What do upcycling, Josh’s Bar Mitzvah, and fair wage work have in common?

Posted by on September 21, 2012 in Entrepreneurship, Green

There’s a familiar environmental story about upcycling. There’s also increasingly popular movement for ethical manufacturing that supports jobs in the USA. At Designed Good this week, we came across a product and a project that ties together both these themes.

We started by meeting Ross Lohr, co-founder of Project Repat, in San Francisco this year, and last week he was able to give us a redux of hisTEDxSomerville talk called “The T-shirt Story of the World.” His co-founder Sean Hewens was in a traffic jam in Nairobi, Kenya – a catastrophic, no song on the radio will fix this kind of traffic jam – caused by a driver whose rickshaw had gone haywire.The driver was wearing a T-shirt that said, “I Danced My Ass Off at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah.”

This is the visual that got Sean and Ross interested in how mass quantities of American T-shirts end up in developing countries. They discovered a $1 billion industry where organizations in the United States sell donated T-shirts to middlemen who then sell them at massive secondhand marketplaces. And this process where we unload our T-shirts in countries like Kenya often undercuts local markets that haven’t had a chance to develop on their own.

That’s how the Project Repat team got interested in supporting local economies and decided to think more critically about United States manufacturing. It’s why they sought a solution for all the T-shirt dumping we do and built a company that upcycles T-shirts by making new blankets, underwear, tote bags, and more. They also found ethical U.S. manufacturing companies that support their workers in return.

One of these companies is Opportunity Threads in Morganton, NC. Their employees earn fair wages and a percentage of the company. Another is Nupath, a nonprofit manufacturer in Woburn, MA that gives jobs to adults with severe disabilities.

So why upcycle?

It takes 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton T-shirt. And just because we like new things doesn’t mean we have to use brand new resources. It’s like reincarnation for products – and you’re the one who gets to tell the story of your blanket’s former life.

You can read information about ordering an upcycled Project Repat blanket here.

Katy Gathright

Katy Gathright is the co-founder of Designed Good, a new community that curates the best in design and social good. They hand-select and sell clothing, accessories, gear, gadgets, and artwork and tell the stories of how each product is designed for social good. She graduated from Williams College in 2012 and is most excited about engaging other millennials in the idea of great design for social change.

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