Exhibition with text and image displays about cotton

The journey of a t-shirt

5 February 2023
Fashion For Good. Sustainable Fashion Museum, Holland. 

Behind the average t-shirt lies a process with huge negative impacts on people and planet. It can take 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt, which is what an average person drinks over 3 years!

Cotton Farming: The largest amount of cotton being cultivated in the world is called 'conventional cotton'. Though this produces a larger yield, the process relies heavily on man-made fertilisers and pesticides which are harmful to our natural eco-systems.

Initiatives now exist to make the farming of cotton a more sustainable practice. Initiatives such as Organic Cotton, Better Cotton, and Fairtrade Cotton are grown according to several standards which focus on the pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, and social impacts.

Harvesting & Processing: Cotton balls can be harvested either by hand or machinery. The fibres are then separated from the stem and the seeds. This is known as 'ginning'. After ginning, these lint fibres will have various lengths that determine their value. Staple lengths range from 15mm to 50mm. Fibres must be above 16mm to be able to then be spun into a yarn, which then goes on to be woven into fabric sheets.

Design: It is estimated that 80% of a garment's impact comes from decisions on factors such as cut, colour and fabric.

Dyeing & Finishing: Fabric is coloured through a water and chemically intensive process. Globally, about 20% of water pollution can be traced to the dyeing, washing and finishing of textiles.

Cutting & Sewing: In factories, garment workers cut the fabric into patterns which are then sewn together. At this stage, it is common for low wages as well as in other parts of the process. For an average t-shirt, only an estimated 0.6% of the retail price goes to the factory worker who made it.

Transport: The t-shirts are then shipped to distribution centres, where it then gets transported to stores, or direct to the customer. It is estimated that a t-shirt travels over 14,000 kilometres before it reaches your hands.

Retail: The t-shirt is purchased by someone either in a store or online. These costs total around 58.6% of the retail price of said shirt. Fast moving trends within the fast fashion industry mean that supply is difficult to keep up with. This can result in a lot of unwanted finished products if something is considered 'out of season', in some cases these unwanted products may be incinerated or go straight to landfill.

Use: Once the customer has bought the t-shirt. They wear, wash, dry, and iron the shirt, which all requires energy consumption. The average household does almost 400 loads of laundry a year, consuming about 51,000 litres of water. That's the equivalent of water one person uses to shower over three years.

Did you know that washing your clothes in cold water in a quicker cycle will use half the energy of washing warm. By doing one load per week a year, you could save the carbon equivalent of driving 123 kilometres.

Pie chart with picture of t-shirt in centre, showing segments of pricing a shirt

What's the real cost of a t-shirt?

  • 58.6% Retail (includes staff, rent, store profit, VAT etc)
  • 12.4% Profit to the Brand
  • 11.7% Material Costs
  • 7.6% Transport Costs
  • 4.2% Intermediary
  • 4% Profit to the Factory
  • 0.9% Overhead Costs
  • 0.6% Pay to Garment Workers

Certainly a lot to think about! This is only a brief picture of what goes into the entire process, and a snippet of the exhibition held!

All information from the exhibition 'The Journey Of A T-Shirt' at the 'Fashion For Good' Museum, visited 5 February 2023.

A KIND CLOTH is in no way affiliated with any aforementioned companies.

Photos: Marine @ A KIND CLOTH

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