Designing The Best Conscious T-Shirt

Why you should care

As consumers demand better sustainable options, makers and creators are critical to incorporating better designs into the products we love.

by Bree Kochel Sustainable Design Contributor

I am on the path to find the best conscious t-shirt because I am an emerging conscious designer. I started my brand Wecology Society last November. I booked my first pop-up event on Earth Day 2019 at a local brewery. One problem though, I had no product yet. I posted a few catchy environmentally themed phrases on my social media with the plan to learn how to screen print. I knew I wanted my brand to be as sustainable as possible, so I started collecting secondhand t-shirts. I learned how to screen print in less than two weeks by watching YouTube videos and asking questions at a local screen-printing supply shop. 

We put out 26 billion pounds of clothing and textile waste in the United States, annually. I wanted to do more by using less. When growing a brand, you have to have the product to sell to customers, but not too much. Fashion is one of the most polluting industries, and I don’t want my brand to be like the majority of the fashion industry. Sourcing t-shirts secondhand takes time and is not always the most time productive process. Some days I might find ten good t-shirts to reuse and print, and another day I might find none. This got me thinking, if I want to grow and scale my business, I need to find the next conscious option for t-shirts. 

The most sustainable t-shirt option may be in your closet, but there will always be a market for a new t-shirt. The best conscious t-shirt has to be the style you love too. While shopping remember the cotton t-shirt scale: Bad (Traditional Cotton), Better (Organic Cotton), Best (Recycled Cotton/Recycled Cotton Blends).

–Bree Kochel, Wecology Society

Cotton is one of the most profitable non-food crops on the planet. According to TheWorldCounts.com, 29 million tons of cotton are produced a year. Although the traditional cotton market may be big business, it’s not healthy business for humans, animals or the planet. World Top Exports reported that worldwide t-shirt exports by country totaled US $47 billion in 2018 with $30.4 billion of that being cotton t-shirts. So I asked, what is the best conscious t-shirt? 

See Bree’s Favorite T-Shirt Brands

(See Hey Social Good’s Medal Ranking, if available, below)

Traditional Cotton

The United States is a major player in the production of traditional cotton, right behind China and India. Today, states like Texas, Georgia and Mississippi are the largest producers of cotton domestically according to the World Atlas. My home state of California is one of the top 5 largest producers of cotton in the US. Before researching cotton production and domestics farms, I had no idea the United States ranked so high in global production of cotton. It made me think, if we are one of the leaders in global cotton production, then we should be doing more to ensure better social and environmental protections domestically and globally.

According to the Word Wildlife Foundation (WWF), cotton’s most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of agricultural chemicals (especially pesticides), consumption of water, and conversion of habitat to farmland. We have come so far with technology and other ways to make our lives easier, so shouldn’t we be looking into ways to make traditional cotton production better. I know it’s easier said than done and demand has more to do with traditional cotton production. 

This got me looking for a silver lining to the traditional cotton farming. I attended the Sustainable Fashion Forum in Los Angeles this past year, and one concept repeatedly brought up was how some farmers are using a “no till” technique with traditional cotton farming. The no till technique uses recycled water to grow traditional cotton. This may not be a perfect solution, but it does help reduce the amount of water used in traditional cotton farming. I don’t see the demand for cotton t-shirts slowing down anytime soon, but there are alternatives to traditional cotton. 

Organic Cotton

The demand for organic cotton is on the rise. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic cotton had a 10% increase in global production in 2017. In simple terms, organic cotton means the seeds are non-GMO and no synthetic pesticides are used to grow the cotton. This means growing cotton doesn’t result in negative health and environmental impacts.

Buying an organic cotton t-shirt would save 2,457 liters of water, according to a new report from the US Soil Association. The organic cotton process still uses water, but harmful pesticides are not added to the water and soil. According to the brand Prana, 115 gallons of water are saved when you switch to an organic cotton t-shirt.

Organic cotton is not perfect and there have been controversies surrounding it, but it is a better option than traditional cotton. Brand transparency is also important when choosing the best organic cotton t-shirts. Look at the ethical supply chain of a t-shirt, not just the environmental impact.  

Recycled Cotton

Recycled cotton blends are better than organic cotton. Recycled cotton is made up of post-consumer, post-industrial and re-purposed cotton that would be heading to the landfills according to Recover Brands. The recycled cotton used could be your favorite warn out t-shirt or the textile cuttings from a manufacturing mill. I have a personal affinity for all things recycled or reused. I even use the motto “Let’s reuse what we have” in my branding for Wecology Society. Recycled cotton falls under the push for the circular economy. 

One textile manufacture using a circular textile approach is EcoLife. EcoLife is using 60% recycled cotton and 40% traditional cotton blends. Due to the size of a recycled cotton fiber, recycled cotton fibers are mixed with traditional cotton fibers to form the textiles. Recover brands has a 100% recycled t-shirt made up of 50% PET and 50% recycled cotton. The innovation for recycled cotton is in the early stages, but a promising one. San Francisco based brand, Marine Layer launched the Re-Spun t-shirt line this year using 100% recycled cotton collected from customers old t-shirts. 

Although recycled cotton may be the best conscious t-shirt option, it is also the least available. Only a few brands and textile companies are using recycled cotton. This affects the amount of styles and choices when looking for the perfect conscious t-shirt. 

What Makes The Best Conscious T-Shirt?

There is not just one top best conscious option when choosing a t-shirt. Some techniques used to grow cotton traditionally and organically may have both positive and negative impacts. We can’t make perfect choices all the time, but we can make educated choices with how we spend. Look for certifications a brand carries like the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) or the Chetna Organic Coalition. The Chetna Organic Coalition is a certification process that brands like Pact Apparel and Prana uses to help cotton farmers around the world. 

For more tips, check out our Fashion This for That Guide!

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