Annually we sell and buy over 80 billion apparel items globally, and given how popular event t-shirts are as promotional and marketing items, we decided to investigate this piece of clothing a little further. We absolutely love event t-shirts, as they allow us to represent brands we’re proud of. Now, t-shirts seem like fairly harmless items to distribute at events, but we recently learned how incredibly damaging they are to the environment while researching our previous blog post “4 Ways to Run Environmentally Friendly Events“. The issue relating to event t-shirts (and apparel in general) felt too important to embed into that article, so we decided to dedicate a post to it.

What’s the Deal with T-Shirts?

What kicked us off on this journey of reconsideration was a video we came across called “The lifecycle of a t-shirt”. Here it is, we highly recommend watching it.

Some simple facts we extracted from the video:

  1. Over 2 billion t-shirts are sold/bought annually across the world
  2. About 2,700 liters of water are used in the production process of a single t-shirt
  3. Carcinogens are components of many of the chemicals and dyes used to produce cotton and prepare t-shirts
  4. Organic cotton is a very small part (about 1%) of total cotton production
  5. Millions of workers are employed in developing countries like Bangladesh and India where working conditions are very poor
  6. Apparel production accounts for nearly 10% of global carbon emissions
  7. Consumers are rapidly driving demand for cheap apparel, leading to over 80 billion garments sold annually
  8. In America, we do approximately 400 loads of laundry a year each using about 40 gallons of water

What Can We Do Instead?

All these statistics are staggering and have reduced our enthusiasm for the somewhat reckless distribution of t-shirts at some events. We’re guilty ourselves for handing out t-shirts, and purchasing unnecessary amounts of personal garments simply because these days, they’re so darn cheap! But clearly, we need to change these unsustainable habits. Here are some suggestions for event planners:

  1. If you must hand out event t-shirts, do your best to find producers who will use organic cotton base t-shirts.
  2. An alternative to cotton overall (again, if you must distribute t-shirts) is bamboo which is said to use far less water, insecticides, and pesticides in its harvesting.
  3. Don’t hand out event t-shirts at all! Instead, look for creative and more useful promotional items to hand out to attendees at events and at booths which aren’t environmentally damaging, but still achieve your marketing goals. And hey, maybe you don’t need to hand anything out. Consider creating an experience for attendees and visitors which they’ll feel compelled to share on their own – maybe a creative photo booth! It might cost less and even promote your brand more than handing out apparel.

We don’t have a good answer to this issue yet, but we felt it was really important to share what we’ve learned so far. These facts have already curbed one of our recent decisions to produce promotional t-shirts. We’re investigating new ways to promote our brand beyond apparel, and would love to hear your thoughts and ideas!