Comfort Colors t-shirts really do live up to their name- both comfortable and colorful. The oversized, offbeat, distressed colored t’s have a vintage feel, which explains why these shirts have remained timeless throughout the years. Comfort Colors has been a household name in American Greek life for awhile now, but just recently gained another wave of popularity after the 2019 TikTok trend “VSCO girl summer” which featured this basic t-shirt as a wardrobe staple. Whether you’re wearing a Comfort Colors to show off your sorority letters, having your own logo printed on, or just buying the plain tee wholesale, Gildan wants you to feel comfortable purchasing their product based on their “environmental commitments“- but what do these commitments actually entail?
Personally, it seems like Gildan is trying to juggle their sustainability with their product. On one hand, I applaud them for taking action in an effort to up their sustainability and sticking to their goals. However, the complete lack of a circular product life cycle and use of textiles that degrade the environment cannot be overshadowed by their accomplishments. Because of the size of the company and massive product output they run, it would be hard to overhaul these operations to a completely sustainable course of business.
The main reasons for the t-shirts’ fame- the colors and comfort- comes down to what it is made of. In this particular shirt, Gildan uses 100% pre-shrunk cotton, mainly sourced from the U.S. Using 100% pre-shrunk cotton not only means the shirt is extra comfortable, it also means the shirt will not go down in size after washing. Unfortunately, the positives of the t-shirt might stop there.
The cotton growing industry is notorious for using excessive amounts of water and pesticides when growing and harvesting the crop- to produce just one cotton shirt it takes a staggering of 3,000 liters of water. Gildan has taken the initiative to address their water consumption in their list of environmental commitments, including bold movements in cotton agriculture. According to Gildan, 65% of all land where they purchase cotton is non-irrigated, meaning the cotton is naturally watered by rainfall. I do not want to take away from that accomplishment because it’s a wicked awesome feat in an effort to conserve clean water and reduce Big Ag’s impact on the environment. However, that only addresses water consumption of cotton before it even gets into the hands of Gildan. The real test of sustainability comes in Gildan’s t-shirt manufacturing process. For this, Gildan reduced their consumption by about 9-13 liters of water per shirt than the industry average, which is not nearly enough when the total amount of liters is up to 3,000. Cutting back water usage by less than a hundredths of a percent sounds more like trying to patch up a dam with a bandaid rather than actually addressing their unsustainable usage of water.
To take real steps forward in addressing their water usage and sustainability goals, Gildan should think about making the switch to purchasing 100% organic cotton. The organic cotton market not only uses less water to grow and harvest crop, but also uses zero pesticides, is better for soil health, and better for air quality. Currently, Gildan does not use organic cotton in any of their products.
The life cycle of a cotton t-shirt is fairly linear, with just a few methods of reuse being left up to the consumer, and none to the manufacturer. The life cycle starts with the cotton itself. Gildan sources a majority of their cotton from within the United States, with a few suppliers from other leading cotton-growing countries like India and China. The cotton that is harvested is then shipped to textile facilities in Central America-the main factories that spin the Comfort Colors t’s are in Honduras. It’s important to mention that Gildan is an active member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and takes these values to all of their facilities across multiple countries. The FLA provides a variety of services to workers, including certifying safe working environments and ensuring every worker is paid at least the minimum wage of the area they work in (which seems a bit like a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum).
At this point in the production line there is another environmental hazard that is cause for concern. To get the distressed look that define Comfort Colors, the cotton goes through an intense dye process. This process can be extremely damaging to the surrounding waterways, atmosphere, and overall environment if these factories do not follow proper environmental protocol. On their website, Gildan has released a statement that reads, “100% of our wastewater generated from our textile facilities in Honduras and the Dominican Republic are treated using biological systems to eliminate all dyes and chemicals,” as well as describing their 40-day process of filtering the water that returns to local ecosystems through the addition of good bacteria and microorganisms so that the water is ready to sustain life. Making this commitment to preserve as much clean water as possible, as well as being transparent about their sanitation process, is a huge step forward for Gildan.
After the entire cotton-spinning and dyeing process, the t-shirts are ready for another round of shipping which lands them in Gildan’s distribution centers all around the world where they are ready to be sold. After retail consumption, Gildan puts a lot of the responsibility surrounding the product’s lifecycle on to the consumer. There is no evidence of a buy-back program or use of recycled cotton by Gildan, which inevitably means the t-shirt is destined for a linear life cycle. After consumers’ attempts of reuse, repair, or repurpose, the t-shirt heads for landfills or incinerators. Because Gildan uses 100% cotton, their t-shirts are pretty biodegradable in comparison to other textiles. However, while the cotton itself may biodegrade, at the same time all of the chemicals used in the dyeing process are now being leached into the ground to reek havoc on local waterways and the health of local residents.
The introduction of a circular life cycle would go a long way for Gildan products. Not only would the cost of production go down by using already pre-spun and pre-dyed cotton, but the environmental hazards would go down as well.
Gildan does a great job of putting up a shiny front in terms of corporate sustainability. With all of their awards and certifications, they were able to be named the 32nd “Most Sustainably Managed Company in 2020” by The Wall Street Journal. Out of all 100 companies on the list, Gildan was the 2nd ranked apparel company, and was only one of three apparel companies to make this list at all. Some of their accomplishments included receiving a “Champion of Sustainability” award for using an amount of recycled polyester that equated to 10 million plastic bottles; being certified by Oeko-Tek Standard 100, which allows consumers to assess the presence of harmful substances in textiles; and being internationally recognized for product safety and human health. But what does all this mean?
A good amount of their sustainability rating seems to come from their Energy & Climate commitments. Since 2015, Gildan has made some large steps in an effort to have sustainable and responsible production. They are able to boast a 13% cut in GHG emissions, having 44% of their operations being run on renewable energy sources, and the closure of one of their textile facilities in order to condense their operations and reduce their carbon footprint. Gildan is taking all the right steps forward to curb their negative impact on the environment- but when your entire business and industry relies on fast fashion, can these steps actually help? Comfort Colors is just one example of a textile produced by Gildan and does not begin to display the size of the hold they have on the apparel market. Any person can come across their products in retail relatively cheap at any Walmart, Target, or type of wholesale store you shop at. The basic plain tee, sweatpants, or undergarments with the Gildan logo on it are piled high on store shelves and never seem to be in limited stock. The incredibly fast rate at which they are produced and replenished is the cornerstone of the fast fashion market.