Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Is Buying a Cotton T-Shirt an Environmental Disaster?

I bought a T-shirt made in China the other day – a simple cotton T-shirt that I presumed was good for the environment because it’s a natural fabric. But then, prodded by a friend, I did a little research and found that it can take more than 1,000 gallons of water to make a T-shirt – cotton is a very water-intensive plant.

Cotton is also one of the most chemically dependent plants in the world. According to an Alternet article by Glynis Sweeny, cotton consumes 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides. So my natural fiber T-shirt doesn’t look so good anymore.

Plus, my T-shirt was dyed with chemicals and then shipped to the U.S. on a container ship. So I turned my attention to container ships.

Turns out, there are about 90,000 cargo vessels in the world. They haul ore and oil, food and clothing, machines and building materials, and many other things we use every day. And in one year, a single large container ship can produce as much cancer and asthma-causing pollutants as 50 million cars.

Partly this is because many cargo vessels burn a low-grade bunker fuel that is many times dirtier than the diesel fuel used by the trucking industry. Some of these ships consume 16 tons of fuel per hour.

Pollution by the shipping industry affects the health of people living in coastal regions around the world (and likely all of us to some degree), yet regulations in the industry are largely voluntary.

According to a report published by theguardian ( pollution emitted by just 15 of the world’s largest container ships could be equal to the pollution emitted by all of the world’s 760 million cars.

This is not intended to be an indictment of anyone or anything; it’s merely an observation that even when we think we’re doing the right thing, even when we have good intentions, we aren’t necessarily acting in a responsible way with respect to Mother Earth.

We’ve been talking about carbon dioxide emissions for quite awhile now and presumably working toward lowering emissions to halt the inexorable rise in global temperatures. So it seems likely that we’re burning fewer fossil fuels and putting less CO2 in the air – but are we really?

Actually, in the past year we pumped over 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere according to the journal Nature Climate Change – an increase of 3% over the year before. And although the U.S. is down slightly, China, India and Russia are up significantly.

So despite all our talk of lowering emissions, worldwide we’re doing worse than we have in years past.

How about methane – which is much more potent than CO2 and which is derived mainly from the energy industry, agriculture and waste management?

At least in the U.S., methane emissions over the last 15 years are down, according to the U.S. EPA. However, in China, Russia and Brazil, methane emissions are up significantly.

What does all this mean?

It means we’re still pumping gases into the atmosphere that accelerate global warming. It means that whatever steps we’ve taken, they haven’t been sufficient. Low-lying countries are going to become more prone to water disasters. Diseases that flourish in warmer climates are going to move farther away from the equator (both north and south) to infect more people and animals.

It means that all our efforts to do the right thing environmentally are often unintentionally making things worse, or at least no better.

It means that we probably can’t stop global warming. Too few of us are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to reverse the acceleration of temperature growth. This doesn’t necessarily spell the end for humanity, but it does mean things will be more difficult for our children and grandchildren.

So next time you buy a cotton T-shirt or a pair of denim jeans or a gas-powered lawn mower, understand that there is a price to pay down the road, maybe after you’re gone – but the bill will become due and Mother Nature won’t take an IOU.


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