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T-shirts raise awareness, limit funds

Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I am writing in response to an IRISHLINK listserve e-mail that I received from the “Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Task Force” of the Center for Social Concerns and Student Government soliciting the purchase of a T-shirt in honor of Malaria Awareness Day, Wednesday April 25th. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Disease Control informs us that 41 percent of the world’s population live in areas where malaria is transmitted (e.g., parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, Hispaniola and Oceania). Each year 350-500 million cases of malaria occur worldwide, and over one million people die, most of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa. The imperative of reducing the catastrophic impact of this disease, which has been eradicated in this country since the 1950s, is unassailable.

However, I would like to reflect on a campus culture that attempts with the best of intentions to advance a socially-conscious agenda by reinforcing the unconscious behaviour of consumption. Insecticide-treated bed nets decreased the mortality of children aged 1-11 months in a trial in western Kenya in 1997-1999. How many more of these bed nets could be purchased for the $10 investment if part of those funds were not being used to defray the cost of the purportedly “free T-shirt”.

Although I do not know directly where and under what labor conditions the Malaria Awareness Day T-shirts were produced, I do know that cotton accounts for 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and eleven percent of global pesticide sales, making it the most toxic crop grown on the planet, a toxicity hazardous to more than just mosquitoes. Certainly, I appreciate the implicit intent of the T-shirts to raise the campus awareness, but I question whether this is the best application.

There have been many T-shirt campaigns on campus since my time here, many of which have been inspired by the orange “Gay? Fine by me!” success. The issue of campus acceptance of all sexual orientations is one relating directly to the campus community, and as such one that lends itself well to a T-shirt campaign. Issues such as malaria, which are about garnering resources for a charitable effort on another continent rather than publicly lauding the self for donating to an anti-malaria cause, are perhaps better served by alternative forms of advertising, an admirable example of which were the alternative energy pinwheels on South Quad, or stickers such as “Be nice to me, I gave blood today”.

As a person who tries to not measure his social consciousness by the 75 T-shirts crowding a shelf in his closet, I invite a Catholic campus to meditate on the virtue of simplicity as well as the charitable spirit in this upcoming “Millennium Development Goals Awareness Week.”

Thomas Klepach

graduate student


April 17