You could almost set your watch to it: Less than 24 hours after Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a "nasty woman" at the third presidential debate in October, the first nasty-themed merch—including a T-shirt with a heart shaped logo that ended up raising $100,000 for Planned Parenthood—began appearing online.
Then, in January, when the Women's March on Washington was about to become one of the largest political demonstrations in US history, Instagram was awash in slogan T-shirts to wear on the big day. "Feminist AF" and "The Future is Female" were popular, while more recently, "Nevertheless, She Persisted" has cropped up. Everyone seems to want one; few seem concerned with where they are coming from.
Activist merch has existed for decades, but it's never existed at a time when it's possible to create, market, and sell a mass-produced T-shirt quite literally overnight. Combine that with the kind of woke social media posting that is de rigueur in our unstable political times—if you went to the Women's March and didn't Instagram it, were you really there?—and you get a lot of T-shirts ostensibly about women's equality that could potentially be undermining the women who make them.
Enter Amy DuFault, ethical fashion activist, writer, and director of communications at the Pratt Institute-funded Brooklyn Fashion and Design and Accelerator. In early January, before the march, she noticed that the local chapter of the march she had signed up for in Massachusetts was selling merchandise—and that it some of them were manufactured by mass producer Gildan, a company which has been reported in the past for using sweatshop labor in Central America. Aghast, she took it upon herself to begin contacting organizations, designers, and brands directly asking: "Who made your feminist T-shirts?"
"At this point, where we're consuming so much fashion, it's not a controlled campaign like it was in the 60s and 70s. It's so cheap to make, it's so fast to make, and we're all total hypocrites for wearing it," said DuFault. "Because if we're wearing something about women's rights and it wasn't made right by a woman—how ironic and tragic is that? Who really, if they knew how things were made, would want to wear that?"
Indeed, in the cacophony of discourse that transpired around the march, many prominent critics pointed out the major issue of intersectionality or and the need to include all women in the feminist movement, not just those who can afford to hop on a plane to DC. While that certainly includes American women of color, who will be more affected by President Trump's policies—and who notably didn't vote for him at anywhere near the rate white women did—shouldn't it also include the women making the T-shirts, too?
By all accounts, the DC march organizers went out of their way to ensure their T-shirts did take into account the women making them. (According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, about three quarters of garment workers worldwide are female.) Though they could not be reached for comment, the Women's March merch page notes that all items were "made and printed in the USA." In addition, the US-based company that made their official merchandise, Bonfire, said that the march organizers approached them and specifically requested apparel that was made in the US. Bonfire told Broadly they used US-made inventory from American Apparel, Bayside Apparel, or Royal Apparel.
While American Apparel's January acquisition by Gildan raises ambiguity about whether the specific inventory used was, in fact, made in the USA, a Bonfire rep said "We're not aware of Gildan manufacturing any American Apparel shirts since the acquisition and recent changes to their operations." She went on to confirm that "every item we fulfill for the Women's March on Washington campaign is sourced from USA-made American Apparel, Bayside Apparel, or Royal Apparel inventories."
However, confirming the provenance of other kinds feminist merch has not been so easy, and DuFault notes that she has seen instances of "knock-offs" of the official DC march shirt sold online. When Dufault reached out to designers at New York Fashion Week who showed clothing with a feminist message—including Jonathan Simkhai, Prabal Gurung, and Christian Siriano—as well as several online outlets and organizations like Nasty Women Society and Planned Parenthood (who partnered with Fashion Week organizers CFDA this season ), she received mixed responses.
Every meme does not need to be made into a T-shirt.
While Jonathan Simkhai noted their shirts were "produced by a small business in the US," they provided no clarification as to where. Rock Roll Repeat, which sells an "Abort Unwanted Presidencies" T-shirt, said their clothing was "assembled in Nicaragua with US components in a WRAP [Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production] certified sweatshop free facility." Prabal Gurung noted their shirts were sourced locally in New York City and workers were paid a "fair and equal wage," while the Nasty Women Society were doing more homework on their sourcing, though they believed they were from an ethical provider. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood and Christian Siriano did not respond to DuFault.
Part of the problem with producing ethical T-shirts is that knowing where your T-shirt comes from is not as straightforward as tracing a carton of eggs or head of broccoli. Elizabeth Cline, an expert on fast fashion and the author of the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, explains just why T-shirts are so hard to trace and make ethically.
"Unlike food, fashion combines agriculture, manufacturing, technology and manual labor," Cline told Broadly. "Spreading those steps around the world [and] letting different countries specialize in different areas has made apparel such as T-shirts incredibly affordable and plentiful, but getting information on that process has become murkier—and protecting the people in these supply chains has become that much harder."
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DuFault says her mission isn't to shame people; but rather, to use the social media fueled enthusiasm for activist merchandise to underline the reality that everything comes from somewhere. And if we want to be good activists, DuFault says, it is our job to think about that.
"For a lot of these women, this is their first time being activists and they don't know as much as I know—so I don't want to shame or take their power away," DuFault said. "However for these designers, if they want to put themselves out there [by having a cause T-shirt in their show]—they know how and where things are made, that's their job. So I thought it was a great opportunity for these designers during NYFW to really start calling them out."
DuFault says the difficulty around producing ethical T-shirts right should spur activists to be more intentional about what they produce, when they do it, and how. She helped assemble a list of questions to ask oneself when choosing a provider, as well as some brands who are doing good work.
"Every meme does not need to be made into a T-shirt," DuFault said. "Smaller, ethical brands are going to cost you more, and you don't need to make tons of these T-shirts anyway. The main thing you might want to consider when you're making a T-shirt is: Do I really need to do this?"
Still, DuFault is not pulling any punches when it comes to putting the responsibility on activists to make sure their merchandise is intersectional in a supply chain context and not undermining the very values it seeks to promote.
"In 2017 when we have access to so much information and we're posting these pictures of ourselves all over social saying, 'Look I'm an activist,' realize that it came from somewhere and it has to be disposed of in some way as well," DuFault said. "There's a rabbit hole for every single choice you make. So, I want people to go down the right rabbit holes when you're deciding to create merchandise with your activist cause."