Today a few of the people I follow on Twitter for insightful ideas about sustainable development (@penelopeinparis and @talesfromthhood) took over my feed with criticisms of a new project called “1 Million Shirts”. You can read about the organization at http://www.1millionshirts.org, and I’d encourage you to take a peek before reading through the rest of my comments on my take on the good and the bad of the organization.
For those of you who don’t have the time to browse the well-designed website, here’s the gist of things: Jason Sadler, who makes a living from wearing t-shirts for people and organizations, has decided to make the next step in the t-shirt world and try to do some good. He created 1 Million Shirts, has applied for 501c3 status, and has found partners at H.E.L.P. International (not to be confused with HELP International) to assist him in his mission: to collect one million t-shirts from all across America at his Loveland, Colorado home, and send them to Africa. Like many, I’m sure he’s seen photos of shirtless African kids who look like they could benefit from having a t-shirt, whether it be new or gently used, and his heart spoke to him and said, “Hey, I could help with that [perceived] problem.” To give the “official” reason for the one million shirts campaign:
“Poverty and disease tend to be commonplace in most African countries. Medical care is lacking, and food runs scarce. The rate at which disease transmission occurs affects the continent at an alarming rate. Since most people cannot afford suitable health care, they are forced to endure living below their means, which includes not having proper nourishment, susceptibility to disease, and deficiencies in combating everyday threats to one’s health.
1MillionShirts cannot solve all the problems that our African neighbors experience, but it can help to provide part of the solution.
The t-shirts provided by 1MillionShirts will give people part of what they need to survive. Your donation of 1 or several t-shirts will not only help people in poverty-stricken areas, but it will also help the environment!”
First, I’ll commend the guy for wanting to make a difference. As @IdealistNYC noted, “His heart is in the right place.” But at this point, I’m definitely a bit skeptical of the whole plan. Some of the statements on the “Why” tab of the website make me doubtful about his expertise on the relationships between different arenas in development, especially the first statement: “Why not?” Well, my friend Jason, I can think of a myriad of reasons why to not send a mass quantity of a miscellaneous item to a developing nation, even if you think it could be helpful. Read the post on GIK (“gifts in kind”) here or in response to the rush to donate ‘stuff’ for the Haitians after the earthquake or this post on GIK from development logistics guru Michael Keizer at on the negative effects GIK can have.
Another statement that makes me skeptical, excerpted from “why” 1 Million Shirts was created:
“To produce ONE pound of new clothing, you would need approximately 723 gallons of water! Did you know that 1 in 8 people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water? Your donation of t-shirts will not only provide a means of clothing for developing countries, but it will also help to ensure the potential for more clean drinking water
I’m glad he put the word ‘potential’ in there, but until I see data showing me that by donating t-shirts to people who don’t already have them we will see an increase in the availability of clean drinking water, I’m going to remain skeptical of the direct relationship between these two variables (t-shirt donation and clean drinking water).”
I’m sure this same statement would be one of the organization’s arguments against purchasing new shirts made locally and distributing them. But would the potential good from that investment in the local economy, helping pay salaries for local workers through the purchase, outweigh the possible impact on local water availability? I’ll dig around and see if I can find some research on the impact of textile factories on availability of clean water in the surrounding area, but I’m a bit doubtful that the economic good coming out of the opening of those factories, especially in developing nations where sustainable job creation is one of many sound things that can contribute to alleviating poverty, is outweighed by the change in water availability.
I could go on with arbitrary criticisms of this organization, while trying to temper them with anecdotal and enthusiastic remarks about how great it is that there is a want to do good…but instead I’ll make a short hit list of my thoughts on the roses and thorns of this little brainchild:
(a) Yes, there are people in Africa (and in Washington DC, where I live) who need shirts. Whether they only have one or don’t have any, not everyone has clothes to protect them from the elements.
(b) Jason has found partners in HELP International and a few other organizations to support him on the ground. This is more “could-be-good” depending on how HELP plans on assisting with distribution.
(c) The website notes that they’ve thought about the effects giving out free shirts could have on vendors. And they’ve looked into the idea of providing allocations of shirts to women at no cost for them to sell, though there are a million unanswered questions in that (Business training for the women? Competing interests of children at home? Would there be a consistent supply of shirts, or would it be more like a bake sale — sell everything at once? Etc.). So this is like a ‘swiss cheese idea’ — it has some holes, but also has some valuable substance.
(d) Sadly but truly, it’s more likely that people will engage with this idea, its catchy website, very readable blog, and feel-good message and spend the three dollars to mail a shirt to Colorado than the number of people who would put a three dollar check in an envelope, mail it to Jason, and let him pool all the funds to invest in something meaningful overseas.
(a) There could be negative ramifications for local suppliers of t-shirts/clothing, who now have to compete with women who are being given the products for free. While some might call this “competition”, bringing down the price for all, I’m doubtful it will work that way given my own experiences in markets in rural Kenya.
(b) The amazing amount of time, effort, and energy going into this project could be channeled into something with a more long-term, sustainable impact. Partnering with a selection of NGOs that make textiles, helping to fund them, and providing a more philanthropic capital model (as a random example), or even purchasing the shirts locally.
(c) “Good intentions are not enough,” as Sandra S. has said repeatedly (she named her wonderful blog with that exact phrase). Partnering with a large organization for distribution is smart, but are a million t-shirts really what people living in poverty in Africa need right now? If you asked an African child on the street and asked what he needed, would a shirt be the first thing he said? Let’s think about the constituents/recipients here, and what they would say is important to them, not what we glean as being important from photos of topless children running around the bush.
(d) It is entirely possible that if you add up the amount of money it will take to send and distribute the shirts throughout the countries named on the website, the sum will be daunting, could have a far greater impact invested elsewhere, and donations will not be enough to cover the cost of the shipping, leaving Jason sitting in his living room with 1 million t-shirts that he has to pay to ship himself to people who may or may not want them.