Tue July 3, 2012

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T-Shirt Blues: The Environmental Impact of a T-Shirt

By Mattias Wallander, CEO, USAgain
Originally published July 3, 2012 at The Huffington Post

You recycle glass, plastic and paper at home, bring your own coffee mug to Starbucks, take a reusable bag along when you go shopping and are generally doing everything you can to reduce your impact on the environment, right?

But, did you know that the t-shirt and jeans you are wearing cost the Earth 2,200 gallons of water, enough to fill a small tanker truck?

The production of cotton-textiles uses up large amounts of resources, such as water and energy, as well as releasing byproducts of starch, paraffin, dyes, pesticides and other harmful pollutants into the air and soil -- under regular conditions.

Each year, over two billion t-shirts are sold worldwide and 520 million pairs of jeans are sold in the U.S. With the production of one t-shirt using up 700 gallons of water and one pair of jeans using up 1,500 gallons, it is easy to understand why the call to curb textile waste is urgent.

A Levi's plant in El Paso, TX uses 15% of the city's water supply. In a study by Levi's, researchers found that manufacturing one pair of jeans requires 400 mega joules of energy, and expels 71 pounds of carbon dioxide. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted to produce one pair of jeans is equivalent to driving 78 miles. You walk to work to reduce your carbon footprint, but every undershirt you buy sets you back 20 miles.

Aside from carbon emissions, the remnants of the pesticides sprayed on cotton and the chemicals used to dye, fade, and stonewash clothes pollute the air, waterways, and workers' lungs. The cotton industry uses 25% of the world's pesticides and herbicides.

A fading agent called potassium permanganate, starch, and indigo dye waste are often released into the same canals used to irrigate local farms. These chemicals sterilize soil and kill seedlings. According to OnEarth.org, 'green jeans' manufacturers may not use pesticides to grow organic cotton, but most organic cotton jeans is treated with conventional chemicals and dyes, which still harm the environment.

Eco-conscious consumers might think that buying organic cotton shirts solves the problem of textile waste, but an organic t-shirt is little help to the environment if it is washed in hot water, dry cleaned, and thrown away with the other 11 million tons of textiles that are trashed each year.

According to a study by Ademe, almost half of the environmental impact of a pair of jeans comes from the jean's use and "end of life." Machine washing, tumble-drying, and ironing are responsible for 47% of the environmental damage caused by a pair of jeans. This also means that changing how you care for your clothes can halve the ecological impact of your clothes. Washing jeans less often in cold water, and hanging them out to dry lessens textile waste, considering a dryer consumes five times more energy than a washing machine. Refraining from dry-cleaning a pair of jeans saves the same amount of energy that it takes to heat a home for 387 hours.

So what can we do to help curb textile waste and protect the environment?

The most effective way to reduce textile waste is to buy used clothing from thrift stores, and donate or reuse your clothes instead of throwing them away. The EPA estimates that the average American throws away about 70 pounds of clothes a year, most of which are destined to rot away in landfills. Why toss a shirt into the trash where it will waste away in a landfill when you could give it new life instead? A shirt reused saves the environmental cost of a shirt produced.