In times of crisis you’ll see them everywhere: slogan t-shirts with sayings like “Be Kind,” “Save the Rainforest,” “[Insert Country Here] Strong,” “Heroes.” Most often you’ll see them from fast fashion brands like Boohoo, Primark, Asos, In The Style, and the likes for $20 or less, touting that they will donate a portion, or all, of the proceeds to charity.
‘But all of that sounds good,’ you’re probably thinking. ‘The money is going to charities that are directly going to benefit from these donations and will actually do something to better the situation.’You aren’t wrong in that thinking, but you aren’t right either.
Here’s where the issue lies. A t-shirt takes so much time, resources, and energy to make and the people making these shirts aren’t often paid or treated fairly. So although you might feel like you’re doing good, you could actually be causing more damage in the long term.
And this is especially true during the COVID-19 crisis. Marginalized communities are those that are going to be the most affected at this time. And it is the marginalized communities that are making these said slogan t-shirts. By making shirts that “support” charities that can help out most during this situation, these brands are also putting the people who make, pack, and deliver them under an immense amount of pressure—since with fewer people working per shift they will need to work faster to produce as much product—and putting their health at risk. Doesn’t sound as good as you previously thought right?
That’s only part of the issue, though; we also have to think about the environmental aspect.
Charity tees typically pop up after some sort of tragic event: the Australian wildfires, the suicide of a UK television show host, the coronavirus epidemic, just to name a few from this past year. And they pop up very quickly. In order for the shirt to resonate with customers and remain relevant, and for the brand to ride on the media coverage, they must be made, sold, and delivered within only a few days of the event. So essentially, the timeline from event to delivery would be less than a week. That’s an incredibly short, and resource-intensive, timeline.
Let’s break it down into numbers. When brands make these shirts, they are producing new shirts from new cotton. It takes about 2,700 liters of water to make a t-shirt, which is enough water for a person to drink for 2 ½ years. This shirt will be made in a factory in an undisclosed location with very little knowledge about its conditions, since most fast fashion brands aren’t very transparent about their factories and working conditions. These shirts will then be shipped from their factory to where the brand’s warehouses are located to then be shipped out again worldwide. Ships handle roughly 90% of global trade—that’s nearly 10 billion metric tons of goods per year—and use more than 100 metric tons of fuel oil per day and can take 2 weeks (or more) to travel the oceans. But because of the quick turnaround of these shirts, that means they are most likely being shipped by airplane, which emit 50 times more carbon emissions that large ships.
The big question here is: why do brands feel they have to make a special shirt just for this circumstance? A better alternative here would be for brands to donate profits from their pre-existing products to charity.
The reason why they won’t do that: charity shirts make for good PR. Ultimately, fashion brands want you to spend your money with them, and making a shirt for a charity makes them look good. And because consumers and influencers can keep wearing the shirts and sharing photos of themselves in the shirts, they will continue to get good PR, and free PR at that, for long after people have actually forgotten about the actual event that spurred the making of the t-shirt in the first place.
They also want to capitalize on the outdated idea that the world can be saved by shopping. It can’t be, but that doesn’t stop people from shopping when times are tough. Buying a shirt doesn’t make you an activist. And you don’t need a t-shirt to demonstrate your activism. Wouldn’t you rather be able to tell someone that you walked in a climate crisis march or donated directly to a hospital so they could get more masks during COVID-19 than say you got a shirt showing your support? And wouldn’t you rather directly support a non-profit or organization doing important work rather than a fast fashion company that has little regard for its impact on the environment or its workers?
If you deeply care for a cause and want to show your activism, donate directly to charity and share your receipts. And if you really want to have something you can wear to show your activism, repurpose a t-shirt you already have or buy one secondhand instead. There are already too many clothes in the world. Support instead by giving your money to those that are truly doing good work in the world, and out of the hands of greedy CEOs who want you to buy more cheap clothes from their brands.