! Cotton vs polyester | Green and clean | Dyes of Death? How to print safe |

By Giles Hobbs