Recycle Runway Blog

The Cradle-to-Grave Pollution Cycle of a T-Shirt Published: 01.19.2017 at 8:28 am by Nancy Judd

The third in a series of blog posts about the true costs of the clothing we wear.

T-shirt from my my ECO FASHION WEEK collection.

A T-shirt from my ECO FASHION WEEK collection.

In my first post, I explained that through preparing new work for ECO FASHION WEEK, I took a deep dive into the environmental and social impacts of our clothing. In the second post we explored the world of fast fashion. Below I will use the journey of a simple T-shirt to underscore how the clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world after oil.

Besides packing a landfill, other reasons the fashion industry is so polluting become clear when you think about the cradle-to-grave journey of a simple T-shirt. As we shall see, there are loads of instances where toxicity is released into the environment, populations of other countries are exploited and human dignity is compromised.

Most T-shirts are made of a blend of cotton and polyester.

  • Cotton uses more pesticides and fertilizers than most crops and this impacts the water, soil, air, AND people who grow and pick the cotton. Some of the largest cotton fields in the world in Texas and India have significantly higher than normal rates of brain tumors and children born with physical and mental challenges.1
  • Polyester is made from petroleum and the pollution from the extraction, refinement, transportation, and use of petroleum defines the first most polluting industry in the world. From oil spills, to water contamination, to air and soil toxification, to increased methane release we see the effects of pollution in everything the oil industry touches. Additionally, creating fabric from petroleum is very energy and water intensive, from the extraction of the crude oil to the weaving of the materials from polymers.2 And the fabric particles (think, the lint in your dryer) never completely break down and instead build up in the environment. These are showing up in municipal waste water treatment plants and waterways everywhere, often referred to as contaminants of emerging concern or microplastics.

    textile pollution

    Graphic of chemicals used in each step of clothing manufacturing, from Chemical & Engineering News.3

Next our fabric needs to be bleached and dyed. Dyes and dye effluent contain highly toxic materials like ammonia, heavy metals, and alkali salts such as caustic soda, caustic potash, and lye. Many of the chemicals that make dye are carcinogenic and regulated by the EPA due to their production of toxic waste. This is another VERY polluting process that uses and pollutes tremendous amounts of water impacting people’s water sources across the globe. Tirupur, India, a city with the population with over 444,000 people, is known for its dyeing and bleaching industry. Water pollution has gotten so bad there that neither citizens, nor local farmers can use it.4 And here’s a figure for water usage in the dyeing process; in order to produce enough dyed fabric for one ordinary sofa, you need 500 gallons of water.5

Our T-shirt now needs to be cut and sewn. Clothing production in the United States has fallen dramatically over the years as companies have found people across the globe willing to work for much less money, in often unfair and unsafe conditions. According to a public broadcasting report “The Lowdown,” produced by KQED of Northern California, we went from 95% of American garments made in the USA during the 1960’s to 2% made in the USA as of 2013.6 Hundreds of people have been killed in fires and unsafe working conditions so that we can have the satisfaction of buying inexpensive clothes and getting “good deals.” Bangladesh saw one of its factories, Rana Plaza, collapse during April 2013, where over 1,100 workers were killed. Prior to that in 2012 over 100 employees were killed in a fire at the Tazreen factory, also in Bangladesh. One of the reasons that foreign manufacturers are able to make our clothing so cheaply is their lack of regulation in many portions of the process. Many of these manufacturers employ children, and do not worry about the sanitation nor even safety of their workplaces. And they can be found engaging in both forced repression of unions as well as simple wage theft.

Photo by Jaber Al Nahian

Photo by Jaber Al Nahian, Dhaka Savar Building Collapse (CC BY-SA 2.0),

Lastly, the entire business of clothing and textile manufacturing uses an enormous amount of energy and fuel. This process of growing/mining; processing/weaving; bleaching/dying; sewing; selling/buying; and wearing our clothing rarely happens in one place or region. Each stage requires transportation. Though global supply chains have the promise of efficiency to meet manufacturer and vendor deadlines without adding extra cost, they are transported by shipping containers on rail, truck, and ships using the worst of today’s polluting fossil fuels. Increases in transport by ships that consume fuel by tons per hour, coupled with their use of lower grade bunker fuel have increased the negative health effects to coastal and inland populations.

Beyond all this, here is a brief list of startling facts:

  • Making polyester uses 70 million gallons of oil each year.
  • To manufacture rayon and other fibers from cellulose, we harvest over 70 million trees a year.
  • 24% and 11% of insecticides and pesticides global manufacturing, respectively, is used to produce the world’s cotton.
  • Textiles use ¼ of the world’s chemicals.7
  • It takes 3,886 MJ (megajoules) of energy to produce enough nylon fabric to cover a couch (about 25 yards).8

Graphic “Comparative Energy Use in Fiber Production,” from Forbes. 9

This is the quick story of a simple T-Shirt, imagine the process for more complicated items like shoes, rain coats, dresses with sequins, etc. Even clothing purchased from more “reputable” brands and stores are mostly created from the same problematic materials and in overseas factories that require a great deal of transportation. NOW, perhaps you can see why the clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world!

In my next blog post, I will talk about how all this information informed the collection and performance piece I created for ECO FASHION WEEK, and in my last blog post we will explore what we can do as consumers to reduce the negative impacts of the clothing we purchase and wear.


1 Morgan, Andrew. The True Cost | A Documentary Film. bullfrogfilms, 2015. SDH Captioned.

2 Grossman, Patty, and Van Dusen, Leigh Anne. “Estimating the Carbon Footprint of a Fabric.” WordPress. O ECOTEXTILES. N.p., 19 Jan. 2011. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

3 Scott, Alex. “Cutting Out Textile Pollution.” Chemical & Engineering News 19 Oct. 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.

4 Rajshekhar, M. “Can the Courts Save India’s Rivers from Pollution? Tirupur Shows the Answer Is No.” News. N.p., 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

5 Grossman, Patty, and Leigh Anne Van Dusen. “Textiles and Water Use.” WordPress. O ECOTEXTILES. N.p., 24 Feb. 2010. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

6 Vatz, Stephanie. “Why America Stopped Making Its Own Clothes.” Public Broadcasting. The Lowdown. N.p., 24 May 2013. Web. 18 Jan. 2017.

7 Conca, James. “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming.” Publication. Forbes. N.p., 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

8 Grossman, Patty, and Leigh Anne Van Dusen. “What Is the Energy Profile of the Textile Industry?” WordPress. O ECOTEXTILES. N.p., 16 June 2009. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

9 Conca, James. “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes On Global Warming.” Publication. Forbes. N.p., 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.

This series was co-researched and co-written with Nicole Morris.

Photo Credits: Runway photo by Peter Jensen.

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