Memoirs of a T-Shirt

This post is by contributing blogger Daniella Svoboda Schmidt, an experienced public school master teacher, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in engaging others in the positive power of food citizenship through The Thinkatarian Food Club. She currently lives in Germany with her husband and son.


I am recovering from an addiction to consumerism. Specifically, I would label myself as a recuperating fashion addict. For almost my entire adult life, I thought that my retail therapy was a relatively benign indulgence and even a patriotic pastime as I boosted the economy, snapping up deals right and left. In my previous blog post I shared how the short, but amazing video, The Story of Stuff, cured me instantly of my affluenza. In just 20 life-changing minutes, The Story of Stuff radically expanded my understanding of how my purchases have broad and far reaching effects that are far more complex than just an exchange of money for a product.

Where did my purchases come from before I bought them, and where will they go after I am through with them?  Each and every purchase has a secret life—a life that came from resources extracted from the Earth and will eventually return to the Earth.  I decided to find out more about the secret pasts of my belongings.

I became interested in the lifecycle of my stuff and decided to investigate the lifecycle of one very plain, uncomplicated cotton T-shirt.  My conventional (non-organic) cotton T-shirt’s memoirs might read something like this (the facts from this text come from here and from the report “From the Plant to the T-shirt”):

I begin my life in an enormous cotton field in India.  Because I am a cotton plant, I am a thirsty crop and must be frequently watered—this drains the nearby lake and leaves less water for the people, animals and plants that depend on it.  The soil I grow in becomes more and more salty and less fertile over time.  I am also sprayed with pesticides, making the remaining water sources undrinkable.  The pesticides kill the insects that find me tasty, but they also decimate other forms of life.  The farmers and the cotton pickers that come in contact with me often get sick, and some of them even die.  These laborers are also paid very little for very hard work under the fierce sun.
Once picked, I am spun into thread, and woven into cloth by giant whirling machines.  The cloth is then processed; dyeing and bleaching, and other treatments to the fabric, also contaminate the water supply and expose the poorly paid workers to dangerous chemicals that harm their health.  Now that I am fabric, I am cut and sewn into T-shirts in sweatshops. 

As a finished T-shirt, I am loaded onto a truck and driven to a port to be transported by freighter across oceans.  Then I am unloaded onto trucks to be shipped to clothing retailers in all the big cities around the world.  I end up in a high fashion store in London.

I look great in the High Street store under the halogen lighting--freshly ironed, richly colored, and with a snazzy design. I attract the attention of a fashionably dressed buyer who buys me with a casual swipe of a credit card. 

Now I am one of many t-shirts in my owner’s closet, each with a lifestory similar to mine.  I get worn now and then. And I am put into the washing machine just after one wearing, so I am not even really dirty. Lots of water and detergent is used to clean me and then I use even more energy when dried by the clothes dryer. In fact, 80% of my environmental impact occurs while laundering and drying me.  I shed lots of my cotton fibers in the dryer and get worn out pretty quickly as a result. When my owner thinks that I look outdated, I am thrown into the garbage can, which will be dumped eventually into a landfill. If I am lucky to be buried in some moist dirt, I will biodegrade in about six months or so and complete my journey back to the Earth, but since I am in a landfill with lots of other stuff, I’ll have to wait much longer. . .

Not so long ago, I was just a cotton seedling, but I have seen so much in my lifecycle, passed under so many nimble and weary fingers, and traveled so far that I can scarcely remember my birth in the field back under the blazing Indian sun.

I must admit, I had not expected my T-shirt to have such a soiled past.  Now, I look at all my clothing from a different perspective, a better informed one.  From intensive water usage, to soil degradation, to loss of biodiversity, to the pesticides, bleaches and dyes tainting the water, and the suffering of the people involved in the production of the shirt, paid slavish wages in inhumane working conditions—all of this is spun into the threads of such an unassuming piece of clothing.

The fantastic news is that there is quite a lot we can do as conscious consumers.  Buying second hand or swapping between friends instantly saves the earth’s resources and opts out of unfair labor practices.  When making new purchases, buying organic and fair trade clothing supports sustainable agriculture and ensures that the people involved in making our clothing are paid a living wage and work in fair conditions.  And because most of our clothing’s environmental impact occurs while in our care—laundering our clothing only when necessary, in cool water, using environmentally friendly cleaning products, and line drying whenever possible (I am able to do it year round despite living in a cool climate because we have a covered place to dry our clothes) will make an enormous positive impact.  Donating or repurposing old clothing instead of throwing it away will keep clothes out of our landfills.

The cotton T-shirt’s lifecycle reveals a heavy environmental toll, loss of biodiversity, and serious human rights issues. I am glad to know that the story of the humble T-shirt need not be so seamy—we all have the power to rewrite its memoirs and weave in justice for the planet, people and animals into the fabric of informed everyday choices.

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