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No such thing as a free T-shirt

| Wednesday, January 13, 2016

At first glance, they’re everywhere. Every student at Notre Dame has the opportunity to build quite an impressive collection of T-shirts without having to spend a penny. It seems like every club, organization, team, department and dorm on this campus has given out free T-shirts for some reason or other, be it to promote an event or blow through extra money in the budget at the end of the year.

I’ve placed apparel orders for student groups I’m involved with, and I can testify to how easy it is to do so and how effective shirts can be as a marketing tool. However, these freebies come at a cost, and not just to the groups that give them out. The environmental and social costs of producing and caring for T-shirts are staggering.

Let’s take a look at the resources that go into a T-shirt. Cotton is a water-intensive crop that tends to involve high levels of pesticide application. Fresh water is also used in the manufacturing process through dyeing, bleaching and washing. Garment factories, especially those overseas, are rarely equipped with efficient technology. Nearly all of our free T-shirts are made in other countries. Of the ones in my own drawer, my greeNDot T-shirt was made in the Dominican Republic, my WVFI radio shirt came from Pakistan and my Lyons Hall v-neck was made in Honduras. These shirts came a long way, and fossil fuels were burned to get them here.

On top of the large amounts of resources that go into producing and distributing T-shirts, far more energy and resources are used once they reach the consumers. Washing alone uses about 40 gallons of water per load, and it takes five times as much energy to run a load through the dryer. Producing and caring for the T-shirts we get for free involves thousands of gallons of water, pounds of pesticides and chemical fertilizers and hundreds of kilowatt hours of electricity. However, we aren’t thinking of any of these costs when we pick them up for free.

Just as important, if not more so, as the environmental cost of producing T-shirts is the human cost. The dismal working conditions in garment factories pose serious threats to human rights, and toxic waste from factories compromises the health and safety of local communities. These practices are common in developing countries, out of sight and out of mind to American consumers. Apparel companies compete by keeping wages low and spending as little as possible to maintain safe working conditions. As long as consumers are choosing goods based only on what’s cheapest, companies have no incentive to improve their practices.

For example, in 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapse killed more than a thousand people in Bangladesh, and this is only one of dozens of similar tragedies. It’s hard to justify the deaths of these workers with something as trivial as keeping clothing prices low for consumers. Economists like Jeffery Sachs emphasize the importance of industrialization in the process of economic development, and sweatshops are often considered a necessary first step. I’m not trying to affirm or discount this stance. I just want to mention the critical role the apparel industry currently plays in developing economies.

I don’t think that demonizing or boycotting sweatshops is the solution to the problems I’ve discussed, but I do think governments should implement tighter regulations and consumers should expect transparency. We ought to demand the labor and resources that go into our goods are part of a sustainable system, and we should be willing to pay a bit more if that’s what’s necessary to support workers and protect the environment.

We ought to reflect the global consciousness fostered by this University in our consumption decisions. When organizations absorb the costs of goods, consumers inevitably devalue them because they don’t engage in the act of purchase. The people ordering the apparel in the first place are also estranged from the cost because they aren’t spending their own money. To close the widening rift between producers and consumers, I propose that we stop giving away free T-shirts and other apparel items at Notre Dame in order to keep us aware of the costs of production. By hiding the economic costs of our clothing, we hide the social and environmental costs as well. We should be willing to shoulder the cost of the clothes we wear and acknowledge the part we play in this broken global system.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

About Karen Gilmore

Karen is a senior majoring in sociology. She can be reached at kgilmor2@nd.edu

Contact Karen
  • Johnny Whichard

    I really hope that you don’t have an iPhone…if you do, time to look in the mirror :/