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Sally’s  T-Shirt How one girl chose to change the world

© 2011 Hilary Braun Printed at Massachusetts College of Art and Design No Part of this book may be duplicated without the author’s permission.

Introduction 5 Cotton Growing 6 Exporting Cotton 9 Manufacturing T-shirts 10 Buying Cotton T-shirts 12 Disposing Cotton T-shirts 14 Rethinking Cotton T-shirts 15 Colophon 16 References 17

Introduction Think about how many times you have bought or received a new t-shirt in the last month. In today’s society fashion styles change several times a year, and we as consumers are expected to keep up with the constant revision of what is fashionable. We continue to purchase variations of the same item and discard them as soon as they are deemed unwearable by fashion’s standards. This hardly ever means that the item has worn out, it has simply warn out its desirability. Everyone has t-shirts tucked away in their drawers and closets. Our friend Sally, has noticed that she

has quite a few. She has so many t-shirts that they need to be organized. Some are for leisure, some for everyday and some for going out. Sally has even been given free t-shirts so she can be a walking advertisement for a company. With all of these t-shirts coming in and out of our lives, do we really know what goes in to making one? What happens to the t-shirts that we throw away? Sally takes careful time to decide what t-shirt to buy, and yet she has never really considered the process it took to get that shirt to her local store.

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Growing Cotton Cotton grown using irrigation systems Rain-fed cotton


Only 27% of cotton is watered by rain, the rest use irrigation systems.

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If we asked Sally to pick up the shirt she slept in last night, chances are its a cotton t-shirt that has made it a long way to get to her bedroom floor. The process of growing cotton has become increasingly expensive as our natural resources such as water dwindle. China, The United States of America, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and West Africa account for 75% of the cotton production globally. Only 27% of the total cotton crop grown is watered by natural rain, the rest depend on irrigation systems that cause serious detriment to the environment. Not only does

the cotton-growing process require great amounts of water, it aids the spread of pests. Because of this, cotton accounts for 25% of the total global use of insecticides. The insecticides create a harmful environment for the people that work in the fields and eventually deplete the ability to use the soil. Irrigation eventually leads to greater water loss through seepage, evaporation and poor water management. In order to make one kilogram of cotton, enough to produce one shirt and one pair of jeans, the farmer uses 20,000 liters of water, 457 grams of fertilizers and 16

1957 2011

The Aral sea has shrunk to 15% of its original size, largely due to cotton production.

grams of insecticides. In Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea has shrunk to 15% of its size due largely to the cotton industry. The Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan’s soil and water’s salinity has increased, causing the farmers to add even more water which only exacerbates the problem. The conditions in Karakalpakstan have created a toxic salty dust that poisons the local population, leading to half of deaths to be caused by respiratory problems. There is little to no education about the harmful effects of these pesticides in many of the cotton-growing regions. The world second

natural plant growth

most widely used insecticide is Aldicarb. The World Health Organization has classified Aldicarb as extremely dangerous; one drop absorbed through the skin is enough to kill an adult. It is estimated that one million hospitalizations occur per year due to insecticide poisoning. This issue is so widespread because cotton farming is an industry that pulls in a lot of low wage labor. The price of cotton has been able to stay so low because the United States subsidizes cotton for growers in places like Texas. While this may be good for local growers, it keeps the cost down and therefore

75 The usa China Pakistan India West Africa Uzbekistan

1 2 3 4 5 6


of the world’s cotton comes from six countries

keeps the wages low for workers outside of The United States. In places like West Africa where nearly 10 million people depend on cotton growing as a source of income, this system keeps the their wages so low that it becomes a struggle to feed their families. The cotton industry in Uzbekistan is run by the government using morally questionable methods. Cotton is so vital to the economy that the schools, hospitals and public offices are shut down in order for cotton to be picked during harvest time. Farmers don’t always know the

dangers of cotton insecticides because education has taken second place to providing family income through the cotton industry. As many as 2 million Uzbek children ranging in ages 6 – 15 will have to leave school to pick cotton. The Uzbek government forces the farmers to sell their cotton for a low price to the government-run companies so that the government can in turn make large profits in the global market. If Sally knew that buying her t-shirt helped keep these Uzbek children out of school, she might pay closer attention to where her cotton came from.

Exporting Cotton One would assume that the best way to keep manufacturing costs low would be to find a processing mill near the cotton farms. However, Texas exports 80% of its crop outside of the country, as do most other cotton growers. The lure of cheap labor persuades executives to

send the cotton to struggling countries where the cotton is threaded and woven into a t-shirt. If Sally were to buy a t-shirt woven with the cotton bought from the Uzbek government, it might be processed in a factory like Wuhan Long’s in Hubei, China. And once it has been manufactured it often is sent right back to the United States to be sold in stores. All of these massive shipments require many large vehicles and boats to bring all of the product back and forth, criss-crossing around the globe.

Texas exports 80% of its cotton crop Total cotton grown in Texas Cotton that Texas exports

Manufacturing Cotton T-shirts

During the manufacturing process fossil fuels and coal are burned, crude oil and natural mineral resources are being depleted and CFCs are being emitted into the atmosphere.

