The Ethical and Environmental Need for a Sustainable T-Shirt

The Tale of a T-Shirt: Why Sustainable Fashion Matters

By Emma Tidswell, founder of Emperors & Vagabonds

T-shirts are a staple of the fashion sector, found in almost every wardrobe around the world, they are the go-to style for everything from casual days at the beach to being the basis for an office outfit. We all love a good t-shirt so much that the market is expected to grow by 3.9% every year until 2026, and as it stands the world buys a staggering two billion t-shirts every year.

Working in the fashion sector for some time and starting my own sustainable fashion label, I’ve been fortunate enough to take an intimate look at how the fashion industry works. And, one thing has become very clear, fashion is a complex industry, and even tracing the story of just one garment in the shadowy world of the modern fashion sector can lead down a twisting path.

Taking a look at the facts and figures of the sustainable fashion sector, it’s not hard to see that something needs to change:

  • Between 2% – 10% of global emissions come from the fashion industry
  • Garment production has doubled since 2000
  • Enough textiles end up in landfill every year to fill Sydney Harbour
  • The fashion sector is the second-largest industrial consumer of water

For sustainable change to come, there needs to be more information out there about what it actually takes to make our clothing. So, this is the story of a t-shirt. Not the story of a luxury t-shirt or a sustainable t-shirt or any sort of special t-shirt, just the story of the average, everyday t-shirt. A story of a t-shirt that spreads around the world all the way to your wardrobe.

Let’s Start at the Beginning…

A lot of us probably don’t put a lot of thought into a t-shirt, but they are a staple of a complicated global industry that is having a deeply impactful effect on our planet and on the lives of millions of people around the world.

While t-shirts come in all materials, the overwhelming majority are made from either polyester, cotton, or a blend of both. These materials can be soft and comfortable to wear and are often quite easy to produce and dye. All these factors make them a staple of the t-shirt industry, but that does not necessarily make them the most sustainable of fabrics. So, when looking at the story of our humble little t-shirt, let’s start where all good stories do, at the beginning. As we’re looking at the average t-shirt, the story of our top starts in a cotton field or as crude oil.

cotton field
A Cotton Field

Drying Seas and Dying Bees

2,270 litres of water. That is how much water it takes to produce just one cotton t-shirt. To put that number into perspective, that is roughly equivalent to the amount of drinking water one person needs for three years.

The drying of the Aral Sea stands as perhaps the most potent example of the dire environmental impacts unsustainable cotton production can have. Once the fourth-largest inland sea, the surface area of Aral Sea shrunk by 60% between 1960 and 1998, this was largely due to mismanagement of unsustainable cotton production.

The ecological impacts of such dramatic water use are, in some cases, largely irreversible. The devastating environmental effects of cotton’s water use, again have no better example than the drying of the Aral Sea, which led to species loss and widespread habitat destruction.

Unfortunately, even still just at the farming stage, this is not where the story of unsustainable cotton ends. Cotton production is responsible for roughly 16% of the world’s insecticide use. These toxic chemicals can contaminate soil and waterways, impacting the overall environmental health and biodiversity of an area, as well as posing a severe risk to human health.

It’s important to note, that the exception to this rule is organic cotton. By its very definition, organic cotton is farmed without the use of insecticides and pesticides. Most organic cotton certifying bodies also have further regulations in place to protect workers and the environment.

A Plastic Problem

This brings us to the other major player in the conventional t-shirt market, polyester. Overall, in fashion synthetic fabrics have come to reign supreme, with synthetics making up about 60% of the fabric used in the clothing sector. The major problem with synthetics like polyester is that they are made from petroleum and quite literally contain plastic.

70 million barrels of oil are used every year to keep up with meeting the world’s demand for synthetic fibres. While this alone would be a problem, the next issue with synthetics is microplastics.

Every time synthetic fabrics are worn, washed, or generally used, they shed microplastics. These tiny plastic particles go on to pollute the ocean, air, land, and even the food we eat.

Microplastic pollution is now so widespread that it has been found at the bottom of the ocean and on Mt. Everest. Washing clothing is a particularly concentrated way to release microplastics, with 35% of the 1.5 million tonnes of microplastics that wind up in the ocean each year coming from putting synthetic clothes through the laundry cycle.

Red Rivers and Garment Production

So, even at the early production stages when we break down what a t-shirt is actually made from, creating a more sustainable t-shirt has some clear advantages over its non-organic cotton and polyester counterparts.

However, the impacts of our average t-shirt’s journey don’t stop there. Once the fibres have been grown or created, they then need to be turned into fabric and eventually into clothing. Yarn preparation, fabric production (weaving), dyeing and finishing, and garment production account for over 50% of the emissions used in creating a t-shirt.

