The life cycle of a t-shirt – Angel Chang
Articles,  Blog

The life cycle of a t-shirt – Angel Chang

Consider the classic white t-shirt. Annually, we sell and buy
two billion t-shirts globally, making it one of the most common
garments in the world. But how and where is the average
t-shirt made, and what’s its environmental impact? Clothing items can vary a lot, but a typical t-shirt begins its life
on a farm in America, China, or India where cotton seeds are sown, irrigated and
grown for the fluffy bolls they produce. Self-driving machines carefully harvest
these puffs, an industrial cotton gin mechanically
separates the fluffy bolls from the seeds, and the cotton lint is pressed
into 225-kilogram bales. The cotton plants require a huge quantity
of water and pesticides. 2,700 liters of water are needed to produce
the average t-shirt, enough to fill more than 30 bathtubs. Meanwhile, cotton uses more insecticides
and pesticides than any other crop in the world. These pollutants can be carcinogenic, harm the health of field workers, and damage surrounding ecosystems. Some t-shirts are made of organic cotton
grown without pesticides and insecticides, but organic cotton makes up less than 1% of the 22.7 million metric tons
of cotton produced worldwide. Once the cotton bales leave the farm, textile mills ship them
to a spinning facility, usually in China or India, where high-tech machines blend, card, comb, pull, stretch, and, finally, twist the cotton into
snowy ropes of yarn called slivers. Then, yarns are sent to the mill, where huge circular knitting machines weave them into sheets
of rough grayish fabric treated with heat and chemicals
until they turn soft and white. Here, the fabric is dipped into
commercial bleaches and azo dyes, which make up the vivid coloring
in about 70% of textiles. Unfortunately, some of these contain
cancer-causing cadmium, lead, chromium, and mercury. Other harmful compounds and chemicals
can cause widespread contamination when released as toxic waste water
in rivers and oceans. Technologies are now so advanced
in some countries that the entire process of growing
and producing fabric barely touches a human hand. But only up until this point. After the finished cloth
travels to factories, often in Bangladesh, China, India,
or Turkey, human labor is still required
to stitch them up into t-shirts, intricate work that
machines just can’t do. This process has its own problems. Bangladesh, for example, which has surpassed China as the world’s
biggest exporter of cotton t-shirts, employs 4.5 million people
in the t-shirt industry, but they typically face poor conditions
and low wages. After manufacture, all those t-shirts
travel by ship, train, and truck to be sold in high-income countries, a process that gives cotton
an enormous carbon footprint. Some countries produce
their own clothing domestically, which cuts out this polluting stage, but generally, apparel production accounts
for 10% of global carbon emissions. And it’s escalating. Cheaper garments and the public’s
willingness to buy boosted global production
from 1994 to 2014 by 400% to around 80 billion garments each year. Finally, in a consumer’s home, the t-shirt goes through one of the most
resource-intensive phases of its lifetime. In America, for instance, the average household does nearly
400 loads of laundry per year each using about 40 gallons of water. Washing machines and dryers
both use energy, with dryers requiring five to six times
more than washers. This dramatic shift in clothing
consumption over the last 20 years, driven by large corporations
and the trend of fast fashion has cost the environment, the health of farmers, and driven questionable
human labor practices. It’s also turned fashion into the second
largest polluter in the world after oil. But there are things we can do. Consider shopping secondhand. Try to look for textiles made from
recycled or organic fabrics. Wash clothes less and line dry
to save resources. Instead of throwing them away
at the end of their life, donate, recycle, or reuse them
as cleaning rags. And, finally, you might ask yourself, how many t-shirts and articles of clothing
will you consume over your lifetime, and what will be their combined
impact on the world?


  • Me Me

    Another self loathing talk from a privileged individual. Let's hope she made the video without wearing a shirt, or use anything that has got changeable fabric.

  • Uzoaku Amadi

    Those "solutions" are our way of life in Africa TBH. We line-dry, hand down clothes and convert them to rags or kitchen mittens

  • Phaux Redtail

    Who the heck does that much laundry?! That's more than one load a day! I rewinded several times to confirm what was being said.

  • Fawn Petitti

    I feel the masses willing will do what's right but most celebrities and rich cant possibly rewear clothes 😑

  • Königstiger

    Yes, let’s use 2nd hand clothes, don’t wash our clothes and abandon all the agricultural innovations.
    Actually, no thanks. 🖕🏼

  • Marco Antonio Rodríguez Sánchez

    The shirt is a garment, so whether you have a formal or informal style, you should not miss the gentlemen's wardrobe. It is not a piece just for office workers or to wear with suit. Many men dismiss it because they believe that just for a formal look, they do not know when to use it or how to combine it.

  • Corgis

    I have friends that must have like hundreds of shirts in their closet. I really don't see the need for someone to have that many clothes. I try to take care of my clothing so it will last a long time, especially after learning how bad for the environment and people they are to produce.

  • Geethanjali balaji

    This is too silly , washing clothes the basic necessity , and the water being used definitely evaporates and comes down as rain .

  • Robbert Jacobs

    Love this, I think it would have been even better if the beginning was a bit more accurate. Cotton, especially in Asia, is very often collected by hand as is the washing and transformation of it. Myanmar is becoming a country where the production of fast fashion is exploding, leaving the population with low income jobs, poor housing and horrific environmental situations.

  • Tyler Hyder-Hobson

    There's lots of cotton farms in Australia along the murray river, most of the farmers take more water than they are allowed and the government on their side of the river turn a blind eye, the area where I live called Sunraysia is in 2 droughts at the same time, a natural one, this is because most of Australia is either a desert or a semi-desert, and a human made one mainly accounted to cotton farmers.

