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To Tee or Not To Tee

By: Kalea Lucas

Every year thousands of young adults go to games and join groups where t-shirts are distributed. Many of these shirts have little to offer design-wise other than being a walking billboard for an organization or being very event specific, almost forcing one-time wear. We’ve all seen the “Larry’s 50th Birthday” t-shirt at our local Goodwill, so it’s a wonder if these shirts even need to be produced in the first place.

We’ve all seen the “Larry’s 50th Birthday” t-shirt at our local Goodwill, so it’s a wonder if these shirts even need to be produced in the first place.

What many of us here in the Global North are not aware of is how much time, energy and resources actually goes into the products that we consume. It takes 713 gallons of clean water to produce 1 cotton t-shirt. Then there are the chemical dyes that compromise the water supply of the areas where these shirts are being produced. Usually, production happens in countries like Haiti or Bangladesh (Gildan, anyone?) where there is weak infrastructure and lack of accountability on living wages, ethical labor laws and even fire and safety regulations in factories. In April of 2013 over 1,000 fashion workers lost their lives in a garment factory collapse and five years later they are still fighting for the right to work without risking their lives. With so much damage being done on the back end, is the market demand really that high for t-shirts to continue to be present at every event?

In a poll of over 100 college students, there were a few key takeaways that help shed some light on the matter at hand. Almost 75% of students said that when they clean out their closet, the first thing to go is shirts. If we take 75 students who get rid of 5 shirts per year that’s 375 shirts. There are 14 colleges at the University of Cincinnati, who each have a plethora of events and organizations that give away t-shirts. If we take 75 people from each college that is a total of 1,050 people. If all of those people get rid of 5 shirts a year, the total shirts thrown out that year amounts to 5,250. Now, if we take this number of shirts and account for at least 4 years in higher ed, that’s a grand total of 21,000 t-shirts. In the age of hashtags, filters and laptop stickers, is it really worth slapping a one-time message on a garment that was meant to last?


Speaking of messages, there is something to be said about the actual use of t-shirts and whether or not the organizations and businesses receive their return on investment in terms of brand awareness. In the ‘sustainabilitea’ podcast, UC students recount being given t-shirts for insignificant events such as signing up for a bank account and winning a game of Kahoot. Anyone who has ever signed up for a Planet Fitness membership has probably received a free t-shirt. Of the students polled, over half of them said they currently have 20 plus t-shirts in their closet. That is in addition to all the other pullovers, button-downs, blouses, and any other top that they’ve ever bought or been given. If there are roughly 30 days in a month, how often is it that students are choosing that free Campuslink t-shirt?

What businesses and organizations may fail to realize is that unlike a sticker or a button that gets placed once and doesn’t move, choosing to wear a t-shirt and promote that message is a conscious decision with several factors such as weather, where the person is going and whether they like the shirt enough to be seen in it. Actually, the most common response to where students wear t-shirts was to bed. Other responses included class, the gym and running errands. We all know that t-shirts are a casual garment, the problem is, we overestimate the use each t-shirt is going to get. If one t-shirt has to compete against at least 19 other t-shirts in the average college student’s closet, what are the odds it is going to get its full use before it is replaced by the next year’s Color Run, Greek Week or volunteer event tee?

Whether you are an organization deciding if ‘t-shirt swag’ is in the budget or a student about to accept a “free” t-shirt, try to look at the bigger picture. What is the true cost of that t-shirt? If someone had to make it, is it really free? The sooner we realize how our consumption habits play into the overall ecosystem, the better off we’ll all be.

What is the true cost of that t-shirt?


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