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Here's How Your Old T-Shirts Can Create Jobs

When you are done with college you get a degree, lifelong friends, time management skills and a whole lot of t-shirts.

When you're done with college you get a degree, lifelong friends, time management skills, and a whole lot of t-shirts. A t-shirt for the basketball game, for your student club, for a party, or for community service events. They become your scrapbook—representing your highs, lows, mistakes, and triumphs.

This is why it made sense for us last summer to go to a school like Harvard, and propose that we turn all those Harvard branded t-shirts into upcycled tote bags that can be given out to alumni. Not only are the bags not adding more waste to the textile stream, but they're also creating fair wage work in the USA.

Our pitch fell on deaf ears, just like it did at many other schools. They were used to a price that could only be offered in the far east, where the cost of labor is 90 percent lower than U.S. wages. We learned that universities want to be green, but are addicted to fast fashion prices. Instead, at Harvard reunions they passed out a hat, with a big “Made in China” tag on it.

While America’s t-shirt production has almost entirely gone overseas, we at Project Repat saw an opportunity to create fair wage jobs out of people’s sentimentality around their shirts.

There is a lot of talk now about re-shoring, and bringing jobs back to the U.S., but it’s hard to translate broad sweeping policy talk with tangible ways for all of us to help. A lot of times in the very undefined "social enterprise" sector, something that seems like a good idea, isn't something people will actually buy. While it was difficult for us to get universities to pay for U.S. labor, we felt the American consumer would appreciate knowing that their clothes were made responsibly.

We also heard from customers that they wanted something made from their t-shirts. We liked the tote bags option, but it wasn’t something consumers were really looking for. The terms "t-shirt quilts" and "t-shirt blankets’’, however, get more than 70,000 monthly searches. With these items, we found a way to simplify our production process to make them more affordable to the customer.

And apparently there was a lot of demand for a t-shirt blanket—surprising news to two boys in their late 20s. In the past year, we have sold over $750,000 worth of custom t-shirt blankets.

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Every Thursday, your Ethical Style questions, answered.

Modern fashion is a sprint. By the time a designer sends a new style down the runway, it’s only a matter of weeks before the trend hits fashion blogs, migrates to high-end boutiques, and is dumped en masse on your nearest knockoff mega-retailer. But the rush to snap up the latest thing doesn't leave much time to consider what we’re actually buying.

Now, a more thoughtful fashion outlet is intercepting the cycle. Fashioning Change is a website that helps trendsetters find ethically-produced, eco-friendly alternatives to whatever the big-name brands are selling this week—in less time than it takes to circle the racks at a Forever 21. Just tell Fashioning Change the types of brands and retailers you usually shop at—and the charitable causes you prefer to support—and the site’s "Changing Room" will offer more ethical versions of the latest trend from Gucci, Tory Burch, J. Crew, or Guess.

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