    Side note: most of the farms are owned by China, same with allot of our castle farms.

  • Dana V

    Nowaday this industry is considered the second largest polluter in the world after oil. This is a consequence of the large amount of items  manufactured every year (80 Milion)
    , of which the vast majority ends in landfill. only in UK more than 30.000 tones of clothes ends there annually, being thus the fastest growing category of waste in the country
    the environment impact on the planet is so colossal that it's estimated that by 2050, global clothing sales could more than triple
    for example, we buy and sell 2 billion of t-shirt, which are produced on cotton plants that  require 2700 liters water and pesticides that can be carcinogenic, harm the health and the  ecosystem.
    as a result of this process, of dipping into bleaches and dyes the tshirts, its released contaminated toxic water That contains harmful  and chemicals compound  
    despite that exists organic cottons, but this,  represents less than the 1% of the 22,7 million metric tons of cotton produced 
    Only in Bangladesh 4.5 millions people are working in the poor conditions and with low wages that this industry generates
    it is shown that  Clothing productions accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions (just for transportation) and the Garment production from 1994-2014 has increased a 400%, (80 billion garments per year)
    as a plus, clothes requieres per house the use 40 gallons of water and does nearly 400 loads of laundry per year, 
    We the consumers and brands, in order to need to tackle this fast fashion problem and throwaway culture, we have to change our behaviors.
    we can resort to services as “ rent the runway", a clothing borrowing service, or buy  to “Patagonia” , a brand that cleans and repair products in order to break this unsustainable industry
     Moreover,We can do little changes as  buying second hand. or  recycled or organic fabric. or recycle or reuse garments as cleaning rags

  • Ber Khan

    Why dont someone open a business that sells cotton T-shirts which dont go through bleach or dye? that grey-ish color would be a pride to wear!

  • Si Cheng Dong

    Hi TED Ed your channel is so educatinal and it really inspire me to be more caring about our planet such as reducing the usage of plastics,toxic chemecal,and other harmful things that might kill our planet, even us. I really love to watch your videos i really support you guys a lot, keep inspiring more people specially the youth like me that doesn't have much care for the Earth, well except me, i love you guys and great job

  • Alyssa O.

    As a fashion merchandising major, we learned a lot about the impact of our industry on the environment and society. And yes, as fast fashion continues to run rampant, the fashion industry continues to wreak havoc environmentally and socially. It's a tough cycle to break, and people are slowly becoming more aware of sustainability. I'm very glad TED ed showed this video so more and more people can become more educated on the issue.

  • Vincent 396

    Those young people will go on to pollute like no generation before, due to their massive energy footprint of computers, smartphones, printers, Starbucks/ corporate coffees, disposable coffee cups, and hot air. I agree that we can reduce, reuse, and recycle, but we will never go back to an utopian, agrarian society that they pretend to want, as long as we need our daily fufu coffee fix. Cut off the Starbucks, and see how fast people forget about the environmental impact when they are twitching from caffeine withdrawals.

  • Earl Vaughn

    6:03 Being told how our children are inheriting destructive environmental practices….while watching children waste large amounts of paper on projects to promote TED talks. 🤔

  • Will Carpenter

    And what happens to the poor folks in the Bangladeshi factories when folks stop buying the cotton tee-shirts they sew? (argh!)

  • svenm sandity

    Another thing that can be optimized by tower farms as once you have a perfect system you can mass produce it solidify its foundation and ultimately bring its costs down to nothing

  • Soumyajit Saha

    Well, cotton T-shirts are very very less harmful for environment. The synthetic fabrics is 10 times more polluting. And almost stay here for thousands of years

  • Andrew Harper

    Capitalism needlessly pollutes so much because efficiency is not the goal, making money is. And if you can make more money by shipping raw materials to india then shipping them back as finished goods then that what you'll do.

  • Chieh Hsu

    This is outrageous. After knowing that Greta Thunberg only wears second-handed clothes, I stopped buying them and have been gradually donating clothes off.

  • stefanny casablanca

    also: this not only the fault od the consumers but the imperialism and capitalism created when america was discover, this was all the product of european imperialism trought the globe.

  • jesseturnip

    I'm going to go out and kill a panda and where it's fur, apparently that's more environmentally friendly then making a t shirt

  • ParkChimChimstolemyheart

    This is why we don't throw away most of our cotton clothes, in India, you use it till it don't fit, then you can donate it/give it to a younger sibling, then it goes for holi playing clothes and finally used as a mopping cloth in the kitchen/floor cleaning! We use a kitchen mopping cloth that's basically a cut-out piece of a tee I owned when I was in 1st grade, that's about a decade back

  • deshawn watson13

    "Life cycle of a shirt" more like "how to make everyone feel bad about everything involving clothes".
    I think I'm gonna become a nudist now

  • Martins Martins.S

    This is so cool, but if you like T-shirts, i don't see an excuse for you to not check this teespring store.

  • That One

    You guys didn’t even discuss the environmental impact of shirts after they’re thrown away in landfills or sold to people in developing countries.

  • Borni Ekellem

    I have the feeling this channel is pretty left leaning. Does everything have to ne about the environment.

    Im not going to be willing to live in the stobe age for some exotic animals that have no purpose whatsoever.

  • Luboman411

    I sometimes feel bad that I have old clothing, and I keep wearing the same pants and shirts from years ago. Thank you for making me feel better about my attachment to old clothing, including stuff I should've thrown out a while ago. This tendency of mine is environmentally friendly, this need not to cycle through clothes compulsively year after year.

  • Gilly the fish

    Thanks to this video I know how harmful the making of clothing can be. So to help the earth, I won't wear shirts anymore. Thanks TED-Ed!

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