T-Shirt Row Uniform

TOMS deserves a lot of credit for pioneering the idea of giving back with every purchase of a consumer product. But its model – giving shoes to a child in need whenever you buy a pair of shoes for yourself – has come under fire for not only failing to alleviate symptoms or address the root causes of poverty, but even being detrimental.

When you donate a bunch of consumer items to a developing country, the fledgling or even well-established local manufacturers will be hurt by the market being flooded by free items. Plus, giving shoes to children is a sort of arbitrary gift. TOMS responded by beginning to manufacture its shoes in Haiti starting last year, in addition to China, Argentina, and Ethiopia, which is important in that it develops local manufacturing and creates jobs. But still. Shoes.

An ideal one-for-one model would choose to donate something that is truly needed in order to combat poverty’s root causes. Taking a step further, that thing should be manufactured locally, so that it has a net positive impact on the local economy. Oh, and it would be nice if this initiative was the brainchild of someone who is actually from the community, instead of a paternalistic white person.

And that, essentially, is exactly what UNIFORM is doing. UNIFORM is a new project by the Fair Trade manufacturer Liberty & Justice, the first fair-trade apparel manufacturer in Africa. It’s starting out with a line of t-shirts.

OK, OK, OK. Before you roll your eyes at another t-shirt, please allow me to tell you that I had the opportunity to try one on in person, and they are, indeed, the ethical and sustainable t-shirt I’ve been looking for. I have several t-shirts in my wardrobe that are sort of blah, but these have a sophisticated fit, with lyocell, nylon, and silk blend that drapes perfectly. (Lyocell is made from recycled beechwood. It produces no harmful byproducts and its manufacture produces significantly less toxins and waste than other fibers.) Count me as a fan. (They are also producing an organic cotton version.)

OK, now that I have laid out the essential nature of the t-shirt, let’s move on to the conscious model.

Chid Liberty is the founder of Liberty & Justice. He was born in Liberia to a diplomat, but moved away when he was a toddler to Germany and then the U.S., where his father became a professor of African history. He went back to Liberia in 2010 to work with women’s groups in founding a Fair Trade factory. He gestured to a petite woman standing nearby in jeans and a t-shirt, who seemed much too shy to navigate the clusters of people immersed in cocktail party chatter. “That’s Angel. It’s her first time out of Liberia. She started in my factory making $100 a month. She just moved to New York to be my assistant and got a 40,000% raise!”

Women Factory Workers

Liberia was already struggling to recover from a brutal conflict when Ebola broke out last year, decimating the economy even further. Half of employed Liberians lost their jobs. About 70% of Liberia’s primary school-age population is out of school, one of the lowest primary education enrollment rates in Africa. And Liberian schools closed for eight months due to the Ebola outbreak. Liberia is now officially Ebola-free and children are returning to school, but one barrier to school for Liberian children is the cost of a uniform, which is required to attend.  “Uniforms are $10 to $50; it’s a big investment for parents,” Chid Liberty told me at the launch party, held at the SoHo House in NYC. But the reason why all schools require a uniform, even public ones, is that the clothing that children do have – hole-y t-shirts – isn’t appropriate for school.

Werk it, adorable little girl.

Werk it, adorable little girl.

Studies by the Poverty Action Lab have shown that providing children in need with uniforms reduced absenteeism by 43%, and decreased the drop-out rate for girls by a third. For every three girls who stayed in school because of the three donated uniforms, two delayed their pregnancy.

When Chid talked to the women working in his factory, they brought the uniform problem to his attention. “We came up with the idea of coming up with a premium clothing line that for every item sold, would donate a uniform. We call it a “one-for-one remix,” he said. “Our one-for-one is actually creating jobs in the local economy.”

With each UNIFORM purchase, a school uniform will be donated to a child in need. In addition to enabling more children to go to school, UNIFORM also creates jobs for women in West Africa. All UNIFORM products are made at L&J’s fair-trade factory in Liberia, where 95% of employees are working mothers. The L&J workforce receives living wages, free healthcare, savings matching, literacy classes, and 49% equity in the factory. So Liberian women will be making uniforms for Liberian children.

“We don’t think this is a silver bullet, but this is a problem we can solve,” Chid said in his speech to the assembled journalists and African models at the launch party.

The UNIFORM Kickstarter campaign has been set up in partnership with the United Nations and Liberia’s Ministry of Education and has an initial target of $50,000 – the amount of money needed to donate approximately 2,000 uniforms to nine schools. Go contribute, support a Liberian child’s education, and get a beautiful t-shirt in the process!