Welcome to "The Humanitarian Side of Everything: Creating Positive Impact in Your Daily Life" on Listenable! This is Lesson Three, and I'm your host, Alexa.
Let's take a close look at your closet. Did you know that it takes 2700 liters of water to create the typical cotton t-shirt? That's enough drinking water to last one person two and a half years.
In this lesson, I'm taking you through the life cycle of a t-shirt – from the materials it's made from to the factory it's made into what happens when it's thrown away. Through this, we'll see the environmental challenges and economic impact of the textile and fashion industry.
The fact that it takes 2700 liters of water to create one cotton t-shirt is a problem because of the lack of fresh water available for all life on earth to survive. 2.5% of the earth's water is freshwater, but most of that takes the form of ice caps and glaciers, so it's not accessible for us to use - leaving less than one percent of the earth's water for all of life on earth. In a world where 844 million people lack access to clean water, how we use freshwater is critical. And that's not to mention that much of the world's cotton is grown and irrigated in dry regions like Egypt and the Xinjiang province of China.
Other materials that your t-shirt might be made of aren't quite as water-intensive – for example, producing a polyester t-shirt requires less water than a cotton t-shirt does. But the environmental impacts of fashion production go beyond just water usage. Synthetic fibers like polyester have a larger carbon footprint than cotton does. For example, a polyester t-shirt has a 12.1-pound carbon footprint, mainly created while textiles are dyed and finished, while a cotton t-shirt has a 9.5-pound carbon footprint.
Beyond the environmental impact of creating the clothing that we wear, there are also important social implications. The next step in your shirt's journey is a garment factory, most likely located in a developing country. Most of the clothing that we wear is produced in countries like Bangladesh, China, and India.
In many of these countries, the minimum wage is very low, and at many textile factories, workers don't make a living wage. While the minimum wage is a legally-mandated pay rate, a living wage is a holistic measure. It's the minimum income needed for someone to meet their basic needs, such as food, housing, and clothing. Living wages differ based on where one lives, just as minimum wages differ based on the laws of different countries.
According to the Global Living Wage Coalition, the living wage for someone living in Dhaka City, the capital of Bangladesh, is $214 per month. In the areas around Dhaka City, a living wage is $177 monthly. For comparison, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was raised in 2018 to about $100 per month – much less than what one needs to provide for their basic needs.
In a story by NPR, one garment worker in Bangladesh reported working 12-hour days to earn $95 per month. This isn't uncommon for garment workers, and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions worsened. At least one million Bangladeshi garment workers had been furloughed or fired by April 2020, and many who have gone back to work since then have faced pay cuts. Many large fashion brands have cancelled orders, further harming garment workers.
Beyond long workdays, forced labor can be common in garment and textile factories. Workers may be employed against their will or may be forced to work under debt bondage.
One example of forced labor occurs in China. Uighurs held in detention camps in China serve as a source of forced labor in dozens of factories with inhumane conditions. The Xinjiang province produces 84% of China's cotton and contributes significantly to the nation's yarn and textile production. With 33% of U.S. apparel being imported from China, it is highly likely that the supply chains of many of our major brands involve Uighur forced labor. In fact, companies like Walmart, Kmart, Uniqlo, and Muji have already been linked to Xinjiang factories. Just this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized 13 tons of human hair products suspected to have come from imprisoned Uighurs.
In Uzbekistan, the world's fifth-largest cotton exporter, the government drafts about a million people to harvest cotton each fall. Public sector employees must help with the harvest, or they risk being fired or arrested. Workers are paid little to nothing for their labor.
As consumers, we should be aware of who makes the clothing that we buy and how they are compensated for their work. This second step in the life cycle of a t-shirt reveals the importance of protecting human rights and paying workers a living wage.
You might think that once you've bought a t-shirt or any other piece of clothing, the negative impact of that clothing is over. However, it might be just the beginning.
When you wash a piece of clothing made of synthetic materials, the mechanical and chemical stresses that that garment undergoes while being washed causes it to release microplastics. Microplastics are any piece of plastic less than 5 mm in length – basically, just a tiny piece of plastic. Microplastics in the form of tiny synthetic fibers detach from clothes made of synthetic fabrics like polyester while they're being washed. In a study published in Nature, researchers found that a new polyester shirt released over 300 microfibers during its first wash. While wastewater treatment plants can remove the majority of these microfibers from the water supply, many of them still get through.
80% of the world's plastic lives in landfills and oceans. And it actually turns out that washing synthetic textiles is one of the main sources of primary microplastics in the ocean. While research on microplastics is relatively new, we don't exactly know how they impact human health. But microplastics likely release harmful chemicals that can be detrimental to marine life and contaminate the environment that they end up in.
Although polyester fabrics have been found to release fewer microfibers into the environment than other fabrics, they take much longer to biodegrade. Plus, microplastics from polyester have more harmful chemicals than other textiles.
Beyond the release of microplastics into the environment, washing clothes in a washer and dryer also takes a considerable amount of energy. I was surprised to learn that a dryer uses 5 times more energy than a washing machine.
One of the biggest things that you can do to counteract the negative environmental and social impacts of the clothing industry is to know where your clothes were made, who made them, and the conditions in which they were made. When you're purchasing new clothes, try to find out these things. There are so many great sustainable and equitable brands out there, like ABLE and Nisolo, that guarantee their workers a living wage and healthy working conditions.
But before you even buy new clothing, consider this: the most sustainable piece of clothing is the one that you already own. Rather than replacing your wardrobe with new clothing, make use of what you have. By choosing to buy less, you're voting with your dollars. You can also buy second hand at thrift stores or through websites like ThredUP.
Knowledge is power – when you know who made your clothing and the environmental impact of producing that clothing, you're more informed about the impact of what you are buying. Small steps like buying fewer new pieces of clothing or buying second hand can go a long way towards reducing the detrimental impacts of the clothing industry.
I'll leave you with this – even when you're done with a piece of clothing, it still has an impact. Manufactured synthetic textiles like polyester or spandex take from 20 to 200 years to biodegrade. That's a lot longer than you'll likely own or wear any piece of clothing – so it's important for us to think about the impact of what we buy and wear.
That's the end of lesson three. In this lesson, we learned about the humanitarian side of our closet, from the environmental impacts of producing clothing to the social concerns of those who make it. Next time you plan to buy new clothing, consider who makes the clothing and how they were compensated.
In our next lesson, we'll be talking about food.