As outlined in my previous article, living according to the MOGO principle requires one to look at the true price, beyond the monetary cost, of common, everyday items and ask these two questions:
- What are the effects, both positive and negative, of this item on you, other people, animals, and the environment?
- What alternatives would do the most good and the least harm to you, other people, animals, and the environment?
Perhaps the most ubiquitous item of clothing is the T-shirt. Whether worn as a plain undershirt, or emblazoned with a written message or image, most people in industrialized countries have a plethora of them. For the sake of this article, I’m going to specifically look at a conventional cotton T-shirt, even though, as we know, many T-shirts are made with blends of cotton and other fabric materials.
The Effects on You
Beyond the price tag in the store, there are few directly negative consequences of a conventional cotton T-shirt on you as a consumer; however, there is some concern over exposure to toxic dyes in a new T-shirt, especially if you wear it when it is hot outside, your pores are open, and you perspire while wearing it. There are many indirect effects, however, including more to launder and store, and all the environmental impacts which ultimately affect each one of us personally, albeit obliquely.
The positive effects are fairly obvious. People enjoy their T-shirts and like having a variety for self-expression. Conventional T-shirts are, by and large, relatively inexpensive, so the financial cost is usually only problematic when people feel compelled to buy a T-shirt for a team or group event that they don’t otherwise want.
The Effects on Other People
Conventional cotton T-shirts come at quite a high price to many people in all stages of production. Conventional cotton is heavily sprayed with pesticides, which impact the workers in cotton fields who are exposed to these poisons. A large number of field workers, including children, are actually slaves, especially in Uzbekistan, cited as one of the largest producers of cotton in the world.
People are also exposed to the toxic dyes used to color the cotton, and many are employed in factories described as sweatshops because of the terrible working conditions, which demand extremely long hours for little pay in dusty, overheated rooms, with limits on personal freedoms (e.g., bathroom breaks).
The positive effects are again more obvious. Many people are employed in the process of producing cotton T-shirts, and while the conditions may often be difficult and even brutal, these jobs are preferable to the relentless poverty which has led many people to take a miserable job as an alternative to no job at all.
The Effects on the Environment
Cotton is described as using more pesticides than any other crop. These pesticides wind up in the soil and waterways, causing significant pollution. The synthetic dyes used in conventional cotton production are also generally toxic and wind up in the water stream, too. Meanwhile, cotton is a thirsty crop requiring significant amounts of water for irrigation.
Given that cotton may be grown in one country, transported overseas to another to be turned into fabric and clothing, and then finally to another for sale, conventional T-shirts use a significant amount of fossil fuel beyond simply their production. And once we buy them, there are the environmental impacts of repeated laundering, which include water and energy use, harsh detergents, and their ultimate disposal.
It is difficult to find positive effects on the environment of T-shirts.
The Effects on Animals
Pesticides not only have an impact on soil and water but on the animals who live within those ecosystems. Although meant to kill “pests,” pesticides don’t discriminate and kill beneficial insects as well as impacting other animals up the food chain. Animals are also used in laboratories as testing subjects for both pesticides and dyes (as well as for most of the detergents used to launder T-shirts). These poisonous substances are dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits and force-fed to animals in quantities meant to kill. At the end of the tests, all the animals are killed.
Animals’ habitats are destroyed for cotton production at every stage, from the farming of cotton to the procurement of fuel to the transportation involved in each stage of producing and selling T-shirts.
Like the environmental effects of cotton T-shirts, it is difficult to find positive effects on animals.
What are the MOGO Alternatives?
There are a number of alternatives to conventional cotton T-shirts. Some companies sell organic cotton T-shirts colored with non-toxic dyes. While these T-shirts are not produced with genetically-modified cotton or grown with pesticides, some contend such cotton uses more water. Hemp T-shirts are another alternative that may be even more environmentally sound.
Buying T-shirts produced through fair trade, and marked as such, helps ensure that no slavery or sweatshop labor was employed in production. Likewise, buying T-shirts produced closer to home, from the procurement of the fabric to the final product, may significantly reduce the impact on the environment.
Buying T-shirts from thrift stores essentially recycles used T-shirts so that your money does not go directly into the marketplace for unsustainable and inhumane cotton production. While thrift shopping contributes to one’s local economy and often to non-profit aid organizations, we should be cognizant that the abundance of used clothing stores is in direct proportion to the abundance of global production.
Clothing swaps are a great way to share unwanted clothes and obtain new clothes. And just choosing to own fewer T-shirts results in less money spent, and less to clean, store and ultimately dispose of. Finally, for those T-shirts we do have, laundering them only when necessary, with eco- and animal-friendly detergents, and line-drying them will do more good and less harm.
As you think about buying clothes, remember to ask yourself the True Price questions so that you can make the best choices for yourself and all those whom your choices affect.
Resources for learning more
- Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by Alan Thein Durning and John Ryan
- How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee
- Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery
- Synthetic Dyes: A Look at Environmental and Human Risks
- China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom – Wall Street Journal
- Cotton in Uzbekistan
- The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton
- How to go Green: Laundry