T-Shirt Remix: Recycling America's Used Clothes for Social Impact
Ross Lohr wants to sell you a used t-shirt, or six, for $25 a piece. He’ll tell you up front that he bought each one for about a dollar. Sounds like a ripoff? He hopes it’ll seal the deal.
Lohr is the co-founder of Project Repat, a social enterprise that buys used American t-shirts shipped to the secondhand market in Africa—picture vintage shirts inhabiting Williamsburg thrift shops—then sells them back to Americans with a huge irony premium tacked on.
The markup funds social projects through two charities Lohr and Project Repat co-founder Sean Hewens run in Kenya and Tanzania. The business model behind Project Repat makes a statement about American overconsumption by peddling our own excess right back at us.
“Our consumption is so rampant that we are dumping 95 percent of our clothes in the developing world,” Lohr says. The clothes we buy here in the U.S. and barely use—like that bar mitzvah party-favor tee—end up in thrift stores, which sell their excess in bulk to third-world distributors, supplying a global chain of used goods.
Now, after learning from their first buying trip to Africa, Lohr and Hewens want to increase the intensity and impact of their social enterprise. The company is launching a new set of repatriated offerings as part of a “No More New” campaign designed to question the value of making so much stuff, all garnering financial support for Kenyan craftsmen. “We think of ourselves as the anti-TOMS shoes,” he says—TOMS creates two pairs of shoes for every one you buy, giving the other away in the developing world. The way Lohr sees it, Project Repat achieves a similar goal by reclaiming a waste product of the American retail system instead of creating more stuff.
“Our first model was 'let's bring these shirts home and stamp them and say where they came from and sell them to raise money,'” Lohr says. The pilot plan, with 500 T-shirts selling for $25 each, raised enough money to build a solar-powered computer lab in Kenya and put five girls through school for one year in Tanzania. Lohr wants each Project Repat shirt to become a statement, a conversation piece, and an invitation to others to whip up a debate about global supply chains.
Now, Project Repat is building a more scalable business that doesn’t rely on Lohr and Hewen flying down to Kenya to shop for '80s-era pun-tastic tees. That means figuring out a way to utilize local talent. “Kenyans... are not good at is finding what an American would call a hip or ironic shirt,” Lohr says. But on their trip to Africa, the pair learned that Kenyan artisans are already crafting colorful new shirts and other products using t-shirts as raw material—an international clothing mixtape.
In the newest iteration of Project Repat, local tailors and seamstresses will make new products out of these cast-off tees—known locally in Kenya as mitumba, the Swahili word for bundle, which is how the shirts arrive at market. By moving beyond t-shirts, Project Repat will inject labor, and thus local jobs, into their do-gooding. “It’s a bad assumption that we have to be giving things to Africa all the time,” Lohr says, arguing that commerce is a better development because purchased products are market-tested, more appreciated and, in the long term, a more sustainable model.
Project Repat opened their Kickstarter campaign yesterday to raise money to launch the No More New project. The bags and scarves will cost $30, incorporating a fair wage to someone doing work in Kenya (about $4.44 per day, according to the Fair Wage Calculator) and a donation to a nonprofit.
On Lohr and Hewen’s last t-shirt hunting trip in Kenya, the pair navigated crowded clothing markets and traced the supply chain from a Nairobi market stall up to bulk importer. They were able to make a case that there’s an upside to dumping cheap clothes in a foreign market, a global trade fact often lamented and blamed for suppressing local textile market development. “The business firms want to stop imported secondhand so they can produce new clothes here,” says Maurice Awiti, associate director of economics at the University of Nairobi, in a documentary the two produced. “They say they are bringing unemployment, but when you compare the employment involved in secondhand clothes, the number of people who are actually involved, it is much more than the factories would actually employ.”
Awiti attributes this in part to the low startup cost required to become a shirt retailer compared to launching a textile factory or even the tough competition workers would face trying to land a factory job that would probably make more expensive shirts. “I went over there expecting to be angry that we dump so much clothing over there, and I realized that thousands of jobs are created from this market,” Lohr says to explain the evolution of Project Repat. “Talk about tailors. They are taking their fat American people T-shirts and taking them in and making them fit a Kenyan body type... mixing and matching colors, modifying the designs.”
It’s a skill that should be rewarded, and Project Repat has found a way.