A heightened awareness of the impact we have on the environment has meant that an increasing amount of people are conscious of the effects that their purchases have on the world. With an increasing amount of sustainable clothing options, people are choosing to spend their money on ethical, organic and recycled products.
It is now not uncommon for high street shops to stock a range of recycled t-shirts in a nod to this trend, whilst some larger chains such as H&M have pledged to source organically for 100% of their cotton products whilst increasing their range of ethical t-shirts. T-shirt printing companies are also starting to provide eco t-shirt printing methods to accommodate the eco-friendly customer. These small changes are allowing consumers & businesses alike to make ethical choices without the associated high cost. However, many are unaware of exactly what this means and assessing the impacts of these materials can be difficult in a world where fashion brands will use any amount of guilt tactics to sell you their more expensive, ethical products.
With the rise of athleisure brands like Gymshark & Lulu Lemon, sports clothing has now got a firm place in the fashion arena, with the market size expected to reach $567 billion by 2024. However, most people don’t realise that a large proportion of athleisure products are made from plastic, more specifically polyester. In 2019, 2 billion polyester T-shirts were produced and this is set to rise by 2025 to 2.5 billion T-shirts. That figure is just t-shirts and does not even begin to cover everything else containing polyester.
What is Polyester?
Polyester is made from the most common type of plastic in the world, polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This originates from crude oil, a fossil fuel which is a significant contributor to climate change. Due to the strength and durability of the fibre, polyester is used in many products from clothing and home-furnishings to electrical insulation.
Polyester is one of the fastest growing fashion categories with synthetic fibres currently making up about 60% of the material used in clothing worldwide. Greenpeace forecast the amount of plastic in our clothes to double by 2030 and Fashion United cited that the athleisure trend was one of the main reasons behind it.
Recycled polyester (rPET) is created by melting down existing plastic and spinning it into polyester fibre. The focus has been placed on plastic containers thrown away by consumers, however polyester can be recycled from almost any plastic except blended fabrics, trying to extract polyester from blended materials is like trying to take the eggs out of a cake, impossible.
What is Organic Cotton?
Organic cotton is produced from cotton plants that are certified to organic agricultural standards. The production uses natural processes which do not allow the use of toxic chemicals or genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). In turn, this means that the health of soil, ecosystems and agricultural farmers are sustained.
Whilst it takes approximately 2,700 litres of water to produce a single, conventional cotton T-shirt, organic cotton is 80% rain fed, dramatically reducing the pressure on local water sources.
When considering whether to buy cotton or polyester products, it is important to take note of the ecological impacts as well as the performance of the materials. Cotton performs especially well during the summer months as it is lightweight and breathable. Cotton is also hypoallergenic and is therefore a good choice for people with allergies or sensitive skin. In contrast, polyester is not as breathable but performs brilliantly as sportswear due to its water repelling qualities and quick drying nature, so when it comes to making something that will allow an athlete to perform their best, it’s an understandable choice.
Consequences of Choice
While it’s easy to demonise the individual brands using these products or materials, it’s not necessarily the answer. In some instances, better alternatives are not available. 2 in 5 Britons say that whilst they care about the environment, they do not think about the consequences their clothing has for the planet.
For every kilogram of recycled polyester produced, up to 62% less energy and up to 99% less water is used than in the manufacture of conventional polyester. Recycled polyester eliminates many of the harmful steps required in extraction and creates up to 35% less waste than polyester made from crude oil. In context, 6 plastic bottles make enough fibre for one polyester T-shirt and with 583 billion plastic bottles sold every year, that leaves a potential for 97 billion environmentally friendly T-shirts to be made.
However, this is a drop in the ocean as far as reducing the use of plastic is concerned. Most of us don’t need products made with polyester unless we are athletes or are wearing hi vis PPE. It is important to understand that recycled polyester products still release microfibres into the environment. A paper published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal revealed that these microfibres make up approximately 85% of man-made debris on Global shorelines.
Swapping a conventional cotton T-shirt for one made of certified organic cotton would save a staggering 2,457 litres of water. The average American states they have approximately 10 T-shirts in their wardrobe, if they all swapped to organic cotton, they could save 24,570 litres of water each. That’s enough for one person to drink eight glasses of water a day for 35 years. Cotton is biodegradable and infinitely recyclable, unlike polyester which has finite use, not to mention the relief on the land and the agricultural farmers who are no longer exposed to toxic pesticides in conventional cotton farming.
The Future For Organic Cotton & Recycled Polyester
Major sportswear brands like Nike & Adidas have made steps in the right direction by using recycled polyester and some eco-friendly printing companies offer recycled custom sportswear and recycled t-shirt printing, an important step in such a large market, however, the potential of recycled polyester is limited. Polyester fibre breaks down each time it is recycled, which means that it eventually ends up in landfill or in our oceans regardless of its lifecycle.
Additionally, with sales of polyester products soaring there is less investment into alternatives compared to other markets like packaging where a great deal of focus is being placed on finding alternatives to cater for the public demand. Bamboo is a good alternative to polyester, although it is relatively unknown in comparison, therefore the demand is not as high, resulting in a high price tag.
Similarly, organic cotton is in demand. The production and trade of organic cotton increases on average 70% per year. However, whereas polyester has a larger supply than demand, organic cotton has the opposite. The demand for organic cotton is increasing at a rapid rate, outweighing the supply due to the knowledge and infrastructure required to be able to grow the plant, and with the majority of supplies coming from India and Turkey, the organic cotton market is relatively volatile.
The involvement of an increasing number of large fashion brands and retailers is drawing interest from the media and other parts of the textile industry. This is creating an increase in consumer knowledge of the process and its environmental effects and their willingness to purchase.
If you wish to go one step further with your eco-friendly t-shirt printing, you can ensure that you are buying Fairtrade products. Fairtrade T-shirt printing is becoming increasingly accessible with many printing companies selling bulk Fairtrade T-shirts ready for customisation and this ensures that your customer knows that the factory workers are treated fairly with minimum wages in place and strict health and safety standards.
The real question is, what can be done?! The answer is a simple one, consume less and demand more. Where possible don’t buy anything. Where you do need to make a purchase, check the fabric composition label and opt for organic cotton, bamboo, or other natural fabric that will degrade over time. When purchasing custom organic t-shirts, it is also important to note the types of ink used in the printing process. Organic t-shirt printing is possible with water based ink, however, many believe the best choice for sustainable t-shirt printing in large volumes is to opt for plastisol ink which gives an almost 100% yield and can be scooped up and re-used.
It is about accepting there isn’t a silver bullet that resolves it all; most options are a step in the right direction. Although that’s a harder marketing pitch, it’s the reality. If we keep encouraging these steps forward in innovation, and demanding more from retailers, we will begin to see the changes needed. After all, our money holds the real power.
Organic Cotton T-Shirts vs Recycled Polyester T-Shirts Overview
|ORGANIC COTTON||RECYCLED POLYESTER|
|SOURCE||COTTON PLANT||CRUDE OIL|
|RECYCLABLE||YES||YES (to an extent)|
|BEST FOR||EVERYDAY WEAR||SPORTS/PERFORMANCE WEAR|
Where Can I Buy Custom Organic Cotton T-Shirts or Recycled Polyester T-Shirts?
Whether you need recycled sportswear for a team event, or custom printed organic cotton t-shirts for your merchandise, we can help. You’ll find our full range of products on our online store.