From Dirt to Shirt: These Cotton Tees Are Grown and Sewn in the US

Solid State has bought 10,000 pounds of cotton from a North Carolina farmer in hopes of rebuilding a domestic apparel industry.

A farmer in the field with homegrown t-shirt
Farmer Andrew Burleson who grows cotton for 10,000 Pounds of Cotton project.

Courtesy of Solid State

It's hard to find a good American-made T-shirt. It's even harder to find one that uses American-grown cotton, as well. But thanks to Solid State, a T-shirt brand based in North Carolina, it's soon going to be easier to get the kind of homegrown quality you're looking for – and to take a stand against the wholly unsustainable way in which most T-shirts are made these days.

Currently, 75% of cotton grown in the United States is shipped to China, India, and other places to be turned into garments that are then sold back to American consumers at low prices. Ninety-eight percent of the clothing bought in the U.S. is imported from overseas. The once-strong U.S.domestic garment industry is now a shadow of its former self, but now there's a burgeoning movement to fight back for some of the market share that American producers – and customers – deserve to have.

Enter Solid State's bold plan. This T-shirt company, which is backed by printer and dyer TS Designs, has made an upfront purchase of 10,000 pounds of cotton from a farmer named Andrew Burleson in North Carolina. Burleson is a third-generation farmer and father of three young children, who currently farms alongside his father, uncle, and cousin. When the price of cotton dipped below 50 cents a pound, he was no longer breaking even with his own costs. Solid State's investment, however, guarantees a price of 75 cents per pound (well above the going market rate) and will turn the cotton into 15,000 T-shirts, all produced within the United States, from start to finish. 

10K Pounds of Cotton project

Courtesy of Solid State

This plan is a bold attempt to flip the traditional power dynamic in the cotton supply chain and to start prioritizing farmers, on whom the entire system relies. As TS Designs president Eric Henry explained in an online press conference that Treehugger attended, 

"What we want to do is reconnect people with the farmers who grow the cotton for their clothes. The farmers are the backbone of this country, but they have no say in the price they get ... We want to provide education to the consumer to know where their clothes come from, as well as a call to action for brands to connect to farmers."

It won't be easy. Solid State is going up against a vast array of established apparel brands that have long been dedicated to two things – chasing cheap prices for big box stores or creating the illusion of a particular lifestyle. By contrast, Henry and his colleagues hope to build a brand based on caring for the people who produce a product. Consumers have to care enough about those people and their stories in order to choose these clothes over others – and potentially pay a premium for them, too. 

Solid State's 10,000 Pounds of Cotton project sounds a lot like the Fairtrade model that similarly prioritizes the people behind the products (particularly cotton farmers) and pays them a premium rate that allows for greater financial stability and investment in better infrastructure. Fairtrade has garnered great respect worldwide over the past several decades, and people now care more than ever about the story behind the items they buy, so this seems to be a safe bet to make.

Unlike Fairtrade, however, Solid State will not have third-party certification to verify its transparent supply chain – a decision that may raise some eyebrows but that Henry defended as unnecessary, due to the supply chain's inherent transparency. Every shirt comes with a QR code that the buyer can scan in order to see detailed information about each step in the production process. You don't have to own a shirt to see it; you can track a random T-shirt by looking at this link. There are names, physical addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses for individuals involved in the various cotton growing, spinning, knitting, sewing, and dyeing steps. It is quite remarkable. 

The way it works right now is that supporters and investors purchase "shares" in the 10,000 Pounds of Cotton project on the Solid State website. A share is equivalent to a T-shirt, which backers will receive in spring 2021. In the meantime, "your investment goes directly to buying cotton from our North Carolina farmer and making the t-shirts right here in the Carolinas." You'll also receive updates on the T-shirt-making process and invitations to virtual sessions with experts in sustainable farming and fashion. The goal is to sell 2,000 shares at a value of $48 each by December 31, 2020.

The 10,000 Pounds of Cotton project is just the beginning of something even bigger and better. Henry referenced a "100,000 Pounds of Cotton" initiative that he hopes will kick off in the new year, depending on how Solid State's first round of sales goes.

It's clear that we need a new way of doing business that is both kinder to the environment and kinder to people, especially the farmers on whom it all relies. And if customers can get excited about the fact that one wardrobe staple is made without sweatshops or container ships, then there's no reason why they won't want all aspects of their wardrobe to be produced in a similarly equitable fashion. 

Solid State is pushing the envelope when it comes to ethical, sustainable production. There aren't many fashion brands that are prioritizing domestically-grown textiles in addition to domestic manufacturing, and this will cause them to stand out in the industry. Support this good work if you can. Learn more at SolidState.clothing and in the video below.