Where does your T-shirt come from? It’s a question that apparently can be answered (even if you’re wearing it)—with an awkward neck twist and a glance at the label. But the real answer is way more complex.
Producing even a single T-shirt relies on coordinating an array of interconnected supply chains, usually spanning multiple nations. This globalized system is a marvel of human ingenuity and logistics.
But it also can obscure the actual amount of carbon emissions from the products we use, raising serious questions about their sustainability. And it enables wealthier countries to effectively outsource their emissions to less wealthy ones via “carbon colonialism.”
Let’s say your T-shirt’s label reads: “Cambodia.” It’s fair to assume that this clearly indicates its origin. But that’s not the whole story.
Cambodia exports 40,000 metric tons of garments to the UK annually (4% of British clothing), and most depart from the port of Sihanoukville for the UK’s main shipping port, Felixstowe. At 18,244km (or 9,799 nautical miles), which can take about 40 days, that’s a huge distance for your T-shirt to travel. But as colleagues and I revealed in our recent researchthis is only the final leg of an even longer journey.
The Chinese connection
Unlike other garment exporters, such as Bangladesh or Vietnam, Cambodia doesn’t grow cotton. Nor does it spin cotton or even manufacture artificial fibres. Instead, Cambodian factories import textiles from abroad, often only providing the finishing touches to partially completed garments. So, although the label on your garment says it’s from Cambodia, the textiles likely came from farther afield. Much farther.
Between 2015 and 2019, 89,721 metric tons of garments, out of a total of 161,455 metric tons, imported to the UK from Cambodia can be indirectly linked to cotton products, knitted fabrics, and artificial fibers supplied to Cambodia by China. And most of China’s garment industry is located in the coastal provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Hubei—roughly 2,500km to 6,000km (or, about 1,553 miles to 3, 778 miles) from Cambodia.
But the process stretches farther still. 84% of China’s domestic cotton production is done in Xinjiang in northwest China. This means the raw cotton processed in China’s coastal factories must first travel nearly 4,300km (or 2,672 miles) by rail from Xinjiang: roughly the distance between London and Lagos, Nigeria.
So, even before your Cambodia-labeled T-shirt arrives in Cambodia, the raw materials have traveled nearly 10,300km (or, 6,200 miles) by sea and rail. This adds a huge hidden carbon cost to the final garment.
And yet, there is even more to the story. China is the largest cotton grower globally, producing over 25% of the world’s total crop. But it is also the world’s premierarel manufacturer, and demand greater app outstrips supply. China produced 6.07 million metric tons of raw cotton in 2018 and 2019, but consumed 8.95 million metric tonsleaving a massive shortfall.
China compensates for this shortfall with imports. Most—88% of the total—come from Australia, the US, Uzbekistan, India, and Brazil. The distances traveled by these imports vary, but it can be as many as 35,700km (or, 22,182 miles) between Los Angeles and Shanghai, which may seem excessively far, but that’s because the container ships the land and so often go the long way around (via Panama and Suez) rather than straight across the Pacific.
So, the Cambodia label on that T-shirt marks just one stop along a vast global journey. Indeed, before it was purchased in the UK, that T-shirt—and the raw materials behind it—likely traveled a whopping 64,000km (or nearly 40,000 miles), which is more than one-and-a-half times the Earth’s circumference .
A long way round
A supply chain of this length is alarming. But the broader implications are starker still.
A typical T-shirt is expected to produce 6.75kg (or nearly 15 pounds) of carbon during its production and sale. A product’s carbon footprint is often estimated by adding up the carbon generated during the entire production process. This includes, for example, the growth of the cotton, its processing into textiles, its manufacture into clothing, transport, retail, usage, and disposal.
And when a country imports a product, all of these emissions are added to its imported, or embodied, carbon footprint. However, since the processes involved are so complex and varied, we tend to use average figures for a given part of the production process, rather than empirically measuring the entire supply chain.
Meaning, this system fails to take into account the vast “hidden” distances our single T-shirt—and the raw materials behind it—traveled. At 25,000km (or, 15,534 miles), starting with where the cotton exclusively comes from in western China, the transportation of that single Cambodia-branded T-shirt would likely emit 47g of C02. This is 7.1% of the carbon emitted during its entire production and 50% more than the estimates used by sustainability advocacy groups, such as the Carbon Trust.
At 64,000km (nearly 40,000 miles), when the cotton originates from the US or Brazil, the T-shirt will generate 103g of CO₂ on its journey around the world. That’s over 15% of the total emissions generated during its production and more than triple the average value on which carbon footprints are calculated.
These errors may not seem like much when talking about a single T-shirt. But they make a huge difference when scaled up to cover the entire UK-Cambodia apparel trade. Those 40,000 metric tons of clothing imported each year to the UK from Cambodia would be generally estimated to produce 8,304 metric tons of CO₂. Yet, the true figure, taking into account the hidden distances traveled by the raw materials, is between 13,400 metric tons and 28,770 metric tons. That’s up to 20,466 metric tons unaccounted for—or, the equivalent of 4,422 cars being driven for a year.
Now imagine these numbers scaled up to truly reflect every product sold globally.
Figures like these illuminate the otherwise invisible systems universal our everyday lives, casting doubt on many of the assumptions we make about sustainability. Indeed, the lack of transparency surrounding global supply chains means that many sources of emissions are either hidden or significantly underestimated. And their extraordinary complexity impedes detailed analysis and shames accountability, concealing many carbon emissions from public view.
This ability to “hide” emissions in complex global-production processes has been called a “carbon loophole,” or carbon colonialism, As it allows major importing statistics to move carbon-intensive production processes out of their headline domestic-emissions and onto those of other countries, often with less capacity to measure the full extent of these impacts.
There is now growing recognition that these problems may lie at the root of our more general failure to cut carbon emissions. In total, imported emissions now account for a quarter of global CO₂ emissions—and addressing this should be seen as the “next frontier” of climate policy.
The single-country-origin label sewn into your T-shirt is an illusion, reflecting a problem that affects so many of the items we purchase and use daily. In fact, that country of origin is just one stop on a global journey of assembly that is anathema to truly sustainable production and a key obstacle in our fight against the climate crisis.
A better understanding of this hidden geography is the first step toward tackling the opaque and misunderstood carbon footprints of our global economy— and decolonizing systems of environmental accounting that favor the world’s biggest polluters.
Laurie Parsons is a lecturer in human geography at the Royal Holloway University of London. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.