If the t-shirt fits...do I buy it?


Co-authored by Abbie Buckman and Laura Spiers, 2degrees

A simple question, with a not so simple answer.

Back in the 1980s, Katharine Hamnett debuted a line of t-shirts proclaiming boldly the impacts of the fashion industry.  The more recent White Gold campaign highlighted the problems of accidental pesticide poisoning, high suicide rate amongst farmers and the plight of millions of cotton farmers living in abject poverty.

One thing’s for sure: don’t underestimate the power of an organic cotton t-shirt with a powerful slogan to spur a movement to effect social change.

Hamnett’s subsequent fall from grace and recent resurgence is a remarkable proxy for the industry’s attitude towards sustainability. This re-awakening is charted in a newly released collection of essays ‘Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes’ by leading industry professionals on the topic of sustainability and inherent environmental problems.

So, to the question of the t-shirt, what should I be asking and who can provide the answers?

Unsurprisingly, the first stumbling block is often how ‘sustainable fashion’ is defined. Ambiguities around terminology and ideas can be equally as challenging to navigate for those in the industry as for the consumers who buy the products.

How does the currency of ‘sustainable’ fashion translate into the sourcing of materials, transport, energy, design decisions, selection of fabrics and technology innovations that produce my t-shirt? How do I weight ethically produced, artisan, custom, fair-trade certified or organic against each other? And none of these questions address the central issue of whether I should be buying it at all.

Textile waste is a growing problem, increasing by 53% in the past 10 years whilst the average American consumer throws away 70lb of textile a year. Perhaps the most meaningful approach is that of designers such as Canadian Preloved and British Junky Styling, who recycle used clothing into new pieces.

Cotton production is one of the world’s most chemical-intensive agricultural processes; despite covering 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land it accounts for 16% of global insecticide use. The process of growing, harvesting, washing, bleaching, dyeing and printing cotton contributes to a cotton t-shirt containing over 8000 chemicals and a water footprint of 2700 litres.

Considering that two-thirds of the world’s cotton is grown in developing countries where price volatility and dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides have resulted in farmers facing crippling debt, and the widespread use of forced child labour in cotton fields and sweatshops from Egypt to India, the pretty t-shirt on the hanger isn’t quite as appealing. 

But my shopping trip might not be completely in vain. Environmental innovations are taking place, from the cultivation of new seeds genetically modified to produce cotton of a certain colour eliminating the environmental impact of the dyeing process, to the use of alternative fibres such as flax or hemp naturally requiring less irrigation and chemical fertiliser or pesticide use. The Better Cotton Initiative and co-operative production models should reduce the environmental and social impacts of cotton cultivation. 

Businesses are also taking the issues seriously; Patagonia was an early leader in incorporating a sustainability mandate into its clothing operations through programs such as Conservation Alliance and 1% for the planet whilst Levi Strauss & Co’s new Water<Less Jeans are produced using a pioneering new process that saves an average of 28% (but as much as 96%) of water used in production.

Many websites and organizations have emerged in recent years to guide consumers and designers through these uncertainties.

The Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Ethical Fashion Forum are leading the charge by facilitating progress, inspiring and motivating designers and shifting attention to a triple bottom line where people, nature and corporations see value. EcoFashionWorld guides consumers to sustainable designer brands and online eco-stores; Project Laundry List leads the air-drying and cold-water washing revolution, whilst Made By works with brands to develop sustainability strategies across the supply chain. Others such as the UK-based Ethical Trading Initiative and US-based Sustainable Apparel Coalition seek to connect the stakeholder ecosystem together.

As questions of material, life cycle and sourcing are addressed by different players in different ways, the drive for sustainable fashion could bring even more complexity to the decision making process. Which brings me back to my t-shirt.

Organic (check), fair-trade (check), money raised from purchase to support a charity’s valuable work (check – the Environmental Justice Foundation). Fingers crossed that it’s made to last and I’ll be able to recycle it at the end of its lifetime.

What we buy matters. Let’s step up and face the real cost.