What statement are slogan tees really making?

In the wake of very tragic news, fast fashion brand, In The Style, released a t-shirt printed with the quote 'Be Kind'. On the surface, it seemed like an admirable initiative: 100% of the profits are donated to Samaritans charity (how much that works out at exactly remains unclear) and delivery charges have been waivered for click and collect orders. While the unisex tee has reportedly raised over £300,000, this form of fundraising is problematic and hypocritical. Until In The Style extend this kindness to the garment workers in their supply chain, their purposewashed campaign is entirely tokenistic.

It’s a sensitive issue but the chances are that their workers aren’t being treated with the same kindness their t-shirts so proudly proclaim. There’s a good chance these t-shirts were made by exploited workers for extremely low pay. To refute such claims, In The Style gave their Instagram followers a tour of their Manchester factory. Sure enough, everything looked spotless and it even featured a smiling employee. What they failed to mention was that the shirts were only printed on and quality checked here. In the background, stacked branded boxes revealed that Gildan had in fact manufactured these tees. Not only is this misleading but Gildan were accused of violating its workers' rights in 2018. So let me rephrase that t-shirt for you: let’s be kind to the western women who buy our clothes rather than the millions of young women who work in appalling conditions to make them.

Ironically, the CEO himself hasn’t always been so kind. Beyond blocking and silencing his well-founded critics, unearthed tweets show Adam Frisby poking fun at Caroline Flack. Former employee, Alice Clayton, has also accused the company of driving her to ‘the verge of a mental breakdown’, for which she allegedly received zero support. So what at first seems like a charitable endeavour is nothing more than a marketing ploy; you simply cannot buy kindness.

It goes without saying that Samaritans are an amazing charity and you can find more about their incredible work here. But what we needed at this difficult time was for high-profile brands to encourage direct donations, rather than producing another t-shirt we’ll wear only once or twice. We also need these brands to use their platform to break down the stigma of mental health. This is a full-time commitment, not the occasional tweet after a suicide.

The mass production of these tees has also been anything but kind to the planet. Following the tragic news on the Saturday, In The Style announced its t-shirts the following day which would be delivered by Wednesday. If you do the maths, that’s a remarkably quick turnaround. When Venetia Falconer went on the Gildan website, she was shocked to discover that she could order 1 million small black t-shirts with next day delivery. Each top was priced at just £1.17. Sometimes you have to ask yourself at what cost? At the cost of the garment workers? At the expense of the planet?

These same t-shirts take around 2,700 litres of water to make. To put this into perspective, that’s as much as the average person drinks in two and a half years!! The website proudly boasts that the tees are made from 100% cotton. Though this cotton was not farmed organically but instead treated with pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Such practices have been linked to health issues and premature deaths among cotton farmers.

On their Instagram, In The Style recently announced that the brand would be restocking another 50,000 units. That the t-shirt features on a website that is literally designed to make you buy – the header offers everything from free delivery to discount codes – exposes this ‘charitable act’ as a publicity move.

Sian Conway has equally questioned whether the brand indirectly profits from this campaign: ‘Added one of their #BeKind t-shirts to cart half an hour ago (obviously did NOT purchase) and surprise surprise, look who pops up in my ads half an hour later’, a sponsored In The Style ad of course.

Sadly, the issue does not end with In The Style. In honour of International Women’s Day, your social media and email inbox has likely been inundated with feminist slogans and ‘girl power’ tees. For every £6 (!) ‘femme fierce’ tee it sells, Boohoo are donating £2 to the Wonder Foundation. Missguided have also launched their #babewithsign campaign, which features ‘empowering babes to celebrate women and everything we stand for’. Among them, the likes of ASOS, Pretty Little Thing and Missy Empire are out in full faux-feminist force.

What these brands are all guilty of is preaching about feminism whilst engaging in business practices that jeopardise female livelihood. The fashion industry employs approximately 60 million people directly, of which 80 percent are young women aged between 18 and 24 - around 98 percent of them are not earning a living wage. The majority of factory managers and supervisors are men, while the CEOs of Forever 21, Zara and H&M are all (you guessed it) men. The gender income gap is very much still a reality and let's not forget fast fashion's insistence on stealing the deigns and intellectual property of small female designers. Plus, fast fashion loves to capitalise on the insecurity of young women to sell its clothes - anybody remember that infamous 'eat less' top sold by Urban Outfitters?!

By tapping into its customers feminist beliefs, fast fashion brands convince us that communicating our values by what we wear is enough. Unless followed up with political action, feminist tees are nothing more than feel-good, self-indulgent purchases. Wearing your values means emailing companies about their supply chain, lobbying your politicians for stricter regulations and boycotting brands that thrive off labour exploitation. Fair pay, maternity care, holiday benefits and safe working conditions are far more empowering than your impulsive purchase. A t-shirt really isn’t the key to achieving gender equality.

The same logic goes for that Tesco 'our generation will save us' hoodie, made from polyester, shipped from Sri Lanka and priced at £12. Or the increasing popularity of tees plastered with Greta Thunberg's face. The irony here is that these tops are achieving the opposite of the sustainable causes they set out to promote.

These examples are all part of a wider trend: the t-shirt epidemic. We’re living in unprecedented ‘been there, got the shirt’ times. Forever unable to live in the moment, we’re capturing every second on our phones and buying t-shirts as tangible mementos. You simply did not graduate school, celebrate your bestie’s hen do or attend a gig if you did not leave with a printed tee. Our obsession has ensured that 2 billion tops are produced and sold every year.

But our personalised t-shirts are just as short-lived as the dopamine hit we feel upon receipt of them. While the lucky few are destined to become a pyjama top, the rest are doomed to the charity shop. The co-founder of the OR foundation, Liz Ricketts, estimates that between 15 to 20 percent of the T-shirts she sees at secondhand markets are caused-related, including ‘The Future is Female’ shirts. Many of these cast offs will be shipped to developing countries but those ‘People in Ghana don’t really care about the run that you did, or the conference that you went to, or your grandma's birthday'.

So maybe it's time to ask yourself: what statement is my slogan tee really making?

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