A basic T-shirt, one of the simplest garments in the world, is the last step in a convoluted chain of events spanning several countries. Cotton might be grown, farmed, and processed in Turkey; carded, combed, stretched, and twisted into yarn in China; and woven into cloth, dyed, cut, and sewn in Bangladesh. The finished T-shirt is shipped or flown to distribution centers, perhaps in California, London, or Tokyo, then trucked to a storefront — or, more likely in these plague times, somebody’s front porch.
The entire journey is dripping in petrochemicals. It relies on coal for heat and electricity, and petroleum powers its ocean freight and air shipping. Oil or fracked natural gas is refined for polyester, fashion’s most popular material that long ago supplanted cotton as the fabric of our lives. A single garment might comprise a slew of different materials including thread, interfacing, buttons, zippers, linings, appliqués, insulation. And synthetic fibers are present in almost all of them. From our humble T-shirt to stretchy Spandex, polyester is expected to account for 73% of the global textiles market by 2030, and 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, or roughly twice the output of Australia.
While how we wash, dry, and dispose of things like a t-shirt generates emissions, at least 80% originate in the manufacturing stage, according to MIT’s Materials Systems Laboratory. One no-frills T-shirt has the climate impact of driving a car for about 10 miles. The same is true of sneakers, pumps, dresses, jeans, suit jackets, blouses, dress pants, lingerie, sweatshirts, puffer coats, ballgowns, and everything else that makes up the $2.5 trillion fashion industry. A single garment might seem like a small contribution, but fashion churns out 100 billion pieces a year (Inditex, the parent company of Zara and the world’s largest fast-fashion retailer, is responsible for one billion of those alone).
“What’s feeding fast fashion is cheap fossil fuels,” says Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director, at the sustainability think tank Stand.Earth. “Synthetic, petroleum-based materials are now a significant percentage of what we wear.”