Handle with Care

Understanding the hidden environmental costs of cotton

T-shirts are much more than just that thing you wear on your back. They are worn for everything from lounging to yard work to a night out; they are the go-to apparel for everyone from slogan-clad kids to grandparents in nearly every city, town and remote landscape in the world. But the process of making and cleaning those tees isn’t on that many people’s radar—and it takes a toll most of us have never thought of. Here’s the downside to our beloved t-shirts—and some ways to counteract it.


The Better Cotton Initiative—with support from WWF—has worked with 43,000 cotton farmers in Pakistan to reduce their water use.

Participating farmers used
less water and saw
more profit than their counterparts who used conventional methods.


Sustainable cotton is gaining traction in the mainstream marketplace. The next time you shop, ask your favorite retailers if they are using “Better Cotton.”

Simply air drying a t-shirt can save
of its carbon footprint


Lots of energy goes into growing cotton, manufacturing the t-shirt and transporting it, but the most energy goes into caring for it. Just one load of laundry uses 40 gallons of water, so wait until you have a full load before you wash. And one dryer load uses five times more electricity than washing, so think about the old clothesline.

713 GALLONS (2,700 LITERS)

The water needed to produce a single cotton t-shirt. That’s enough to sustain one person for 900 days.



Seventy percent of all water used by people globally is dedicated to agriculture to grow the food we eat and crops like cotton. WWF works with farmers and the businesses that buy their crops to develop and financially support sustainable farming methods that will take the strain off freshwater supplies.



People for whom cotton provides at least part of their income. Cotton is the most widespread profitable nonfood crop in the world, and its production employs almost 7% of the labor force in developing countries.

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