Story of a T-Shirt: the environmental & social impact of a tee

From sourcing of the materials to the manufacturing and shipping, this is how your T-shirt is made

If you’ve recently purchased a piece of clothing for just 5 bucks, we will showcase the story of a t-shirt’s journey to realise it wasn’t just born in stores!

I remember the stalk and the sun. As distant and elusive those memories are now, I can still feel the heat of an open Mississippi sky and the breeze that bent us back and forth–an ocean of white cotton in the early stages of life. 

There are other memories too. Ones less cherished though just as easily provoked, where I hear the rumble of turning propellers closing in. The sound passes overhead, whooshing by, momentarily folding us towards the dirt before we stretch and rise again towards the sky. 

The rumble leaves with it a burning, wet substance, broadly known as a pesticide or an insecticide. Though their names, often ending with ates, phos, or phans, have always been easier to describe than to pronounce. Though there is one word that always seemed to suit them well: toxic.

Story of a T-Shirt: the environmental & social impact of a tee
Photo Credit: Rio Lecatompessy from Unsplash

Afterall, this was only the beginning of the journey. A journey filled with long voyages across deep seas, touched with both cold, mechanical arms and soft, warm hands. My eventual destination, which I am only to perceive at this moment to be my last, is as a simple, cotton garment. A t-shirt

The real impact of the fast fashion industry in the world

1. Story of a T-Shirt: Mississippi to Indonesia

Not long after the rain of toxins fell on our ocean of white did a new and equally distinct rumble emerge in the distance. Produced from a sort of autonomous, tank-like mechanism, the rumbling moved towards us in a straight path, curling us in its arms and leaving in its wake long, desolate lines of crippled stalks–a highway of destruction and exhaust. 

We are packed tightly together, hundreds of thousands of balls of cotton, hauled away and transported to our next destination in specially designed trucks. Soon we arrive at a large and cold facility, echoing with mechanical shrieks and grinds. 

From there, we are dragged from the truck and pulled apart. An escort pours us down into long, metallic shoots into what is known as a “high-speed gin.” Quickly, and with little-to-no human interference, our fibers are pulled from our lab-designed seeds and we begin a new phase of life. 

Once again packed together, and once again transported, we arrive at a shipyard. Steel rectangular crates dip from the sky, before rising again and loading themselves onto long, flat vessels. It is into one of these that we are gathered and secured prior to our voyage across the sea. 

Dark and silent is our new home, and though we can’t hear the slapping waves or the churning of the propellers below, nor smell the burning of the fuels that powers us forward, we know they are there. We round the Southern bend of Africa near Cape Town and steer North, passing Madagascar and plunging into the Indian Ocean, before arriving, in due time, in Indonesia. 

Following the routine rising and falling within the steel crates that loaded us upon the ship –the same sort that unloads us– we settle onto the pavement of another shipyard. The same mechanical noises, the same loading and transporting upon guzzling trucks. A replica of the bare, white facility back across the sea welcomes us as we begin our next process.

In contrast with the previous facility, this new one is more intricate in its process,  involving many more steps, though it still has those eerily recognizable mechanical grinds and shrieks and the same absence of human touch. We are combed, pulled, twisted, and spun together. Each act holds a different purpose and therefore requires its own machine. The excess cotton, the kind deemed unworthy of further advancement, litter the floor and end their journey there. 

Story of a T-Shirt: the environmental & social impact of a tee
Photo Credit: Sam Dellaporta from Unsplash

Once we are spun together, as yarn, we are loaded once more. Packed into large spools and wound onto a circular knitting machine, spinning round and round until we are tightly pressed against another forming long, flat sheets–now called fabric. 

This all comes before our final, and perhaps most treacherous phase–in Indonesia, where we are washed in large tubs, which drink thousands of liters of water a day, before once again being sprayed with harmful chemicals and dyes, where many of us lose our previous white hue. 

Fashion is dying: the solution to toxic chemicals

2. Story of a T-Shirt: Indonesia to Bangladesh 

Loaded once more and packed into steel crates, we are shipped upon vessels through the Malacca Strait, plunging forward into the Bay of Bengal before arriving in Bangladesh. Still (primarily) untouched by human hands, Bangladesh offers us a warm handshake as we arrive. Though the greeting we receive is not equally distributed among the workers who handle us. 

