Old Navy has defined my closet for most of my life. With so many classic clothes options and such affordable prices, Old Navy has always seemed like a no-brainer for me when I’m looking to buy new clothes. However, with such low prices like $19.99 for this Men’s Long-Sleeve Henley T-Shirt, I am forced to wonder about how they can sell nice-looking clothes at such low prices. Upon further investigation, I found that Old Navy is owned by Gap, the largest specialty retailer in the United States who sacrifices environmental and social sustainability on behalf of profits and scale.
The Old Navy website says that this shirt is 60% cotton and 40% polyester, two fibers that makeup 80% of the world’s fiber production. I will explore each of these separately. First, it is important to discuss the high water and chemical usage for growing cotton. Cotton takes between 1400 and 3400 gallons of water to produce one pound of cotton, or about two t-shirts. Another shocking statistic is that it takes about 2 tons of water to produce one pair of jeans. Cotton farming is literally draining the world’s water resources like the Aral sea, which is almost completely dried up, all so people can continue to buy new and cheap clothes each season. Regarding chemical use, cotton production uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, despite only growing on 2.5% of the world’s agricultural land. Moreover, about $3.3 billion of chemicals are used on cotton plants worldwide every year. This chemical usage comes at a very high cost, especially for child laborers which put thousands of hours of labor into cotton production each year. Exposure to these pesticides can damage their growth and developing organs and it can even poison them, with effects lasting for generations. In addition, agricultural runoff can pollute rivers and lakes with pesticides, killing aquatic life.
Polyester production is an entirely different process than cotton and brings a whole different set of environmental issues with it. First, polyester is a synthetic fiber created from oil. In fact, 342 million barrels of oil are used to make polyester each year, a staggering amount of fossil fuels being mined from the earth. Moreover, polyester production requires about 15-kilowatt hours of energy per pound produced, which is equal to running a dishwasher about 7-8 times. In addition to fossil pollution from fossil fuel mining, air pollution and water pollution, synthetic clothing is the biggest cause of microplastic pollution of the oceans. It is estimated that 1900 fibers can be removed from a piece of polyester clothing every time it is washed, and these microplastics can accumulate in rivers and oceans.
Both cotton and polyester are highly impactful fibers on the natural environment and can have adverse effects on the people that work with these materials. While Old Navy claims to be switching to fully recycled cotton by 2022, the sheer scale of cotton and polyester production in the world, some billions of tons each year, has produced terrible impacts that have not slowed down because of recycled fiber use, and therefore is not sustainable for the future.
Old Navy employs a fast fashion model in clothing, where clothing quality is cheap and only built to be worn a few times before being thrown out. With this model, the company can sell their clothes at cheap prices and needs rapid and large-scale production from countries where labor is cheapest and legislation is most relaxed. A list of Old Navy suppliers reveals that their clothing production happens in 29 countries, with over half having little government oversight for labor conditions or wages. This includes Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, and El Salvador. A website called StyleWise suggests that it is likely these factories participate in sub-contracting practices, a process that results in little ability for Gap to oversee and monitor labor conditions in most of their supply chain. While it is reasonable to assume that Old Navy executives want good conditions for the people manufacturing their clothes, they are bought into a system where they can only skim the surface of their own manufacturing, and it is likely that child labor could be producing Old Navy clothes.
The list of factories involved in the final steps of manufacturing for Gap clothes is publicly visible and thus commendable in terms of transparency, and it includes a green/red scale system for rating factory conditions. While this is a strong effort to identify problematic locations, in 2016 Gap rated 21.4% of its factories in China dark red for having serious labor violations. To me, this figure says that Gap does not prioritize fair labor conditions and wages as much as it prioritizes profits, seeing as they are willing to admit that 1 in 5 of their Chinese factories is critically flawed. It is good that Gap uses this rating system, but they have only taken a step in the marathon of employing fair labor in periphery countries.
In terms of how each clothing item specifically is made, factories use machines to turn the fibers into threads of yarn that are then turned into fabric, dyed, cut, and stitched into their final form. I am unable to find specific information about how this henley t-shirt is manufactured.
In all, the fast-fashion method of clothing production results in frequently poor labor conditions for those employed by Gap around the world. Despite transparency, the brand’s production systems do not promote healthy social practices and are unsustainable.
To summarize the information given in the other sections, Old Navy, and thus Gap, is a company that collected $8 billion of revenue in 2020 because they have chosen the cheapest materials and labor that they can get hold of. Their website is completely covered in appealing images and positive mantras, but behind the scenes, they are bought into and perpetuate unsustainable systems that degrade the environment and treat workers poorly.