The Secrets of a Cotton Shirt

The Fashion Curtain Unveiled

A worker wades through cotton in 2015 at a ginning mill in Pilibanga, Rajasthan, India. In early history, the country was a key cotton distributor.

Our insatiable need for the latest fashion continually fuels a system that depletes the earth of natural resources, treats its workers unfairly and has potential threats to our body’s health.


Why worry about the clothes you buy, when they have no effect on you or the environment. That’s not the case, what the fashion industry doesn’t want you to know is that the clothes you wear are made from harsh chemicals and are designed to fall apart. Without looking at the tag in your shirt, do you know what material your it is made of, where it comes from, or who even who physically made it

A women wears a cotton shirt made by Zady, an ethical clothing company.

It’s probably made from some time of blend. Cotton and polyester are two materials that clothes are predominantly made from. The process used to create these fabrics have a domino of grueling effects. Pesticides, herbicides, and oil-powered machinery are used to make cotton fabric. While polyester, another frequently used material, is derived from crude oil which is also used to make soda and ketchup bottles. So, unless the shirt you are wearing is labeled Organic or Fair Trade, it more than likely contains harsh chemicals.

Not only is the fashion industry taking an effect on our health and the environment, it is also one of the largest employers of slave and child labor. So if you didn’t think that buying new clothes had any rapid effects, you can think again. If you know where your clothes come from and how they were made, then you can help solve some of the huge problems that have derived from the industry.

From Material to Product: Cause and Effect

It’s no surprise that the supply chain of the fashion industry is complex, as nothing in life is ever simple. A lot goes into the making of a cotton shirt, and even more if the shirt is printed on, dyed, or beaded. The Life of a Garment, from Seed to Sale provides a detailed explanation of the six step process. Between growing, harvesting, weaving, and chemical rinses, the material has had a tough life.

Very few business know their supply chain, designer Vivienne Westwood visits the Ethical Fashion Initiative Nairobi Hub | Image: Chloe Mukai / ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Most retail companies don’t truly know their supply chain, which is a scary thing about the industry. Over the last twenty years, companies have moved their production overseas. Middlemen find factories who do the fastest work for the least cost, in order for retailers to reduce costs and increase revenues. With no questions asked, it causes the companies to lose track of how the materials are being made, as well as the conditions of the sewers work environment.

Our consumer culture has been built on the idea that we are in constant need. So we buy more, more and more, without ever stopping to think about where the items come from. “Buy now; buy cheaper; buy constantly,” and company’s encourage us to do so. This learned behavior of turning a want into a need has led people to ignore morals. At what cost will the cycle finally end?

Production Impact on the Environment

Shown in the documentary True Cost, clothing sits in a landfill with many years before it breaks down.

With a rise in consumer sales, the fashion industry has made an even larger impact on the environment. No set regulations or measurements of sustainability performance, has allowed companies to continue on producing products at a cost to our planet. Cotton and polyester are only two of the many materials made to produce a garment, and we already know that they require extensive resources in order to be made.

A cotton shirt alone takes 2700 liters of water! Think about all the chemicals and pesticides that are used just for cotton, and where these chemicals go. Probably places like our groundwater, and soil, also our rivers. According to Quartz, China, the fabric dying capital of the world, has already destroyed its waterways.

In December 2011, the Jian River in China had turned red after two garment factories dumped tons of dye into the river.

What about the process of making polyester, it’s wrinkle free properties, also use toxic chemicals. The petroleum-based fiber, uses more than 70 billion barrels of oil every year and takes two centuries in order for it to finally start breaking down (in other words, biodegrading). This is just the beginning, the latter of environmental effects go beyond these small facts.

Conditions for a Factory Worker

A young child and women working in a factory in Bangladesh.

The impact the industry has extends beyond the environment, but it also has managed to cover up the social and economic issues that go on everyday. Not only are the environmental regulations lax, there are no laws about work conditions, health regulations, or pay. In 2013, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand people; health conditions and safety didn’t matter. The workers deal with harsh chemicals on a daily basis, work close to ten hours a day, and are asked to meet ridiculous production targets. All so the West can have cheap clothes readily available.

A look inside a garment factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Fashion-factory workers are often forced to work in unsafe, at times even deadly, conditions especially when handling certain materials (big hint here: cotton and polyester!), reports have shown again and again that they are underpaid and have no health regulations. According to the International Labour Organization, an estimate of 170 million children are possibly employed by textile and garment factories to satisfy the demands of the western world. Many companies have started to make a difference, practicing Fair Trade provides workers with an improved quality of life where they are treated with dignity, and work in safe and healthy environments. These workers no longer have to be treated unfairly at the cost of a cheap cotton shirt. This is only the beginning, many more things need to be done.

A Conscious & Educated Consumer

Not everyone takes fashion seriously or even cares about it, and that’s their prerogative. Everyone wears clothes, that’s just an undeniable fact. Even if you don’t care about fashion and style, you probably still buy clothing items. But here’s a little reminder, the chemicals in your cotton shirt, the one sitting on your skin now, is having a direct affect on you, even if it’s not readily apparent. Every time you decide to purchase a new $10 dollar shirt, you are putting your money where your mouth is. That purchase is not only affecting yourself but the person who made it and the world that we live in.

As the consumer, you have the ability to create change.Your purchasing power alone can make a difference, even if it’s small. “…A mass movement is required to challenge the status quo and establish a more just system in its place. The only other option is revolution, which is just politics by other means. To paraphrase William Blake: You must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.”

As a global movement uniting around an annual campaign, over the next 5 years the Fashion Revolution Organization believes they can build considerable momentum and achieve incredible impact to create change.
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