File : The environmental footprint of a T-shirt

Today, more than 80 billion new clothes are produced per year. That’s 400% more than 20 years ago. Greenpeace launches its Detox campaign following an alarming report : the majority of clothing we wear contains chemicals that can have harmful health effects…

More recently, you can watch on Netflix a documentary about the underbelly of the textile industry :  ” The True Cost“. This documentary is very poignant and demonstrates the cruel reality on the order side of the world, for clothes… I therefore advise you to prepare yourself before watching this documentary : 

When you come across the T-shirt of your dreams, you may not be aware of how far it has come. And you may not have imagined all the stages of transformation that he underwent to arrive before you : All beautiful, all new!

The purpose of this article is in no way to make you feel guilty when you buy a product from the end of the world, but to understand what the hidden environmental impacts are and how to integrate them during the use and end of life of the garment. 

And believe me, on your scale, you can move the lines with eco-responsible reflexes. 

In order to better understand the impact of our clothes, let’s take a concrete case and analyze its environmental footprint. We’ll get a T-shirt. 

Here is our case study, we will use this observation to deduce the environmental impacts : 

When we analyze the environmental footprint, we talk more specifically about life cycle analysis (LCA). It is a method for multi-criteria assessment of the environmental impacts of products (or processes) at all stages of their life cycle. 

L'empreinte environnementale d'un Tee-shirt

Step 1 : Fiber Production 

To produce our T-shirt, we will need : 54g of fertilizers and pesticides50g of oil equivalent (tractor or other machines) and 156L of water. 250g of Co2 will be released into the air. 

L'empreinte environnementale d'un Tee-shirt
Sources : ACVTex

At each stage, the environmental footprint of a T-shirt will be schematized :

Step 2 : Fiber transformation into T-shirt 

To realize the difference stages of transformation of the fiber into T-shirt, energy will be needed. The fiber will become a yarn, then this yarn will be knitted in t-shirt. The third stage is the dyeing stage, and finally the manufacturing stage.

In total, this step represents an energy consumption of 8kwh.Dyeing will require 31,20l of water.

L'empreinte environnementale d'un Tee-shirt

L'empreinte environnementale d'un Tee-shirt

Step 3 : Transport and Distribution 

From China to France, a T-shirt travels about 10,000km. However, the Co2 emission will depend on the mode of transport selected. Here are some figures that show the impact of transportation choice on the planet. 

For us, transport by boat will be studied. 
Even if intercontinental transport is impacting, it is the last kilometers of transport that are the most polluting (transport from the port of arrival, to the store, usually by truck). Finally here, the environmental footprint of a T-shirt remains quite low by river. 

Step 4 : Use 

According to ACVTex sources, 520kg of textiles are washed, dried and ironed per household each year. We also learn that one French person out of two does not wait for the end of life of his T-shirt to buy a new one. No wonder each Frenchman consumes 10kg of textile per year.

Starting from these constants, our T-shirt makes us consume 62.4liters of water and 1.5kWh of energy over a year. Here, the environmental footprint of a T-shirt explodes ! 

Having trouble deciphering the hieroglyphics on your clothing labels? Here is a Guide to care symbols that will explain and help you keep your clothes in good condition. 

L'empreinte environnementale d'un Tee-shirt

Step 5 : End of life 

The end-of-life of products must be taken into account when they are designated, particularly in the choice of materials. We should opt for natural or biodegradable materials that allow easy deconstruction. 

Every year, out of 700,000 tonnes of textile waste, only 20% is collected (EcoTLC/Refashion). This last step is the most neglected, while we have the power to better manage the end of life of our T-shirt.

Out of 700,000 tonnes of waste, only 21% reach collection points…

Textile waste comes from two main sources : 

  • New waste, production losses, generated by the textile industry
  • Used rags and textiles from households or companies 

Examples of textile waste : 

Used clothing, technical fabrics at the end of life, manufacturing scraps from spinning mills, weaving, knitting or finishing, scrap fabrics, used rags, scraps from cuts, packaging waste, linen, etc. 

What to do now? 

I hope you have a clearer view of the environmental footprint of a T-shirt and clothing in general. 

And if this article raises questions in you : do not hesitate, as usual, to ask them in comment or to contact me hereFinally, do not feel guilty, we all know that it is complicated to change one’s habits. Little by little, if everyone does his part, the efforts will pay off. 

By the way, I advise you to read the book the NGO REDDRESS :  Dress With Sense. This book gives you many tips to upgrade your textiles, such as : 

  • Customization (Sewing, assembly)
  • DIY closed loop (Make a textile with a textile)
  • DIY in open circuit (Make another product like decorating with textile) 
  • Donations to various associations (oxfam, secours populaire) 
  • Resale on various online sites
  • Recycling terminal 
  • Household Cloths (Tawashis) 

Useful definitions : 

The units : 

1kWh : corresponds to the energy consumed by a device with 1,000 watts (1kW) of power for one hour (Wkipedia)Co2 eq : a petrol car emits about 150g of Co2 eq per km travelled (wikipedia) Eutrophication : unit kg equivalent phosphate : is the pollution generated by 1kg phosphate 

Life cycle concept : An approach that  takes into account all stages of the life cycle of products and services in management decisions. It applies both environmentally, economically and even socially. 
Sustainable development : It is a comprehensive approach designed to meet the needs of current generations. This approach must not compromise the ability of future generations to respond to their own. 

Aquatic eutrophisation : Excessive enrichment of an aquatic environment (particularly if the water is stagnant or restricted circulation) into nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus) or organic matter, causing an overabundant development of plant biomass whose subsequent composition consumes some or all of the oxygen, dissolved oxygen in water and reduces the biodiversity of the aquatic environment. 

Sources et articles : 

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