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The Life Story of your T-shirt: Spotting Sustainability

Updated Thursday 22nd October 2015

Can you work out which of these t-shirts is the most sustainable based on their labels? Let's find out.

The Life Story of Your T-shirt Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

When we go to buy a t-shirt how do we make a decision about which one is the more sustainable option? Usually we have very limited information about the various factors that influence the sustainability of a t-shirt. In this quick activity have a go, based on the information available on wash care labels, at deciding which of the t-shirts is the most sustainable and then check out the rest of the information by clicking the expandable bar below.

  • Care label for beige t-shirt: 100% recycled post-consumer waste polyester, made in India, Wash at 30 degrees and iron at medium heat. Part of the conscious range.
  • Care label for pink second hand charity t-shirt. 92% viscose, 8% elastane, made in Turkey. Wash at 30 degrees and iron on medium heat
  • Care label for purple t-shirt: 100% cotton, made in Bangladesh, wash at 30 degrees and iron on medium heat.
  • Care label for red t-shirt: 60% cotton, 40% polyester, made in Mauritius, wash at 30 degrees. Iron on low heat.
  • Care label for striped t-shirt: 100% organic cotton, made in Bangladesh, wash at 40 degrees. Iron on medium heat, part of the conscious range
  • Care label for white t-shirt: 100% viscose, made in turkey, wash at 30 degrees, iron on low heat.
Have your say
Which t-shirt do you think is the most sustainable?
The Purple T-Shirt Co.'s purple shirt
9% (7 votes)
Re-Shirtle's pink shirt
20% (16 votes)
Simple the Beige's beige shirt
42% (33 votes)
Tomatop's red shirt
3% (2 votes)
Striped Shirt Shop's striped shirt
22% (17 votes)
Alwhite Clothing's white shirt
5% (4 votes)
Total votes: 79

See what we think

Here's some more information about these t-shirts with the pros and cons of each.

Care label for beige t-shirt: 100% recycled post-consumer waste polyester, made in India, Wash at 30 degrees and iron at medium heat. Part of the conscious range.

Beige Shirt

This garment is made from 100% recycled post-consumer waste polyester. This saves on natural resources and reduces waste to landfill.

Pros

  • Washed at the lower temperature of 30°C, reducing the energy needed during washing
  • Washing cycles for synthetic garments tend to be shorter and spin speeds lower than for those of 100% cotton.
  • Drying times are quicker than for a 100% cotton t-shirt, saving energy if tumble dried or reduced moisture levels in the house when air dried.
  • Less ironing is required for polyester garments and this can be done at lower temperatures.
  • Waste reduction by using post-consumer waste.
  • Recycled polyester has a 25-75% lower carbon impact than a t-shirt made from virgin.

Cons

  • The feel of the fabric is poor, it feels very synthetic and sticks to itself. This means that it is unlikely that the garment would actually be bought and if it were, probably rarely worn adding to the pile of unworn garments already in wardrobes.
Care label for pink second hand charity t-shirt. 92% viscose, 8% elastane, made in Turkey. Wash at 30 degrees and iron on medium heat

Pink Shirt

This t-shirt was bought from a second hand shop which helps to keep clothes in circulation and reduces the need to use raw materials from, carbon and water in production.

Pros

  • Recycled reducing the need for land and resources for cotton production
  • Extending the life of clothes by a third can lead to a 27% lower carbon impact, 33% lower water use impact and a 22% saving in waste impacts.
  • Washing cycles for synthetic garments tend to be shorter and spin speeds lower than for those of 100% cotton.
  • Drying times are quicker than for a 100% cotton t-shirt, saving energy if tumble dried or reduced moisture levels in the house when air dried.
  • Made in Europe reducing the energy needed to ship the garments.

Cons

  • More difficult to recycle than single fibre garments as it is not possible to separate the fibres.
  • This t-shirt suggests a washing temperature of 40°C, which uses more energy than washing at lower temperatures.
  • Viscose may need ironing more frequently as it creases easily
  • Viscose has a higher carbon and water use impact than cotton.
Care label for purple t-shirt: 100% cotton, made in Bangladesh, wash at 30 degrees and iron on medium heat.

Purple Shirt

This is a basic 100% cotton t-shirt. As it is 100% cotton that means that the cotton fibres can be recycled at the end of life. This could be into fibres to make other textiles, rags, rugs or it could be used as the stuffing in car seats.

Pros

  • Single fibre content easy to recycle.
  • 30°C washing temperature on the label using less energy.

