Smarter Living: Stuff

A basic cotton T-shirt doesn’t seem quite so basic when you trace its life history.

1. From the Field
Every cotton T-shirt starts life in a cotton field, most likely in China, India or the United States. It takes anywhere from 700 to 2,000 gallons of water to produce about a pound of conventional cotton – enough for a single T-shirt. Cotton grown in the United States uses comparatively less water; however, about a third of a pound of chemical pesticides and fertilizers go into each pound of conventionally-grown American cotton.



cotton gin

Photo: Billums

2. To the Gin
The harvested cotton bolls are shipped to a gin, where the fluff is separated from the seeds and pressed into bales. The gin is usually located in the same country where the cotton was grown. Ginning mills produce very fine dust that poses a significant breathing hazard to workers without proper ventilation and protective gear.




3. To the Spinner
From the gin, the bales of cotton fibers go to a spinning facility, where they're carded, combed, blended and twisted into yarn. Most spinning factories are located in China and India. Some will go on to weave or knit the cotton into sheets, while others will move the spun yarn to another facility for weaving.





Photo: amasc

4. To the Loom
At a mill, huge machines knit or weave the cotton yarn into sheets of fabric–but the cloth is rough and grayish--not T-shirt worthy just yet.





5. "Wet" Processing
The gray cotton moves on for "wet" processing, where it's treated with heat and chemicals to take on its final look and feel. In many Chinese textile mills, when dyes are rinsed off fabric the polluted wastewater ends up in local rivers, which change color according to the fashion of the season. Many dyes contain toxic chemicals which are hazardous to human health and the environment.

At the final stage of wet processing, fabric is "finished" in order to make it softer, cleaner, smoother or better able to take on coloring. To this end, the fabric is washed, scoured, bleached, rinsed and sometimes dipped in acid. All these finishing processes require the use of chemicals, heat and water, and produce contaminated wastewater.





garment factory

Photo: themikebot

6. To the Garment Factory
The finished cloth is sent (probably from somewhere in Asia) to a designer or directly to a garment factory (probably in Mexico) to be cut and stitched into a T-shirt. About 12 to 15 percent of the fabric will end up as scraps on the cutting room floor, depending on how the pattern is laid out.




stack of shirts

Photo: moe-in-berlin

7. To the Clothing Company and the Store

The finished t-shirt makes its way from the garment factory to a brand name clothing company or to a trading company and from there--on the last leg of its multinational journey--the shirt is neatly stacked on a shelf at your local department store, clothing store, big box retailer or factory outlet. Yours for just $9.99.

As is obvious, there are many opportunities for improvement along throughout a t-shirt's pre-consumer life (for just two better examples, see "Checkout Counter: Organic Cotton and Tencel"). Consumers--as well as retailers big and small--can use their dollars to vote for a more responsible clothing industry, from field to store. China is a major producer of US clothing and the focus of NRDC's Clean by Design collaboration with textile manufacturers, design labels and retailers, which works to reduce pollution by improving the factory environment.  Finally, when you're out shopping, look for for the GOTS label (see "Green Fashion: Beautiful on the Inside") and to get to know your fibers with our "Guide to Greener Fibers."

last revised 1/18/2012

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