The Environmental History of a Licensed University of Akron T-Shirt by Dana Williams


In this age of globalization, if you don't try to buy clothing that is sweatshop free, you are buying clothing from a sweatshop. The same is true with clothing garments licensed from the University of Akron, which can be purchased in the University Bookstore. Therefore, there is a whole litany of human rights abuses applicable to the production of the garment, but there are also plausible environmental consequences as well.

For instance, one garment from the bookstore is a white t-shirt from Jansport. Its tag indicates that it was "assembled" in Mexico of US components. The t-shirt says it is made of 90% cotton and 10% polyester. There is an UA logo on the left breast and an embroidered NCAA-approved tag on the bottom left corner.

Not all can be known about the history of this particular item, due to the extreme secrecy many component manufacturers exert over their factories and methods, but some simple assumptions can be asserted and potential conclusions can be hypothesized.

There are quite a few materials that go into a t-shirt, the most obvious of which is the fabric. In this case, cotton and polyester. Although the majority of this shirt is cotton, there is still a portion that is polyester. Also called Poly (ethylene terephthalate, or simply PET), it is a compound of petroleum, and is made from the same materials used to making soft drink bottles.i

The cotton, likely grown in the American southeast, is very intense on the soil-so intense that when it was first grown in the US it destroyed the land and farmers would just move west, taking over more land. It wasn't until they discovered the technique of growing rye between cotton harvests to replenish the nutrients that cotton became a moderately sustainable crop.ii Even now it relies heavily on pesticides and herbicides that can potentially run-off into water supplies. The pesticides and herbicides could be produced in any number of chemical factories dotting the Great Lakes region of the US, all likely having varying impacts on the environment from water and/or air pollution, not to mention the actual extraction of components used to make them with. The thread used is often cotton, or cotton coated with polyester, as is the embroidered logo. Ink made from certain dyes (either natural or synthetic) that must be gathered or created, thus putting additional strains on the land by more factories and more potential for pollution and environmental stress.

The processes involved in the t-shirt are many, from the raw material level to the actual assembly of the garment. At the raw material level, there is the mining of the chemicals used for herbicides and pesticides on the cotton. These chemicals must be applied to the cotton crops, most likely by tractor or another large machine, which must also be produced somewhere in a factory. Gasoline is required to run these machines, and also to harvest the cotton. After harvested, the cotton must have the seeds plucked out, then wound into usable thread. After being wound into usable thread, it can be used for sewing purposes or be made into swaths of clothing that constitutes the majority of the garment.

Petroleum must be drilled for use in the polyester. This will likely come from South America, Mexico, or the Middle East. In most of these countries, the oil industries are some of the dirtiest industries around, contaminating both the environment and the people living around the drilling.

This garment was assembled in Mexico, in undoubtedly what is referred to as a sweatshop. This means that the workers in the factory (or factories, as most clothing is made at multiple locations these days) likely had very little control over their job in a number of ways: no right to organize, forced to work long shifts, got paid a sub-living wage, routine exposure to sexual harassment and intimidation, and inhumane working conditions of extremely hot factories, limited bathroom access, and dangerous equipment.

The processes involved are often mass scale with many workers doing the same job all at once. Most are women and sometimes they are even girls. It is not abnormal for one factory to handle a certain part of the production of a clothing item. For instance, one factory may cut out the actual shape and size of the fabric to be used for the shirt. Another may sew the pieces together, attaching the sleeves and collars, and hemming the ends. Still another factory may sew the labels onto the shirt or add the ink logo. Inside the factories, machines are necessary for many steps in the process, requiring energy. In between each of these processes, the clothing is sent from factory to factory, using gasoline for transportation.

In addition to going from factory to factory in Mexico (and possibly other places), it needs to travel to Akron, OH to be sold. This shipping expends even more gasoline for transportation and more stress on the ozone layer and the air. By the time the t-shirt reaches the bookstore, it will have intense and less than intense impacts upon many different areas of the world in many different ways, including air pollution, and water contamination from drilling and chemical run-off, in addition to a harsh impact of exploitation upon impoverished Mexican workers who are desperate for jobs and are economically forced to work in maquiladora sweatshops.

The fact that this t-shirt was assembled in Mexico indicates that environmental standards that exist in the US were likely not followed. It would be very possible for these factories to be brought up to a suitable environmental code, and the workers paid sustainable living wages. It is also possible that the impact of cotton production via the usage of pesticides and herbicides could be minimized by natural techniques, thus lessening the impact of cotton growing on the soil. Judging by the enormous profit that garment companies are reaping from licensed collegiate apparel, these important precautions and mechanisms would be well within their capacity, likely without even remotely hampering their profits.


i. Fabric Online. Textiles: Polyester. Last modified: August 13, 2000.
ii. Jamie L. Whitten Plant Materials Center. How to grow no-till cotton. Vol. 12, No. 3 - Technical Note January 1996.


Environmental Politics