How will your T-shirt be produced in the future?

Slavery can teach us about transitioning to a low carbon economy. The average T-shirt will help us see the connection.

In the early 1800s, your T-shirt would have been produced in Britain. The industrial revolution made the production of low cost textiles possible. Raw cotton was imported and turned into cloth. The scale of change was unbelievable. Consider in 1765 only 500,000 pounds of cotton were spun into cloth. Twenty years later, after machines were introduced, the figured jumped to 16 million pounds.

The raw cotton for your T-shirt came from America. By the time of the US Civil War, cotton accounted for 60pc of all American exports, representing 80pc of the value. The problem was it was grown using slave labour. Today your T-shirt still depends on cotton. However, modern cotton requires cheap fossil fuels rather than slave labour. Consider that 71pc of the energy content in cotton is in cultivation. The remaining 29pc is accounted for by manufacture. The problems with fossil fuels include climate change, energy security, and pollution.

What can be learned from the abolition of slavery that will help us transition to a low carbon economy?

Personal choice is one place to look. During slavery, Norfolk was recognised as a leader in the abolitionist movement. There was wide support for boycotting sugar produced with slave labour. No doubt, even then tea tasted better with sugar, making it a difficult choice. Today, we can choose lower carbon options on many products including T-shirts. For example, an organic cotton T-shirt requires 44pc less energy than conventional cotton. The challenge is to be bothered enough to know the facts and make a different personal choice.

The most important lesson we can learn from slavery is about institutional change. Britain passed a series of laws. In 1807, transatlantic trade in slaves was banned and in 1833 slavery was abolished. The success of this regulation was due to the inclusion of incentives to change. For example, Spain and Portugal were paid to stop taking slaves across the Atlantic. Similarly, slave owners were compensated for the loss of slaves. In contrast, America banned slavery without creating enticements for change or alternative livelihoods for cotton growers. It can be argued this policy failure contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Today, we see laws such as the Climate Change Act being passed and the Green Investment Bank being established. These are good first steps. However, the Green Investment Bank is seriously under-capitalised for the task at hand. If we are to learn from the past, then incentives must be to a scale that empowers and encourages change. Thus, the government needs to develop a realistic approach to capitalising the Green Investment Bank and other investment mechanisms.

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With the right mix of personal choices and government incentives, Britain can be a leader in the new Green Industrial Revolution. How will your T-shirt be produced in the future?

Dr Thomas R Macagno is a sustainability professional.