A Shirt Story

Meet Jill. She’s a dedicated Christian with a gift for organization who loves service projects. She’s planning a mission trip, and a friend suggests buying matching T-shirts for everyone. Jill finds some inexpensive shirts online, picks a bright color, and adds a snazzy logo. She and the team wear the shirts on the trip; everyone loves them. A few weeks later, Jill’s shirt is in the back of her closet. The next time she prunes her wardrobe, she tosses it in a pile to be donated to a thrift shop.

But here’s what Jill doesn’t see.

That shirt is made of conventional cotton. This cotton comes from India, where poor farmers are under intense pressure to produce more crops for less money. In 15 years, over a quarter of a million workers on Indian cotton farms have committed suicide. Additionally, conventional cotton needs a lot of fresh water. Growing the cotton needed for just one shirt can take 2,700 liters of water—about two and a half years’ worth of drinking water for one person. And that’s only the cotton. Next, the fabric is spun and colored. Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of clean water worldwide. And then there’s the sewing. Garment factories are notorious for human rights abuses, including forced overtime, unsafe conditions, and child labor.

After the shirt is donated, it might not get used by a needy person as Jill intended. Thrift stores receive more donations than they can handle, and garments with obscure logos are undesirable. Instead Jill’s shirt gets sent to Africa. The surplus of North American garments resold (or dumped) in developing countries drives down the value of clothing, making it difficult for local markets to succeed. Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania have all made efforts in the past five years to impede the import of used clothing because it’s harmful to economic development and the environment. Eventually Jill’s shirt ends up in a landfill, where it emits methane into the atmosphere.

In spite of Jill’s good intentions, her shirt ended up doing harm. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to live in our society without participating in systems that exploit other people and the planet. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. The Bible repeatedly calls us to seek justice for people who are poor and oppressed and to honor creation. We can begin by identifying oppression and minimizing our involvement in it.

If we really want matching items for our church group, we can thrift shirts of the same color or find a fair-trade company that uses organic cotton that needs much less water. We might choose shirts made from a sustainable fabric like hemp or bamboo. It will take more time and money, but kingdom building was never going to be fast or cheap. Stewardship doesn’t mean saving money; it means using money purposefully. It means making a better choice.

About the Author

Janice Vis-Gitzel is a graduate student at the University of Alberta. She is involved in campus ministry and is a teaching assistant in classes exploring theology and popular culture. Previously she was administrative assistant at First Christian Reformed Church in Red Deer, Alta.

See comments (1)


I completely agree with the premise of this article. That North Americans get things for absolutely stupid reasons and they become disposable which then impacts other economies globally. I am by no means arguing with that. 

Here's where the shoe drops. This article paints a picture of cotton production that holds kernals of truth but doesn't back it with any real data or what production looks like. In other words it's pretty prose designed to have you the reader feel guilty and change your behavior. I've written responses to the Banner before about using actual data when writing about sustainabiltiy in agriculture. As well as talking to actual farmers to get real information.  They have deep knowledge about these things. 

So here's the data: Farmers in India do commit suicide, but not like you think: 
https://www.sabhlokcity.com/2019/11/are-farmer-suicides-in-india-increasing-or-decreasing/ Farmer suicides are decreasing in India, more non-farmers are commiting suicide in India. Why are there less suicides? https://geneticliteracyproject.org/2019/10/09/fewer-suicides-cancers-and-pesticide-poisonings-examining-the-health-benefits-of-gmo-crops/ GMO cotton has helped with higher yields with less pesticides overall making farmers more profitable. 

By the way, the US is the second largest producer of cotton in the world. Want to really know about sustainability in US cotton production please visit. https://cottoncultivated.cottoninc.com/ 
I found very few solutions in the article other than to look for organic or fair trade. How about buying from an American company that sources it's cotton exclusively from America where sustainablity measures are part of most farms business plans. I've recently tweeted with several American and Austrailian farmers about their sustainability practices which include: reduction of pesticides, reduction of irrigation usage, using more soil health techniques with less tillage and cover crops and of course crop rotation to mitigate disease cycles. 
As the author of the article suggests, please be mindful of your purchases and giveaways either as churches, youth groups, or even as businesses. I find that as really good advice regardless of what you do.