With the dyeing process comes the secondary problem of pollution. If our t-shirt’s journey took it to a dying factory in Dhaka, a major centre for garment production, it could have been coloured in one of the 700 factories found to be dumping wastewater into rivers.

Rivers in China have turned red and rivers in Bangladesh have turned black from pollution from the textile dyeing industry as toxic sludge laden with chemicals and heavy metals is released into waterways.

Shipped, Greenwashed and Thrown Away

So once, our t-shirt has been made, dyed, and had the finishing touches added, it’s time for it to be packed and shipped to stores, where it can be marketed and sold to you. If it’s ordered online, plastic pollution from packaging causes another blow to our humble t-shirt’s environmental impact. In a world already choking on plastic pollution, a further 141 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year for packaging.

Watching out for greenwashing is also vital at this stage. A term coined in the 80s, greenwashing is when a brand presents itself as more sustainable than it really is. This process is rife in the fashion industry. Clothing companies that hide behind shadowy supply chains, vague slogans and pretty pictures aim to cash in on a lucrative sustainable market, without actually putting in the work to be sustainable.

So, our t-shirt has started its life in a distant cotton field or resource mine, been spun, weaved, dyed, shipped, marketed and picked up by a savvy shopper in a swanky high-street store. Our t-shirt is then likely to be owned by its proud new owner for just over three years, if it’s unlucky it may go months or even years without being worn, as is the case with over 70% of clothes in UK wardrobes. It will then more than likely find its way into landfill.

And, thus concludes the story of our humble t-shirt… but, not really because once in landfill it will contribute to a whole new cycle of environmental issues.

A Sustainable T-Shirt: woman in grassy hills
Enter the Sustainable T-shirt:
“The Mountains are Calling Tee” by Emperors & Vagabonds
A Sustainable T-Shirt: man on stone steps
The Last Guardian Tee

Making the Story of a Sustainable T-Shirt

Now, this may all seem incredibly bleak, especially for what should have been the fun origin story of a wardrobe staple. However, it doesn’t have to be a depressing story because this doesn’t have to be the story.

Fashion is an influential and versatile industry and there are solutions to the problems that it’s facing. We can have a fun story about a t-shirt if it is a sustainable t-shirt. The power of the sustainable fashion industry works in several ways, two of these ways are simply logical problem solving and the other is in the sector’s ability to influence society.

Since the dim beginnings of history, fashion has always held a unique power to promote change. From flapper dresses that marked a key point in the women’s equality movements of the 20th century to the slogan tees of today to Greta Thunberg’s iconic yellow raincoat, fashion speaks. From ‘Save the Bees’ dresses to stories of the plight of the polar bears illustrated through t-shirts, the clothes we choose to wear spreads the messages we want to promote.

Even by just choosing to buy a sustainable t-shirt over an unsustainable one, we are telling the fashion sector that sustainability matters. By buying quality clothes and wearing them for longer we are telling the fashion sector that sustainability matters. By supporting sustainable businesses, we are telling the fashion sector that sustainability matters.

A Sustainable T-Shirt: Addressing the Environmental Effects - Girl with orange t-shirt on beach
Save the Bees Dress
man in white t-shirt on beach
Retro Beach Tee

Summer Fashion

From a purely logical point of view, sustainability also makes sense. Buying organic cotton clothing means that it reduces insecticide use in the cotton trade. Saying no to synthetics means no microplastics in the laundry cycle.

As summer rolls around, many brands are releasing their new summer ranges. When shopping for new summer styles, look for ones from brands that offer summer essentials without so much of the environmental impact. I know from first-hand experience in creating a sustainable clothing store, that while there is no perfect solution, there are solutions that are much better than the unsustainable practices the fashion industry is currently built on.

These solutions do exist. At Emperors & Vagabonds, we make styles from organic cotton and recycled materials, we used traced supply chains and renewable energy powered factories where ethical standards are championed. To keep clothing out of landfill, we work with a system where clothing can be sent back when worn out to be recycled into new products.

sustainable t-shirts on a rack

A Changing Tale

The good thing is the consumer world does care about sustainability. Reports have found that 54% of Gen Z consumers will pay 10% more for a sustainable product and many platforms have reported increases in searches for sustainable fashion. A sustainable fashion industry is coming, we just need to speed up the process.

The more information we share on sustainable fashion solutions, the more sustainable brands we support, and the more sustainable decisions we make, the faster that widespread sustainable fashion industry will come.

The story of an everyday t-shirt doesn’t have to be a bleak one, we can change this story, we can make it the story of a sustainable t-shirt.

About the Author, Emma Tidswell

With a belief that we all can make the world a more beautiful place, Emma found her passion in the sustainable fashion sector. Working as a freelance writer, she has worked with companies operating around the world to share the importance and influence of the sustainable fashion industry. She has also recently started a sustainable fashion brand, Emperors & Vagabonds, that specialises in ethical and eco-friendly clothing.