It doesn't seem that complicated. A t-shirt is usually made of cotton, stitched together in the usual pattern of short or long sleeves and a ribbed collar, and, more often than not, illustrated with some advertisement, collegiate team, quippy statement, or political proclamation. What's not to like?
Author Troth Wells summarizes the history of the t-shirt in this book, aptly named "T-Shirt".
There's more here than a simple piece of fabric. "T-shirts are big business: the industry is currently worth around $60 billion a year" (p. 89). The t-shirt is tied to the production of cotton, involving global trade issues, pesticide use, and worker exploitation (and, it must be noted from a historical perspective, slavery). The factories that make cotton fabric and produce the shirts are also linked with global trade issues, worker exploitation, and the economic stability (or instability) of communities around the world.
What does Wells write? "... the T-shirt, along with other textiles and goods, is a source of grief in the workplace and at hotly contested trade negotiations. All is not fair in trade" (p. 59). "The [World Trade Organization] is accused of causing hunger: forcing migration; ruining environments; denying poor people life-saving drugs; destroying health services and putting essential utilities like water out of the reach of the poor; even killing farmers" (p. 66). Wells emphasizes the impact of the production of cotton and manufacture of t-shirts on poor people and fragile environments.
Why do we buy so many t-shirts? "We are manipulated by clever advertising and marketing, the use of celebrities, and a misguided sense of freedom and individuality as we herd along the mall buying and wearing the same things as others in our 'clan'" (p. 82). Behind what we purchase is a carefully constructed set of ideas and marketing mechanisms to deepen the emotional link between us the consumer and the goods we buy" (p. 83).
Wells reprints a tongue-in-cheek guide to purchasing and wearing a t-shirt, authored originally by a Deborah Taylor (p 84-85). Pretty humorous, because of the truth that lies just beneath the surface.
In addition to the impact of growing cotton on farmers and the land, and the exploitation of workers (both child and adult), I'm interested in that tertiary market, sending t-shirts to developing countries. Remember those clothing drives, for the poor in _____________________ (fill in the blank with the country of your preference)? There's the original purchase of the shirt. Later, the donation to the NGO. Finally (perhaps), that USC t-shirt ends up in Uganda, probably for sale. "... there is a whole industry built on shipping used clothes to developing countries" (p. 90). Gandhi decried the effect imported clothing had on local communities, destroying the very industries that allowed a community to produce a fundamental staple -- their clothes. What does this reuse of t-shirts do? You'll have to look elsewhere for answers to this question.
Wells recommends fair trade, organically produced, and locally made t-shirts. I'll wear them when I can find them.
I wish this book had more detail. However, this book was not designed to be the final reference book on the t-shirt industry. It was meant to be a "trigger" to stimulate your interest in the topic.
Consider me triggered.