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Ethical Style: How Is My T-Shirt Made?

Your T-shirt can be made any number of ways, but more likely than not, it isn’t made here.

Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.

The cotton T-shirt, along with its cousins the polo, sweatshirt, and tank top, is a staple of the American wardrobe. Your T-shirt can be made any number of ways, but more likely than not, it isn’t made in the United States. In 2011, we imported more than $17 billion dollars worth of cotton tees into American closets. Let’s take a look at where they probably came from—and how we can improve on the process, step by step.

The T-shirt begins as an idea. A team of designers determines the color, fit, and—most relevant to our interests—the fabric of your top. The world’s cotton demand has doubled since the 1960s, with 90 percent of harvested cotton getting spun into apparel. The U.S. has the highest demand for the finished cotton garment, and also happens to be the world’s largest exporter of the raw material. It dominates global cotton production in tandem with China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Brazil.

Unfortunately, your T-shirt label won’t tell you where that cotton came from. Still, there are a few truths about cotton that don’t need a label. For one, child labor is a major reality in cotton harvesting. From Uzbekistan to Egypt, children are forced into picking and separating cotton for pennies, if anything. Cotton certified as Fair Trade and in compliance with the International Labor Organization are the only viable indicators of fair cotton harvested without child labor (we’ll delve deeper into the complicated issue of underage labor in a later column).

Even if your T-shirt’s material was harvested in accordance with U.S. labor laws, the crop poses other ethical concerns. As a general rule of thumb, cotton is terrible for the environment. Cotton is the largest water guzzler in the natural fiber family. Major ecological damage has already been done. The devastating shrinkage of the Aral Sea is largely attributed to cotton farming; what water is left is contaminated by pesticides and herbicides. Five of the top nine pesticides used in U.S. cotton farming are known to be carcinogenic. All of them contaminate fresh groundwater. These ecological concerns can be circumvented with a shift toward organic cotton, but even organic cotton needs to drink.

Cotton is not the only option for your tee: Select sustainable fixes are in the works. One environmentally-friendly alternative is bamboo—it’s soft and cool to the touch, grows fast, and needs much less help to do so. Bamboo doesn’t need pesticides, requires much less water than cotton, and can reclaim overgrazed and overdeveloped land, even clearing it of toxins. Here, too, look for marks from an independent and reliable certification company such as Oeko-Tex to ensure an eco-friendly manufacturing process. Upcycled fabrics are also a viable alternative—recycled polyester made of PET bottles is durable, itself recyclable, and can be manipulated for design purposes (think a distressed, burn-out look).

When material, prototype, and samples are set, the T-shirt is put into mass production. Cotton is either exported from the U.S. to an independent mill in, say, China, or directly harvested in the country of manufacturing. There, it is spun, woven, dyed, and sold to a nearby manufacturing facility, where it is cut and sewn into a T-shirt, then put on a boat and shipped back to the U.S.

The production segment of the T-shirt supply chain is the one most scrutinized in the public eye, and with good reason. The factory process is inefficient, wasteful, and often still abusive. Though the public outcry against sweatshops gained sudden momentum a decade ago, garment manufacturing is still rife with complications.

Experts speculate that in India, child labor makes up 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. As the fashion monster continues to demand more, faster, children help their mothers meet punishing deadlines and then fly under the radar in the industry’s world of middlemen and “liaisons” between factories and global retailers. Many adult workers face immense pressures as well. Even as the price of cotton rises (which it has, dramatically, in recent years), the export price remains depressed. The only way to meet the bottom line is to shave the last remaining pennies off of the wages of spinners and sewers.

Changes are being made step-by-step. A T-shirt’s country of origin was once the definitive stamp of the working conditions under which it was made. But today, individual factories are being held increasingly accountable for the specifics. There exists no unified advocacy group or agreed-upon set of standards for clothing production, but some corporations have responded by implementing their own codes of conduct, and inviting external audits to comment on the validity of their claims. Though we have every right to be skeptical of self-regulation, it is a movement towards much-needed transparency along the production line.

Of course, the story of the T-shirt doesn’t end there. By the time it reaches racks, the future of our shirt is up to us: We can choose to buy it and support the company and processes that made it, or leave it sitting on the shelf. From there, it’s our choice to trash it, pass it down to someone else, upcycle it into something new, recycle it for its raw materials, or donate it to charity (more on the used clothing market to come!).

The supply chain may look like a top-down process, but the end consumer is actually its driving force. For the most part, the fashion industry has successfully obscured the origins of our clothes from us: Unfortunately, the tag tucked inside your T-shirt still isn’t much help in figuring out which factories, farms, and fashion companies are doing better. A constellation of independently-organized certifications already exists to help to identify what to look for, but they can be inscrutable and inaccessible to window shoppers. We need a more immediate marker—something like a USDA-type stamp with global scope to inform casual consumers of what they’re wearing. We may be getting closer. At May’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the United Nations Global Impact Group will join forces [PDF] with the fashion industry for the first time.

The bottom line: There is much to be done at all steps of the fashion supply chain. If end consumers like us can gain a better understanding of our T-shirt’s production cycle—the sustainability of its fabric and the working conditions of its farmers and sewers—we can put pressure on these corporations to help us make a more informed and conscious decision about our clothes. The more transparent the entire production process becomes, the more claims to “ethical” and “sustainable” practices will become sought-after attributes of the printed T-shirt we see on the shelves.

Last week, we got a lot of feedback—thank you!—about the direction of this column, including plenty of inquiries and comments about all that is thrift/vintage/recycled. We’ll look into the reuse of clothing and textiles in the coming weeks. And send all of your ethical style queries to

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Plastered T-Shirts

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