In his book "Ecological Intelligence," Daniel Goleman argues that even organic cotton T-shirts aren’t necessarily eco-friendly, since they can still be shipped all around the world to be sewn together in sweatshop conditions before being chemically dyed in a polluting facility. Of course, conventionally grown cotton T-shirts still fare much worse under eco-scrutiny, especially those grown and made in China.

Just how ecologically damaging those “all-natural” T-shirts are has been laid bare, thanks to a feature article in the latest issue of Miller-McCune magazine. In “Can China Turn Cotton Green?” Chris Wood takes a close look at a study conducted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Canada, that drew from an international network of experts to look at the cotton T-shirt manufacturing process.

As you may have expected, environmental problems caused by the common cotton T-shirt range widely, from irrigation-based farming practices that strain water supplies and damage ecosystems, to overuse of chemical fertilizers, to water pollution from dye wastes:

Only about 10 percent of dye wastes are recycled, and about a third of the rest flows directly to the environment. In provinces like Xinjiang, this waste is a major contributor to industrial and municipal pollution so severe that nearly 1 in 4 of China’s 1.3 billion people drink contaminated water every day.
Beyond China, the article gives some broader insights into the international cotton market. For example, did you know that conventional cotton from Africa is made with a lot less chemical fertilizer and pesticides than that from China?
The researchers found that the use of agrichemicals differed widely among major supply regions, with China’s own farmers dosing their fields with six times more fertilizer and pesticide than growers in sub-Saharan Africa. American farmers and others in Brazil fall somewhere in the middle.
And did you know that because of corporate consolidation, “the power to influence change” in the cotton-textile chain lies with a “relatively small number of increasingly global participants”? For example, Walmart and Kmart account for a quarter of all the clothing sold in the U.S.! Combine the power of those big players with the many challenges of enforcing environmental policies and guidelines through “local governments whose incentives are dominated by economic development,” and green concerns can get pushed aside. In addition, government subsidies given to cotton farmers in the U.S., China and European countries tends to harm small producers by lowering cotton prices, giving little incentive to invest in greener practices.

The news isn’t all doom and gloom. The article by Woods also points to some suggestions from the study — ranging from shifting to less-irrigation-based, more rain-fed farming and downsizing cotton farm subsidies to consumer pressures for greener trade and greener products — that could help green up cotton T-shirts grown and made in China or anywhere.

If you’re a conscious consumer, read “Can China Turn Cotton Green?” for a great primer on cotton and the cotton trade. It will help you make better purchasing decisions by learning to ask better, more meaningful questions instead of simply buying a cheap T-shirt on a whim.

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