The Life Cycle of a Cotton T-shirt

Cotton is the most common fiber used in apparel production. But what is the cost of one of those plain white-tees in your closet?

Cotton is a resilient, adaptable, but water-intensive crop. As a result of this demand, 2.6% of global freshwater supply is consumed for the growth of the plant. This demand places stress on freshwater reservoirs and water infrastructure.

The cotton industry has a deep history all over the world. Millions are employed by the various work that encompasses the natural fiber. As the world’s population has grown, so too has the demand on water for cotton (see fig. 1). With 20% of the world’s land declining in productivity, and 8,000,000 acres of farmland dedicated to cotton in the United States alone—much room remains for innovation.

Fig. 1 from Hallett & Johnston 2014

Yet cotton has a myriad of benefits over its less-water intensive competitors; the material is versatile, soft and biodegradable. So, how much water does it take to produce a single t-shirt? The figure below details an in-depth life-cycle assessment.

Fig. 2 from (Ali et. al, 2019)

As seen in (fig. 2), the total energy required throughout 1 kg of cotton’s lifecycle is about 7 kWh—or the amount of electricity required to power a 100W lightbulb for 70 hours. While sustainable energy production (e.g. solar, wind) or efficient use can aid in reducing the energy footprint of cotton’s journey, the intense demands on water leave room for solutions like vertical farming and permaculture.

How would you innovate cotton’s resource heavy lifecycle?


Ali, Ayub & Anjuman Ara, Zinia & Khan, Ayub & Rakib, Abdur. Lifecycle Analysis (LCA) of a White Cotton T-shirt and Investigation of Sustainability Hot Spots: A Case Study. London Journal of Research in Science: Natural and Formal, Vol 18, Issue 3, 2019.

Daystar, Jesse S. et al. “Sustainability Trends And Natural Resource Use In U.S. Cotton Production”. Bioresources, vol 12, no. 1, 2016. Bioresources, doi:10.15376/biores.12.1.362-392.

Hallett, C., & Johnston, A. (2014). Fabric for Fashion. Laurence King Publishing.

Muthu, Subramanian Senthikannan. Assessing the Environmental Impact of Textiles and the Clothing Supply Chain. WOODHEAD Publishing, 2014.

Oliveira Duarte, Larissa et al. “Textile Natural Fibers Production Regarding The Agroforestry Approach”. SN Applied Sciences, vol 1, no. 8, 2019. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s42452-019-0937-y.

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