It’s time to talk about a somewhat serious but I hope you will find a little light hearted topic, t-shirts. We have a motto in the Miami YAV house which we call the “unofficial YAV slogan.” Whenever approaching an event and our director asks our shirt size we say, “a year of free t-shirts for a lifetime of change!” At first getting a free t-shirt at every single volunteer event we went to was great! It’s kind of cool to have one or two t-shirts from different events you attended. But when your life is dedicated to service people (for whatever reason) want to dress you. My wardrobe now includes (but is not limited to) my YAV shirt, a Habitat for Humanity service work day shirt, the shirt from the Paint Day event I helped coordinate (in both the staff grey and participant white might I add), a shirt from the Paint Day from the year before that my boss gave me, a waterway cleanup I did in Broward that lasted all of two hours and I maybe picked up three pieces of trash (no exaggeration…but I have the t-shirt!), a shirt from the Miami Rescue Mission Good Friday Day of Service, and the list goes on.
Let me be abundantly clear, I LOVE free t-shirts! I’m a huge advocate for a good free tee. Ask my roommates! I love collecting them, wearing them, lounging in them, and showing my pride for service (stride of pride!). But it is seriously time for America to re-consider t-shirt culture. I had always joked about writing this blog post until today when I was sitting in my office frustrated trying to come up with a t-shirt design for an upcoming event.
Let me also be abundantly clear that I’m not here to shame a group for wanting to do t-shirts for an event. In fact t-shirts I believe is the best way to show solidarity, unity, and depending on where you bought the shirt are stimulating local economy. It’s what happens afterward that needs to be addressed. Ask yourself, what do you think happens to a t-shirt after it’s given to goodwill? I can tell you! It either sits on the rack with other free t-shirts bought up by a hipster thinking, “wow, this is a cool ‘ironic’ tee” (I would know, I used to be one of those “hipsters”) or the Goodwill does the thing you were afraid to (dare I even say it) throw it away or donate it to a third world country*! Even organizations passing out clothing for free don’t want your free tee from that one event that you one time went to. There’s no dignity in passing out old t-shirts from Community Day 2015.
What I should also preface is that I realize the sentimentality of free tees and I think this is why I love them so much. Volunteer events rely on strong volunteers and as someone who has coordinated these events, I don’t want the volunteer who wore the wrong shirt. These events are good excuses to take time to give back to your community, foster and build relationships, and above all to get really messy. You can’t say at a Paint and Beautification Day, I wore the wrong shirt! Because guess what? We brought one for you! But what we as a culture do need to do is change our thinking. How do we either re-purpose our tees or how do we responsibly recycle them?
Here’s another question, how do we show unity at an event by giving away something other than t-shirts? How about backpacks or planners? Things we will use for longer than one day. Even calendars are relatively inexpensive and serve more purpose than the free tee. A huge bonus to calendars is that they advocate for your organization 365 days AND are more recyclable** than tees!
Need to show solidarity or one collective unit? Hand out a black or white t-shirt that maybe can be repurposed to become a canvas for sorority letters or tie-dye! I like this idea that people are turning old t-shirts into quilts. This genuinely repurposes a t-shirt to be something helpful. And donating a quilt? Definitely on a “much needed” list somewhere! What about a wedding dress or the five thousand other offerings from Pinterest? No time like your big day to tell the world that you one time went to that one event!
The last thing I’d like to address is we are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars for a t-shirt worn once before it hits the can or the “to go” box. Again, I understand and don’t want to demean or take away from any local economy that may be getting business, but it’s time to re-think this giant t-shirt mess. I would know, my t-shirt drawer is gasping for fresh air.
*I claim no idea to what the third world needs or does not need. I also do not claim an idea on how to solve global poverty. I simply offer the idea that tees may not even be as useful in places we think they are.