I open my closet and see a handful of neatly folded white tees. Aside from the neck cut and a logo here or there, each one seems so similar and basic yet we all know they're totally versatile. A tee can be worn tucked neatly under a blazer to the office, paired with a skirt and chunky necklace when going out for drinks with friends, or can even part of a capsule wardrobe one would build when trying to reconcile a love for fashion and a desire to consume fashion more consciously. I'm trying to fall into the latter group more and more these days and one stark realization I have in my aspiration is that conscious consumption requires research so I've set out to do just that.
White t-shirts are so commonplace these days, regardless of age, sex, or household income but interestingly enough, this wasn't so until the 90s when only men wore white tees, typically purchased from Hanes or Fruit of the Loom in a plastic bag with half a dozen or so identical pieces. Then in the 90s everyone started making them from fast fashion brands like H&M to luxury brands like Chanel. How do you choose, especially if you're trying to be a more conscious or ethical consumer?
Below we break down the differences between inexpensive white tees and those that are a lot pricier. We think it's well worth the spurge but we'll let you decide.
Price: You can get your hands on a 5-pack of Fruit of the Loom white t-shirts for just around $16 (that's a bit over $3 a piece) or you can drop about $200 on an Acne Studio tee. There's a reason for that drastic difference in price.
Fabric: On the cheaper end of the tee spectrum, we have H&M's popular basic tees selling for $5.99. That's less than a sandwich in NYC! You've gotta admit that seems suspicious so let's dig a little deeper and take a look at the fabric the t-shirt is made from. Upon inspection of the tag, we see it's make from jersey or to be more precise, a cotton and synthetic blend (52% polyester, 35% cotton, 13% rayon). This fabric composition is terrible for the environment as the main ingredient is non-biodegradable, they create micro plastics that get into our oceans and ultimately our plates, there's no technology yet to recycle blended fibers, plus they're super energy intensive; and for you as the wearer, polyester is non-breathable so expect to sweat a bit more than usual. (You can read up further on polyester here). Cheaper fabrics may feel good when you first wear them but after a few washes they'll start to pill, shrink, stiffen, and will leave you searching for a new tee. It's disposable fashion.
High quality cotton is super soft to the touch. More expensive white tees use organic or Pima cotton, linen, or silk - more responsible fabric. Organic cotton is better for the soil where it's grown since pesticides aren't used, farmers save money on not having to buy pesticides, and working conditions are typically better on organic farms. You can save 115 gallons of water, or the equivalent of an hour long shower when you buy one shirt made with organic cotton instead of one made with conventional cotton.
Construction: Now let's get into why cheaper t-shirts don't last long and basically look like a rag after a couple of washes. Well, with those less pricey tees, you have sloppier work and can see loose threads, whereas more expensive tees have side seams for a tailored look. Seams tend to twist on cheaply made shirts due to grain not being properly cut. Basically, when a shirt is first sewn, it gets starched to look nice and well made but once you wash it, the seams relax and settle into their natural place and begin to twist - hence the raggedy look. Higher quality work requires more expensive technique such as a bias cut and more expensive labor costs. You can expect pricier tees to last you longer.
Fit: More expensive tees have more focus on the garment's fit at the shoulders, waist, and neckline, whereas cheaper tees are boxy and lose their shape after washing.
Style: Cheaper tees are made by fast fashion brands such as H&M and Zara by copying trends from the runway. They're trendy but are also designed to be disposed of quickly. On average, a fast fashion piece of clothing lasts six washes.
Production / labor costs: Cheaper tees require cheap labor, as in an actual person sewing the pieces together, usually from countries in Asia. Pricier garments have higher labor costs which typically equates to companies valuing their workers' rights, providing safe working conditions and at least a living wage for garment workers. Higher costs can also indicate that the company sources fair trade material, as well as transparency in the supply chain. You never know though until you check the About section of the company's website so do a little digging if you're concerned.
The next time you're looking to buy a basic white t-shirt, keep Anna Lappe's quote in mind, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want". Something that may seem like a spurge in reality is your way of advocating for human rights and the integrity of our environment. Plus, a $10 tee has a much lower value in the long run than a $100 counterpart when the more expensive one will last you twenty times more. A white tee is like a blank page. What story do you want to tell?
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