Many of them, as seen by their lack of enthusiasm for work (due to the economic conditions placed upon them), are severely overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. This is the result of a long lasting history of business within the fashion industry, in which companies that sell the garments, equally sell business opportunities to economically disadvantaged countries that can and will make their product for the lowest possible cost. The state of the workers who handle us are a result of this.

Story of a T-Shirt: the environmental & social impact of a tee
Photo Credit: Janko Ferlic from Unsplash

The clothing makers help us emerge from thin pieces of fabric to our final transformation: a t-shirt. The clicking of sewing needles in great unison, thrust down and out, drowns out all other noise, all other possibilities of conversation or happy workplace engagement. It is a steady, monotonous drumming. Day in and day out. We emerge in great numbers at a rapid pace and are freshly stitched together with nimble, hardworking fingers –human and machine working in unison. 

And although we’ve reached our final transformation, the journey still isn’t over…

A snapshot of modern slavery in the fashion industry

3. Story of a T-Shirt: Bangladesh to You

As t-shirts must travel now, once more, upon ships and steel railways, along roads in large trucks before we reach our end, or beginning, depending on how you view the life of a simple t-shirt. It is perhaps important before moving onto the next phase of life, to examine where you’ve been, what you’ve come from and ultimately what you’ve become.

Story of a T-Shirt: the environmental & social impact of a tee
Photo Credit: Jordan Whitfield from Unsplash

We were once just cotton growing in a field, genetically modified for perfection. Later, we underwent a simple transformation and a voyage across a sea. The compounding of many natural resources–along with many unnatural ones–were used to help us grow. From there, more transformations (dyed), more journeys (sewed), and spending and wasting of natural resources. Many encounters with underprivileged and underappreciated clothing makers, the unsung heroes of the whole endeavor, before eventually realizing my uniform purpose: to become a t-shirt. 

Lastly, we arrive at a store, either some place far off or somewhere we’ve already been. Or perhaps we arrive at your door. Now that’s more expedient.

4 ways the fashion industry is becoming more sustainable

Are we worth the work?

  • We sell and buy two billion t-shirts globally, most of which begin their lives on a cotton farm in America, China, or India.
  • Self-driving machines harvest the cotton, eliminating the tedious work of picking it while also eliminating jobs.
  • The cotton plants, many of which are lab designed, require a huge quantity of water (2700 liters per shirt), insecticides and pesticides (more than any other crop in the world).
    • Organic cotton makes up just 1% of the cotton produced worldwide. Most truly sustainable options are made with organic cotton, which is grown without the help of toxic, synthetic chemicals.
  • Textile mills ship the cotton to a spinning facility, typically in Indonesia, China, or India.
    Story of a T-Shirt: the environmental & social impact of a tee
    Photo Credit: Vidar Nordli Mathisen from Unsplash
    • Here, the cotton becomes fabric and is bleached and dyed. Unfortunately, many of these dyes contain “cancer-causing cadmium, lead, chromium, and mercury.”
  • Following, it is most often sent to Bangladesh, where the labor is cheapest and where four million people work in the garment industry. 
    • The average garment worker in Bangladesh makes just $68 per month, compared to workers in China or Hong Kong, who make $138 and $800, respectively, per month.
  • The cotton then wracks up an enormous carbon footprint on its path around the world, as it is shipped by either ship, truck, or train to other countries. 
    • Clothing production accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions and production has risen 400% between 1994 and 2014.

Why ethical fashion is a trend set to stay 

An Ethical T-Shirt Alternative

Supporting the right brands, such as Known Supply, The Classic T-Shirt Company, or The Good Tee, or Vustra is a great place to start. These brands eliminate many of the toxic processes listed above, while supporting fair pay for the many workers involved in making a t-shirt.

Story of a T-Shirt: the environmental & social impact of a tee

Sustainable clothing for men. Modern. Conscious. Stylish. Vustra.

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Ryan Nielsen

Ryan is a writer at Eco-Stylist and recent graduate from the University of Iowa with degrees in Cinema and English and Creative Writing. He plans to further his passion for cinema by working in film and television, writing screenplays.

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