Cons

  • Cotton requires higher ironing temperatures than synthetic fibres
  • Cotton washing cycles tend to be longer than synthetic or mixed fibre fabrics, requiring more water and energy
  • Cotton garments take longer to dry than synthetic garments, which can lead to increased moisture in the house or more energy used if tumble dried.
  • Non-organic cotton uses more carbon and water in production than organic cotton.
  • Shipped around the world from Bangladesh.

 

Care label for red t-shirt: 60% cotton, 40% polyester, made in Mauritius, wash at 30 degrees. Iron on low heat.

Red Shirt

Mixed fibre garments are harder to recycle than single fibre garments, but generally require less energy than a 100% cotton garment to care for them.

Pros

  • A polyester mix t-shirt has a 10% lower carbon impact and a 39% lower water use than a 100% cotton t-shirt.
  • Washed at the lower temperature of 30°C, reducing the energy needed during washing
  • Washing cycles for garments with synthetic fibres tend to be shorter and spin speeds lower than for those of 100% cotton.
  • Drying times are quicker than for a 100% cotton t-shirt, saving energy if tumble dried or reduced moisture levels in the house when air dried.
  • Less ironing is required for polyester cotton garments and this can be done at lower temperatures.

Cons

  • Polyester is made from oil, which is expensive and could become increasingly scarce.
  • More difficult to recycle than single fibre garments as it is not possible to separate the fibres.
  • Shipped around the world from India.
Care label for striped t-shirt: 100% organic cotton, made in Bangladesh, wash at 40 degrees. Iron on medium heat, part of the conscious range

Striped Shirt

This is made from 100% organic cotton.  This reduces the amount of carbon, water and pesticides required for production. As it is 100% cotton that means that the cotton fibres can be recycled at the end of life. This could be into rags, rugs or it could be used as the stuffing in car seats.

Pros

  • Single fibre content is easy to recycle.
  • Organic cotton is estimated to have a 40% lower carbon impact and a 23% lower water use than non-organic cotton.

Cons

  • Cotton requires higher ironing temperatures than synthetic fibres
  • Cotton washing cycles tend to be longer than synthetic or mixed fibre fabrics, requiring more water and energy
  • Cotton garments take longer to dry than synthetic garments, which can lead to increased moisture in the house from air drying or more energy used if tumble dried.
  • This t-shirt suggests a washing temperature of 40°C, which uses more energy than washing at lower temperatures.
  • Shipped around the world from Bangladesh.
Care label for white t-shirt: 100% viscose, made in turkey, wash at 30 degrees, iron on low heat.

White Shirt

Although this is a single fibre garment and easier to recycle, viscose has a higher carbon and water impact than cotton as well as using toxic chemicals in the production process. The garment has a soft feel, but creases easily requiring more ironing.

Pros

  • Single fibre content is easy to recycle.
  • Made in Europe reducing the energy needed to ship the garments
  • Washing cycles for synthetic garments tend to be shorter and spin speeds lower than for those of 100% cotton.
  • Drying times are quicker than for a 100% cotton t-shirt, saving energy if tumble dried or reduced moisture levels in the house when air dried.
  • Washed at the lower temperature of 30°C, reducing the energy needed during washing

 

Cons

  • Viscose has a 7% higher carbon impact and a 20% higher water use impact than cotton.
  • The production process for viscose use toxic chemicals
  • The fabric creases easily and therefore requires frequent ironing and is likely to be washed more regularly than items that stay looking crisp longer.

As you can see from this there are a number of factors that affect the sustainability of a garment, including what it is made from, where it is made, how you care for it, how often you wear it and what happens to it at the end of its life. There are no right or wrong answers to what makes one t-shirt more sustainable than another, which makes it difficult to choose when shopping the most sustainable option. The things that could make it a more sustainable choice at the point of purchase, such as being made from recycled fibres or organic cotton may not be the things that make it a sustainable choice for the whole of the lifecycle. For example, if you don’t like the feel or style of the garment or it is difficult to care for you are less likely to wear it, wasting resources and raw materials.

However, there are several things we as consumers can do to improve the sustainability of a garment. Looking for organic cotton or recycled fibres is a good thing to do, but perhaps the most important things we can do are about considering how we use and care for a garment, as you will have seen from the blogs. Keeping them for longer, wearing them more often, washing at lower temperatures and at the end of their life either taking them to a charity shop or a textile recycling bin rather than putting them in the household rubbish can all help.

Do you still agree with your initial decision? Were you surprised by other peoples' choices? Which one would you actually buy knowing what you know now? Discuss it in the comments below, we look forward to hearing your opinions!

 

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