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When the cotton gets to a factory like Wuhan Long’s, where it is to be made into a t-shirt, it must go through many processes that vary depending on the style and make of the shirt. These include washing, de-sizing, bleaching, rinsing, dyeing, printing, coating and finishing. By processing the cotton so heavily, the factories use a lot of energy and put many harmful chemicals into the earth and onto the workers. In order to produce enough cotton for that one shirt and pair of jeans, 5.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into the air, 4 grams of sulfur and 140.1 mega

Joules of energy are used in the manufacturing process. The exposure to harmful chemicals is often not even the biggest issue for the underpaid factory workers. The communities that have these factories are so poor that children are often sent to work at ages as young as seven. When a child has no education because they work at a young age, they are destined to work in bad conditions in factories where they may not even be aware of the dangers the chemicals pose to their health. Sally now knows that she can choose to help end these

1 2 3 4 5 6

practices simply by not buying in to the many companies that support these practices. She wouldn’t think it’s fair if her classmate Bobby had to leave school for work, so why would it be fair

Washing De-sizing Bleaching Rinsing Dyeing Printing

to expect that of any other 12 year old? Not only are the workers treated unfairly, the process itself harms the world we all share. During the manufacturing process fossil fuels and coal are burned, crude oil and natural minerals are being used up and CFC’s are being emitted into the atmosphere. After the product is manufactured, it still has to be shipped again across the globe to the store where it is sold.

By processing the cotton so heavily, the factories use a lot of energy and put many harmful chemicals into the earth and onto the workers.

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An average washing machine emits

16 0 lbs. per year. The average household does 260 wash cycles a year.

Buying Cotton Something Sally is starting to realize as she gets older is that fashion is constantly evolving. The United States consumerist mindset is spreading around the globe and the demand for more ‘stuff’ is increasing at an alarming rate. By the time Sally first lays eyes on her new t-shirt at Gap Kids, it has already made many stops around the globe looking for the cheapest place to be manufactured. Womenswear has decreased in price by one-third over the last decade; we’re producing more and paying less. Rapidly developing countries like China are consuming more cotton than it

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produces, even though it is one of the six major cotton producers in the world. Once a t-shirt gets to a store and the consumer is convinced to purchase it, the negative effect on the environment is not over. The maintenance to keep the shirt such as washing, drying and ironing slowly wear on the earth’s limited water and energy resources. An average washer that does 260 loads of laundry per year emits 160 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and dryers have yet to even get the Energy Star seal.

The price of womanswear has decreased by

in the last decade. Consumers are buying more items of clothing and spending less money.

The Garment industry contributes

74% of Bangladesh’s export earnings.

Women under 25 Everyone else

10% $1.81

Percent of garment workers that are unionised

for a nine hour work day, according to an investigation by the gaurdian in September 2007.

Garment workers in Guangdong Province, China:

Garment workers in India were paid only

Average number of garments purchased in UK:

Oxfam interview with Pham, a Thai factory worker: “We work from 8:00 AM till noon, then have our lunch break. After lunch we work from 1:00 – 5:00 PM. We do overtime every day from 5:30 PM. During the peak season, we work until 2:00 – 3:00AM. Although exhausted, we have no choice. We cannot refuse overtime: our basic wage is too low. If we want to rest, our employer forces us to keep working”.

for a nine hour work day, according to an investigation by the gaurdian in September 2007.



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Disposing Cotton T- shirts People who throw away clothes People who recycle old t-shirts


When people throw away clothes instead of recycling them, they take 30 – 40 years to decompose.

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In North America 12 million tons of textile waste is produced each year; that is about 68 pounds per household. T-shirts and other articles of clothing get thrown out largely based on how often they are worn and not if they have been worn to their fullest extent. Because cotton is a natural material, 90% of the waste is recyclable. When Sally throws her old t-shirts away, as 63% of people do, they take 30 – 40 years to decompose. In the decomposition process, the chemicals used while making it are put into the earth and it biodegrades into methane

gas. This process is unsustainable and has many negative effects on the environment. From beginning to end, cotton t-shirts are produced and used in a manner that is depleting the natural resources of the earth.


of cotton material is recyclable.

Rethinking Cotton T-shirts Steps can be taken at every step to improve the current life cycle of a t-shirt. Donating clothes or buying second-hand increases the lifespan of a t-shirt, but does not solve many of the problems. Buying Fair Trade cotton ensures fair wages, premiums for local communities, assistance in diversifying the crop to help the ecosystem and economy, assisting workers in organizing politically, and helping educate farmers about sustainable farming. T-shirt manufacturers in the United States are held to a higher standard that many other producers outside of the

country, but it is becoming harder to find locally woven clothing. Consumers should be aware of where their clothes come from and the treatment of the workers who produced the clothing. Stay informed on major brands that get attention for unfair practices. When you know more, you can make well-informed purchases. These are all good starts to buying smarter, but in order to erase the t-shirts harmful effects on the environment, the process must be rethought from the very first stages of cotton growth.

Colophon This book was created at Massachusetts College of Art and Design for Graphic Design II in the Fall of 2011. It features the National and Chaparral Pro typefaces. A Special thanks to Liz Resnick, my GDII class, Nicholas Felton and Sally for all the inspiration.

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References ¹ Dell, Johannes. “Pressure on Uzbekistan to ⁴ Saxton, Joe. “Why Redress Fashion?.” end child cotton labour.” BBC News. n. People and Planet. n. page. Web. 10 Nov. page. Print. < 2011. < world-asia-pacific-14973062>. fashion/briefing>. ² Environmental Justice Foundation, . ⁵ Soth, Jens. “The Impact of Cotton on Fresh “White Gold: The True Cost of Cotton.” Water Resources and Ecosystems.” World (2005): n. page. Print. Wildlife Foundation. WWF, May 1999. Web. ³ Harkin, Tom. “Hard truths about Uzbek 10 Nov 2011. cotton.” Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles] ⁶ “The Cotton Industry: Bloom Times.” 29 Sep 2009, n. pag. Print. <http://articles. Economist. 20 Jan 2011: n. page. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. < kin25>. node/17965505>.

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Sally's T-Shirt