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Do We Really Need More Watermelon T-Shirts?

The double-edged sword of the activism t-shirt

Fashion has long been a powerful tool for social change, serving as a sartorial medium through which one can express solidarity, raise awareness, and mobilize support for various causes. Due to their accessibility and visibility, t-shirts, in particular, have become a popular vehicle for activism. By donning a simple tee with a compelling message, individuals can make a public statement about their values and beliefs, turning a basic #ootd into a form of protest. However, when it comes to addressing profound crises like genocides, the use of fashion, especially t-shirts, as a fundraising and awareness-raising tool comes with a complex web of ethical considerations.

In light of the ongoing genocide in Gaza, a number of local and international brands have took it upon themselves to design and produce t-shirts to raise awareness and funds for Palestine. Of course, the potential of a t-shirt to raise awareness cannot be understated. Acting as a billboard of sorts, the garment can spread a message to a wider audience than traditional media might reach. And in an age where visual content dominates, a powerful and striking design has the ability to capture attention and spark conversations about the atrocities happening halfway across the globe. This approach was notably effective during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020 following George Floyd’s death at the hands of an American police officer. A number of brands and designers created t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter,” which helped amplify the movement’s message and galvanize support worldwide.

Moreover, t-shirt campaigns often succeed in raising funds that are desperately needed by victims of crises. The proceeds from t-shirt sales can support humanitarian aid, legal actions against perpetrators, and initiatives aimed at preventing further violence. For instance, following the devastating earthquake in Morocco last summer, several brands sold t-shirts to raise funds for relief efforts. While these efforts were effective in generating much-needed financial support, they also highlight an inherent contradiction. The earthquake, exacerbated by climate change, brings to light the fact that the fashion industry, particularly fast fashion, is a significant contributor to environmental degradation and climate change. Thus, using t-shirts—a product of this very industry—to address a climate-induced disaster can seem paradoxical and counterproductive.

One can also argue that the concept of the activism shirt feeds into the culture of consumerism and overconsumption, turning a grave humanitarian crisis into a commodity, risking trivializing the severity of suffering, and reducing it to a fashion statement.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that t-shirt campaigns promote performative activism, where individuals feel they have “done their part” simply by making a purchase, cannot be overlooked. This superficial engagement can overshadow more substantial actions, such as protesting, pressuring local governments to push for a ceasefire to put an end to the genocide, volunteering, or donating directly to reputable organizations. The danger lies in the potential for these campaigns to replace meaningful activism with mere symbolic gestures.

The commercialization of suffering also raises questions about where the profits truly go. While many campaigns are transparent and ethical, there are instances where a significant portion of the proceeds does not reach the intended beneficiaries. This exploitation of a tragedy for profit can be seen as deeply unethical, especially when the victims see little to no benefit–  particularly in the case of Gaza, where multiple blockades hinder channels of aid distribution.

To navigate these complex issues, t-shirt campaigns must strike a delicate balance. Organizations, brands, and designers must clearly communicate how funds are used and ensure a significant portion goes directly to aiding those affected, because ultimately, the effectiveness and ethicality of t-shirt campaigns depend on their execution. When done thoughtfully and ethically, they can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and funds. However, without careful consideration, they risk contributing to the very problems they aim to solve. The challenge lies in ensuring that these campaigns amplify the voices of the oppressed rather than exploit their suffering.

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