Tee-d Off

There’s no such thing as a free shirt

| January / February 2008

  • AIDS-Walk

    photo by Damon D'Amato, licensed under Creative Commons.

  • AIDS-Walk

A friend of mine recently bundled up all the T-shirts she received from running road races and took them to Goodwill. She said getting rid of them was a relief. I know how she feels. I’ve come to loathe the cheaply made, ill-fitting cotton T-shirts that I receive for my race entry fees. I rarely wear them, and I’m not alone. Many people’s collections of superfluous shirts are so large that a cottage industry has sprung up offering custom quilts made from the spoils of competition. One such company, the T-Shirt Quilt Factory, will make you a six-by-seven-foot queen-sized quilt for $500.

Many more T-shirts no doubt end up as cleaning rags, or as part of the international rag trade, which sells millions of tons of unwanted clothing to lesser-developed countries each year. Not a little ironic, since many of the tees were originally manufactured in China or Central America under less-than-pleasant working conditions.

An industry, not a charity, the rag trade makes for some strange connections. A friend traveling in Africa was astounded to see a local man wearing a T-shirt from Bloomsday, a race in his hometown of Spokane, Washington. Someone didn’t want a shirt, and someone else did. Globalization appears to make us all even-steven.

Except that it really doesn’t work out that way. You don’t have to be an economist to see that. When you figure the fuel and other resources that are used to manufacture the shirt and ship it to the United States, where it goes unworn and is bounced around to various intermediaries until it makes its way back to a lesser-developed country, it’s no deal at all.

According to the nonprofit group Running USA, about 8.5 million runners finish a road race in the United States each year. Seattle’s Jingle Bell Run, which benefits the Arthritis Foundation, is one of the nation’s largest road races, with nearly 5,000 runners finishing the event in 2006. To make sure every participant and volunteer gets a correctly sized shirt, organizers order about 11,000, sell the leftovers, and give the rest to charity.

On its website, the Portland Marathon encourages finishers to send in pictures of themselves wearing its shirts in far-flung places, like the North Pole or the Great Wall of China. It’s proof that someone is wearing the shirt at least once.

Andy Doerr
2/8/2008 12:00:00 AM

Got to love it! On the same page as your article about the negative ecological ramifications of T-shirts you run banner ads from companies selling T-shirts for organizations and events. In fact, I can't think of an environmental agency that doesn't bombard people with swag at their offices and the events they sponsor, most of it useless, throwaway junk. All the recycling in the world won't help if we keep frontloading the unnecessary stuff we're all awash in here in America. Don't even get me started on plastic water bottles!

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