Fighting Bad Aid By Selling Second Hand T-Shirts Back to Americans

One of the topics that’s able to rile up the aid and development blogosphere is t-shirts. Specifically, when well-intentioned do-gooders in the developed world ship off their old gear (t-shirts, as well as all sorts of other products: socks, shoes, yoga mats, even breast milk) to the developing world, thinking that their discarded items will have a second life and help someone in need.

Many believe that Stuff We Don’t Want (#SWEDOW) does more harm than good. Flooding developing countries with second hand items can undercut local markets: not only producers and importers when donated t-shirts wind up for sale, but also retailers when they are handed out as charity. Shipping items overseas, instead of purchasing them locally, costs a lot of money – money that could be used to strengthen local markets by purchasing locally, or to provide other means of support to communities. Over and over again, stories of unwanted goods landing in poor communities continue to surface.

Out with the old…

This past April, Saundra Schimmelpfennig who maintains the blog “Good Intentions are Not Enough”, led a campaign called “A Day Without Dignity” to counter Tom’s Shoes “One Day Without Shoes“, hoping to emphasize and shed light on the fact that giving away things we don’t want anymore to poor people doesn’t help resolve the underlying issue of poverty, and that it reflects a profound misunderstanding of people’s actual needs and capabilities.

Recently, a couple of controversies erupted around donated t-shirts to Africa which helped draw attention to the problem. Last spring, a well-meaning American marketing entrepreneur, Jason Sadler, came up with the idea of sending 1 million t-shirts to Africa: collect unwanted t-shirts in the United States, and ship them off to “Africa” to be distributed through a random selection of U.S. NGOs operating there. A firestorm of criticism erupted to counter his plans, which appeared ill-advised, wasteful, poorly planned and misguided. Sadler eventually decided to pull the plug on 1 Million Shirts.

In the same vein, World Vision was heavily criticized for using obsolete NFL t-shirts printed for the Superbowl as hand-outs to support their work in areas where they operate. In some ways, the World Vision story is worse – we expect an organization like World Vision, a trusted actor in humanitarian work, to have better practices than this shoddy “Gifts-In-Kind” (GIK) program. While it’s undeniable that there are poor people across the developing world who do not have access to good or decent clothing, the solution is not to hand out free t-shirts: that’s a dangerously naive approach. (On both t-shirt controversies, I recommend checking out Good Intentions Are Not Enough’s round-ups: World Vision/NFL controversy and 1 Million Shirts and Sending Donated Goods Overseas)

…In with the new?

Finally, though, a new idea around this theme: Project Repat. Their mission is to “purchase amazing t-shirt castoffs from secondhand markets around the world, bring these spectacular t-shirts home with our team of volunteers, and then rebrand and resell the shirts in the United States in support of nonprofits active in the developing world.” It’s a refreshing, interesting idea. I like that it acknowledges and draws attention to the issue of second hand clothes winding up in the developing world. There’s an important awareness-raising and education dimension to Project Repat, which is positive and much-needed. There is still not enough public awareness of the issues associated with donated goods and GIK. Project Repat’s messaging – with its cool graphics and hip communications – is poised to reach many.

Project Repat uses the sale of t-shirts not only to fund its own operations, but also to support the work of their own NGOs in the countries where they purchase t-shirts – Newton-Tanzania and Smallbean. On the Project Repat website, the “About” section explains how Sean Hewens and Ross Lohr, Boston-based social entrepreneurs – came up with the idea. Being all too familiar with the difficulties of fundraising for small NGOs, I think this is innovative approach to generating revenue – without relying on traditional donations – is interesting and forward-thinking.

That said, while Project Repat has a lot of good things going for it, it’s only a small effort in the broader landscape of trying to turn the tide on ill-advised GIK. It’s not really a scalable effort: how big is the market for $25 second-hand t-shirts in the U.S.? I’m sure it’s significant, but it can only absorb a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of t-shirts that wind up on sale in developing countries. Its “hip” factor is great in terms of bringing attention to the issue, but that can only carry you so far. Eventually, the novelty wears away, your graphics become outdated, and your revenue stream dries up.

I understand that Project Repat has a film in the works. If done well, this film could have a much more significant impact than t-shirt sales in the U.S. Because the real issue is not to get rid of t-shirts that already made their way to the developing world, but to stop them from leaving in the first place. This means changing the incentive structure so that companies like the NFL don’t get a huge tax benefit from giving away obsolete t-shirts to charity; educating individual donors about what constitutes good aid, and the unintended consequences of their gifts; shifting the paradigm around ideas of poverty alleviation; etc. I think Project Repat could play a role in this space. The real impact of their work, in my opinion, is how it will help shape the public’s perspective on what constitutes smart aid.

From bad aid to smart aid

The story of donated goods – t-shirts, shoes, bikes, etc. – are part of a much larger discussion about how individuals and organizations trying to “help” and to “make a difference” have a responsibility to educate themselves before giving. Giving money to a charity with a bad track record (Three Cups of Tea anyone?) or donating your old shoes because that’s what a celebrity said “the people need” has become exceedingly easy and appealing in the age of Twitter and viral campaigns. But bad aid is not just a bad idea – bad aid has negative impacts in the real world, on people’s livelihoods, on the ability of communities to alleviate poverty. Moving towards smart(er) aid is imperative, and while Project Repat might not have the best or most scalable solution to a problem, it does offer an alternative way of doing and of thinking.

The Project Repat Kickstarter Video from Project Repat on Vimeo.