Supply chain of a t-shirt

Everyone has it in their dresser. Everyone wears it. The plain T-shirt.

Whenever we buy a t-shirt, we are participating in a chain of events far reaching consequences (Goodonyou, 2017). But just because it only costs CHF 7.90 we buy it without further ado. The idea of this blogpost is to go through the life cycle of a t-shirt and try to explain, why it is important to think first before buying another t-shirt only because it has a funny motive on it. Lastly it should give an overlook at possibilities on how to act more sustainable.

Production of raw materials

The journey starts at a cotton plantation. To manufacture t-shirts usually cotton is used. The cotton needs to be spun into a fibre, weaved into fabric and lastly dyed and finished before it can be sold in the shops. To meet the high demand of the consumers, cotton grows in over 80 countries and is using up approximately 35 million hectare of land which equals the size of Germany (öko-fair).
No other plant is as much beset with pests, fungi, insects etc. as the cotton-plant. So cotton-farmers see themselves forced to use different synthetic and toxic chemicals in order to prevent a situation like this and to maximize the harvest.
According to the Worldhealthorganization annually ten-thousands of farmworkers die from the consequences of pesticide-intoxication and groundwater pollution.
Cotton production uses up a deluge of water. In order to produce 300 gr. of cotton (enough for one t-shirt) 2’500 liters of water are needed. So if we assume that one person buys three t-shirts, the usage of water would be at 7’500 liters just for the cotton production. With this amount of water, we could fill 45 bathtubs.


Once the cotton is collected and spun into fibre, the journey goes on to the factories where it is weaved into fabric, dyed and sewed. The fast fashion is driven by low prices and fast changing styles. The way that they can keep the prices low is through underpayment and poor working conditions. 63% of the earnings per t-shirt go to the prevailing store, 10% to processing of the raw material, 5% to the transportation and just 1% to the workers in factories. Forced and child labour is often found in the clothing and textile industry. According to the International Labour Organization there are almost 21 million people who are victims of forced labour within the textile industry (Goodonyou, 2017). To get the used look of jeans, they use the method of sandblasting and a lot of bleach which is very harmful to health and causing deaths. Often they can’t even afford protective wear.

Garment workers across the world face a daily grind of excessive hours, forced overtime, lack of job security, poverty wages, denial of trade union rights, poor health, exhaustion, sexual harassment and hazardous working places. Even in factories which on the surface look clean and modern, workers are often deprived of their internationally-recognized basic rights (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2012)

Distribution / Transportation

The manufactured clothes need to be transported globally to retailers and consumers (Goodonyou, 2017). Roughly 1/3 of clothing exports are exported from China (NZZ, 2013). This shows how long the journey of one single t-shirt actually is. The transportation-process leads to increased pollution by producing carbon emissions. One t-shirt covers approximately 20’000 km before it ends up in our closet. Along the supply chain it produces on average 5.5 kg of CO2, so if we assume that a person buys 3 t-shirts per year that would aggregate 16.5 kg of CO2per year.

Fashion Stores

Fashion Houses like H&M and Zara are members of the “Better Cotton Initiative” which supports sustainable cotton production but in the same time allows genetic engineering and pesticides. The lack of transparency on the part of the fashion houses misleads the end consumer (allnatura). In 2014 Inditex sold 10 Mio. textiles which were certified as organic cotton. But the amount of organic cotton was only 5% – 50%– the rest was conventional cotton (NZZ, 2016).

How to act more sustainable:


The idea with this approach is to maintain in the circle and with that, save valuable ressources.

Bring back / Recycle: A lot of stores take old clothes back and reuse the fabric so that it stays in the lifecycle and doesn’t go to waste.

Upcycle: Upcycling allows us to transform something old in something new without spending a lot of money or waste valuable ressources. Instead of buying ripped jeans we could easily transform an old pair of jeans by cutting some holes without risking any lives.

Look for lables: The quality label bioRe marks textiles made of organic cotton, grown in a sustainable and fair manner in the organic cotton companies of the bioRe Foundation in India and Tanzania. Throughout the supply chain, the way all partners work is guided by five values: Organic cotton, Fair production, Ecological and skin-friendly, CO2-neutral, Retraceable back to farming (Remei AG).

Reduce: A simple thing to do is to just reduce the amount of clothes we buy. Let’s be honest: who needs a douzen of t-shirts hanging in the closet?