Who Made Your T-Shirt?

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Tayloe Emery / Edun

Workers manufacture T-shirts at the Edun factory in Lesotho.

It's been ages since the T-shirt was just an article of clothing. Having succeeded as a convenient vehicle for every conceivable political and commercial slogan, the threads themselves are becoming the newest message, logically enough.

At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, undergrad entrepreneurs have begun hawking a line of 100% cotton tees with the catchphrase "I know who made my t-shirt? Do you?" If you don't know, here's the answer: Workers seeking to improve their lives in sub-Saharan African countries like Lesotho, Uganda and Tanzania with few other opportunities for sustainable employment. These workers, according to the students, are getting fair wages and working in clean facilities, and no children are exploited in the process.

As part of the business school's just-launched social entrepreneurship program, the undergraduate vendors have teamed with an organization that knows a few things about socially responsible marketing: Edun Apparel is a clothing line started in 2005 by U2's Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, which aims to bring fair employment practices to the fashion industry. "Bono and Ali are both committed to the mission that trade is more important than aid," said Edun CEO Christian Kemp-Griffin.

Timing is key in the success of any new venture, and the surging popularity of fair-trade coffee and other organic brands surely makes it easier to communicate the importance of ethically made clothing to prospective customers. American Apparel has already found success with its commitment to "sweatshop-free" cotton manufacturing in downtown Los Angeles. Workers, including many immigrants, are paid an average of $12 an hour, can buy affordable health insurance and receive free English lessons. A recent study of the buying habits of so-called Millennials, by Cone Inc. found that 69% of 13- to 25-year-olds consider a company's social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop, and 83% will trust a company more if it is socially and environmentally responsible.

While the Edun offshoot and its student partners are focused on the bottom line, the business is most concerned with the economic well-being of those at the lowest rungs of the supply chain. The shirts are 100% African "from grower to sewer," according to the company's literature. The student vendors, all volunteers, clearly have not signed on for their own monetary gain. Says senior Andy Mitchelides, a marketing major at Miami U. and the president of Edun Live on Campus: "We feel honored to be part of something this cool. Eventually we'll look back and be able to say we played a part in reducing world poverty."

With 2,600 shirts already sold on the Ohio campus, the 15 undergraduates involved in the project are preparing to outsource the business model to other universities. They've been in touch with about 20 other schools interested in establishing their own Edun Live franchises. Faculty advisor Brett Smith says students have been willing to pay a premium for the chance "to change the world one T-shirt at a time." The shirts typically sell for $10 each, two dollars more than the going local price. Added Smith: "When we remind them that they could make up the difference by skipping one trip to Starbucks that month, they get it."