Cotton has one of the largest environmental impacts of any crop globally and is responsible for 16% of global pesticide use. Pesticides used on cotton are mostly nerve gases like cyanide. It also takes 2600L of water to produce a cotton t-shirt made of virgin material. No Bueno.
Polyester is essentially plastic; it’s made from oil and its production impact is worsened by the fact it releases microfibres when washed. Fabric this cheap does not last. It’s made to be consumed and thrown away.
Not all cotton and/or poly is bad quality. Some high-quality technical fabrics are made from those fibres, but they don’t sell for $1.00. When it comes to fabric, you get what you pay for.
For a point of reference, we buy high quality fabrics that are waste to the manufacturer and in most cases the minimum they will take is still $2-7.00/yard depending on the material blend. For our technical materials we can pay upwards of $15/yard.
This boils down to quality. This is the reason 70lbs of clothing is tossed every year. It’s made of shit fabric that doesn’t withstand use. That’s the first major impact of this low-cost garment.
Fast Fashion Wages
Industry analysis of sewing cost varies slightly but most (including a study done by Macleans above) has sewing account for about 1% of garment cost. That means on a $15 tee, the seamstress is making around $0.15. At this cost theirs a significantly higher chance workers are being treated unfairly.
There are so many economic factors that influence a fair wage you’d need a thesis for each country. Labour and design in the chart presented above include pattern making, graphics and the actual garment designer. Majority of industry cost analysis has the actual sewing construction of a shirt at around 1% or $0.12-0.15.
Without getting into the depths of economics and fair wage argument for each country, suffice it to say that with a shirt retail price set at $15 there is a significantly higher chance that workers are not being treated fairly.
Now it’s important to understand that could happen at any price point. A more expensive shirt does not mean more ethical. However, with an understanding of this cost analysis, a $4-15 shirt needs some serious backing to show that the company did in fact treat workers fairly. Most companies making shirts this cheap list only the country it was made, nothing more.
In Bangladesh, where the research a the typical garment worker makes just over the local minimum wage which is about 55% of what is considered to be a living wage.
In summary, there’s two major impacts you could be making with your purchase of a cheap t-shirt. One hurts people, one hurts the planet. There’s a small handful of situations where this may not be the case but it’s something you need to decide if you’re cool with risking.
At the very least you should be looking into the brand and see if they back up their products with transparent supply chains. When in doubt, ask. If they don’t or can’t answer, I’d take that as a very bad sign.