One of my favorite shirts that I own was from a store called Colette. Before it closed in 2017, the shop was located in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, France – a magical place for this lowly tourist. I think for anyone who loves clothing, Colette was the greatest place in the world. Karl Lagerfeld even said that it was “the only shop where I go because they have things no one else has.” The displays were always like a museum of contemporary clothing, the weird trinkets and books created a world of their own, and the price tags — well let’s just say they made the whole thing feel sort of untouchable for me. But there was one thing that I could afford. It was a white short sleeve t-shirt that had “Paris Colette” printed in the brand's signature blue color (Pantone 293C). All of the staff in the coffee bar on the bottom floor were wearing them and even as they messily served espresso, one person casually spilling a big brown glob on the front of his, they looked chic.
So, of course, that is what I bought.
I think that merch, whether it's a band t-shirt or an item from a blogger, or a token from a memory at a store or restaurant, is one of the most fascinating segments of the fashion market. Everyone can sell it as long as you put a little bit up front. Hell, I could make “This Stuff” t-shirts right now and it would make some sense. That’s the problem though — an unfortunate side effect of the specialness of capturing a love of a brand, person, or place is that there is so much of it to consume. Think about it. For every 5k or concert tour or even product launch, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of runs of printed items of clothing. Just last week, I did a 5K and was given a t-shirt that I didn’t ask for. It’s sitting on top of my dresser waiting to be turned into pajamas for eternity.
This is not to villainize this practice of making and buying merch entirely. When it comes to bands, for example, merch is how many artists actually make their money back. And what’s more, fashion that means something special and commemorates a moment in life is the best kind. This is, mostly, meant as food for thought as you think about your consumption habits as a whole. Maybe the next time a race happens in your neighborhood, you can suggest something commemorative that won’t end up in the trash or in the Goodwill bin.
It’s important to consider because these wasted shirts have an impact. Your corporate retreat t-shirt is unlikely to resell on Poshmark, and so, like millions of other tons of clothing, it will go into a bundle and end up in a market in Accra, or on a desert in Chile, to be someone else's problem that you’ll never have to see. There is also the problem of unknown sourced cotton t-shirts being at risk of using forced labor. A fifth of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang, China where the United States has labeled a genocide and has placed sanctions. Still, according to the Washington Post, these sanctions have not been enough to stop the cotton from making its way into the U.S.. Long story short, that “made in” label isn’t enough to tell you where your shirt is from and whether or not it's made ethically.
An alternative could be working with companies like Tee Mill or For Days, which use circular recycling on their cotton – where they take the item back and reuse it to make another shirt. It’s not a perfect system, but perhaps it's simply a better option than ordering through a print shop, not knowing where the shirt is coming from. Outside of that, if it really means something to you, get the t-shirt — but otherwise, support the business or person in other ways.