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What Does a T-Shirt Cost the Environment? New Report Finds Out

What’s the environmental impact of a T-shirt? The answer can vary wildly depending on its raw materials, processes and conditions of use.

A new report by the European Commission, however, offers guidance on crunching the actual numbers based on a product’s progression from “cradle to grave,” which begins when resources are extracted from nature and ends when the product reaches its end of life.

A T-shirt’s potential impact areas run the gamut, the reported noted, including land and water use, fossil-fuel depletion, freshwater acidification and marine eutrophication. Not all yarns are created equal, the report’s authors stressed, and specific impacts hinge on the type of fiber involved, whether it’s cotton, hemp, silk, polyester or acrylic.

The methodology also covers both the myriad processes required to bring a T-shirt to market (material production, spinning, printing, finishing, packaging, transportation, electricity generation), along with the standard use cycles employed by consumers (washing, drying, ironing).

The study is part of a wider series of environmental-footprint pilots, known as Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR), designed to communicate the life-cycle environmental performance of popular products to business partners, consumers and other stakeholders using “detailed and comprehensive technical guidance.”

This specific PEFCR defined “T-shirt” as any apparel product, fit to dress the upper body, that mainly consists of a tubular- or circular-knit fabric without a full-length opening. Items in the study included athletic T-shirts, singlets and other vests, polo shirts and T-shirts with short, long or no sleeves for men, women, children and babies.

Stakeholders consulted for the project included the Belgian Federal Public Service for Health & Environment, the Business Environmental Performance Initiative, the Cotton Research & Development Corporation, the Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea of the Republic of Italy, Euratex, the European arm of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Hugo Boss, Nike, Inditex and Lenzing.