Kristin Morawski Cotton T-shirt Canary

The Canary in the Closet.

Canary in a coal mine is a metaphor originating from the early 20th century when miners carried caged canaries into the mine. If there was a leak of dangerous gas, such as carbon monoxide or methane, it would kill the canary before the levels became hazardous to humans, giving them time to escape. The canary was a critical detection system alerting workers to serious dangers looming.

The fashion industry has its own canary perched within our wardrobes, warning us of problems to come. All together now, in the tune of “Do-Re-Mi”: Let’s start from the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start. When you read you begin with A-B-C. When you dress you begin with a basic tee. A basic tee!

Everyone has a basic cotton t-shirt. In fact, I suspect everyone has many more than just one. If we pay closer attention to this one garment, it will help us understand the true impact of our fashion choices and save our closets from complete suffocation.

While assessing the extent of my t-shirt collection, my “Free Katie” tee resurfaced. Remember when Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch declaring his love for Katie Holmes? Well, inexplicably, I felt so compelled to rescue Katie from Tom’s energetic clutches, that I chose this as my first online purchase. A pink cotton t-shirt with big, bold, block letters reading “Free Katie.” After a single wear, during which multiple people asked me who Katie was, this t-shirt was relegated to the depths of my closet.

My “Free Katie” t-shirt is an example of how little thought we all give to the humble cotton t-shirt. Owning such an abundance of t-shirts suggests we have lost touch with the intrinsic value they each inherently possess. Many resources go into producing a t-shirt. One of these resources is water. Did you know, it takes over 2,700L of water to produce just one cotton t-shirt? This equates to almost three years-worth of drinking water for one person!

In addition to the resources required to produce a cotton t-shirt, there are many people along the supply chain who work hard and contribute their skills to bring a t-shirt to life. For perspective, here is a list of the steps needed to produce a cotton t-shirt:

1. Farming & Ginning:
Growing and harvesting the cotton, then compressing the cotton lint into bales for shipment.

2. Carding, Combing & Spinning:
Pulling the fibers into a continuous strand called the sliver, the slivers are put through a combing machine to remove impurities, then the smooth slivers are spun into yarn and twisted onto bobbins.

3. Weaving or Knitting:
Creating fabric from the yarn.

4. Dying or Printing:
Treating the fabric to achieve the desired colour or pattern.

5. Designing:
Creating a template for the finished t-shirt design.

6. Cutting & Sewing:
The fabric is cut into pieces needed to create the t-shirt design, then assembled into one garment.

7. Labeling & Finishing:
Adding the appropriate brand labeling and ensuring there are no issues with the final garment.

8. Packaging & Shipping:
Bundling up the finished t-shirts into boxes and shipping them around the world for sale.

9. Merchandising & Selling:
Unpacking and prepping the t-shirts within the retail store, then a sales associate works with the customer to find the perfect one for them.

It’s important to note, this process is essentially the same whether you are purchasing a classic white t-shirt or one with “Free Katie,” for fun. I think I just heard that canary chirping…

“Clothing is so cheap today that buying them often feels inconsequential.” Elizabeth Cline, Overdressed

Given this lengthy and labor-intensive production process, it seems inconceivable that I can buy a t-shirt for $5.99, less 20% if I sign up for a weekly email. These extremely low prices are causing us to undervalue the clothing we buy. “Clothing is so cheap today that buying them often feels inconsequential.” Problematically, the business of making and selling fashion is not inconsequential.

There are two main issues with this low-price business model. First, it entices manufacturers to dangerously cut corners. Considering 20-40% of a garment’s cost is labor, “to make cheap clothing, you really need cheap labor. The vast majority of garment workers are being paid extremely low wages and there is little to no maintenance of working facilities. This results in very poor working conditions for much of the garment industry’s workforce.

Second, the low-price business model has altered our shopping behavior with disastrous environmental implications. The dramatically lower cost to purchase clothing has changed how we perceive them. We have switched from seeing our clothing as products we invest in and use repeatedly, to products we consume and use up. The average North American wears a garment only seven times before it’s thrown away, and this has resulted in each of us discarding an average of 81lbs of clothing every year. We better check on that canary…

In an effort to heed the warning from my cotton canary, I put myself on a fast fashion hiatus. No shopping at Zara (particularly painful for me), H&M, Top Shop, Forever 21, Joe Fresh, the Gap, or Old Navy for an entire year. Initially, I needed to completely avoid the stores and websites to keep my focus, but as I learned more about the harmful effects of the fast fashion industry, the clothes lost their appeal altogether. Overall, I was shopping much less frequently and, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, when I made a purchase it felt special.

I wish I could tell you avoiding fast fashion will solve all the problems. Unfortunately, the pattern of constant consumption modeled by fast fashion has infiltrated every tier of the fashion system. “Though it started as a small corner of the business, fast fashion’s astounding success was so enviable it soon reset the rhythm for how clothing – from luxury to athletic wear – was, and is, conceived, advertised, and sold.”

Which brings me back to the canary in our closet: the humble cotton t-shirt. Ultimately, even if you buy one made from organic cotton, produced in a local factory offering a living wage to its employees, and cost $599 instead of $5.99, it still took 2,700L of water and all nine steps to produce. This t-shirt and every other piece of clothing you own will be a waste of resources if it’s disposed of after only seven wears. We need to consume less and consume better. Let’s all be more selective in what we buy, treasure every piece we add to our wardrobes, and wear them repeatedly with pride.

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