A classic, white cotton T-shirt. It is a wardrobe staple, a basic garment that can carry any look — sophisticated or casual. It is ubiquitous and plain and easy to wear. It is also a great polluter — in every stage of its life cycle. From the fertilizers used in its cultivation to the toxins and greenhouse gasses released in its apparel manufacture to the byproducts of its wear and eventual disposal, cotton discharges an immense stream of greenhouse gasses that transcends state borders and markets.
Cotton accounts for a significant chunk of the global apparel segment, which trails only behind the oil industry to rank the second largest commercial polluter, releasing 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions or some 860 million tons per year. In this statistics, the virgin material, which makes up three-quarters of the natural fibers utilized in clothing, features prominently.
This year, the world’s production of cotton has now reached 103.17 million 500-pound bales. This is 51.5 billion pounds (roughly 23.4 billion kilograms) of cotton — three times the tonnage of the Eiffel Tower or the combined weight of all 334,000 residents of Santa Ana, Calif., if each clocked at 70 kilograms.
Roughly half of that harvested cotton is spun, weaved, dyed and sewed into clothes. An every-day cotton T-shirt packs up some 0.2 kilograms (0.4 pounds) but, over its life duration, contributes 10 times that amount in carbon emissions, according to a 2015 research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The numbers add up to a little over 100 million tons of CO2-eq (carbon and the CO2-equivalent of other greenhouse gasses) emitted by cotton apparel from cradle-to-gate (not including the phases of consumer use and disposal). This is comparable to the pollution caused by 25 coal-burning plants in a year or by all electricity-supplied households in Los Angeles in 4 years.
Here, many studies on the matter include a caveat — the total cradle-to-gate load of carbon emissions depends on the green capabilities of textile plants. Yet, the top three cotton producers — as well as major exporters — are India, China and the United States, where with the exception of the latter, the majority of factories do not operate in a particularly eco-friendly manner. Hence, the margin of variation in CO2 emissions is rather slim. China accounts for one-thirds of all CO2 emissions that result from clothing manufacture (or 122 million tons out of a total of 330 million tons, according to a 2011 study by the Carbon Trust) and the bulk of CO2 emissions associated with the global cotton production.
The score thus far might be grim. Unfortunately, it only grows bleaker. The greenhouse gas emissions of the global apparel industry — and of cotton clothing, in particular — more than double when transportation, storage, consumer wear and final disposal enter the equation.
The pronounced geographic divide between clothes producers and consumers drives up 178 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere a year, prompting a trade of emissions between the exporting East and the importing West. With the exception of a couple of routes — Europe to North America and Africa to Europe — the top 10 major clothing transportation corridors commence in Asia, predominantly in China. Some 14 percent of the total trans-border CO2 flows occur between China and Europe, 11 percent between the Red Dragon and North America and 13 percent between China and Japan (a rather striking count given the two country’s proximity). The largest cotton and apparel producer, China exports some 72 percent of the CO2 emissions that billow from its clothing segment, while the USA imports the most. When imports are scaled against domestic production, Hong Kong, Japan, France and Britain claim the four top spots of emissions importers. Less than a half of the global CO2 emissions are both triggered and absorbed domestically. Here, China also leads.
But what do all these rankings and tallies mean? How can and should an average consumer peruse them? The easiest observation to spot is this: your clothes come with a tag of CO2 emissions. If you live in Japan, you will likely be among the world’s biggest individual garment-related polluters, contributing a little more than 260 kilograms of embedded clothing emissions a year. In case you are Indian, your clothing carbon footprint will be the tiniest — around 3 kilograms per annum. These two nationalities bracket the extremes around the global average of 51 kilograms per person per year.
But even if you made your own cotton T-shirt from scratch to finish, chances are it will not be CO2 free. If you wear it an average of 50 times, it will accumulate over half of its life-cycle CO2 emissions — or around 7 kilograms — during this period of washing, drying and ironing. In the final stage of its longevity, a cotton T-shirt bound for recycling can bequest some last-order 1.5 kilograms of CO2, a shred that tends to grow if it ends up in a landfill instead.
Clothes comprise some of the most frequently purchased commodities, alongside such items like food and beverages. Billions of people buy them and get rid of them daily. Thus reforming a behemoth industry like apparel — which globally cashes in more than $1 trillion a year — might prove a sluggish, arduous enterprise. It is not merely high revenues that are at stake. It is the whole fabric of the segment — and beyond. While laudable, slow-fashion labels and sustainable projects like the Better Cotton Initiative and H&M Conscious have largely struggled to capture the minds, hearts and bucks of every-day buyers. But even if they do, their success will condense into a single droplet when what is needed is a shower rain. Agriculture, transportation, electricity production, the detergent industry, the waste disposal segment (among others) all warrant an eco-friendly overhaul to reduce the carbon emissions of clothes.
Changes are seldom easy. But do we want the garments on our backs to breathe out CO2 incessantly — from the moment they are little more than a cotton plant in a farmer’s field or a bunch of chemicals in a lab to the instant they evaporate into an incinerator or roll up into a waste bale?