This article was written by Sanjay Khanna in February 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
By Sanjay Khanna
On a summer day, walk down a typical street in almost any city in the world and you’ll observe that cotton T-shirts and personal expression are synonymous.
T-shirts capture people’s views about almost anything—from their hopes for a better world, to their favorite bands…to their desire to, um, ride an iconic American motorcycle across the United States (more on this later).
Yet even the humble cotton T-shirt has a backstory.
In Big Cotton: How A Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations and Put America on the Map, author Stephen Yafa chronicles cotton’s hidden history and thus a key part of the cotton T-shirt’s backstory as well.
Yafa remarks that in the twentieth century “cotton crops became one of the world’s heaviest and most persistent users of toxic pesticides, creating lethal environmental and health hazards that continue to plague many countries.”
The desertification of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, one of the planet’s foremost ecological catastrophes, is linked directly to cotton cultivation.
According to Yafa, the demise of the world’s fourth largest inland sea was an “ecological disaster of epic proportions…where the rivers feeding the Aral Sea…were diverted to provide [cotton] crop irrigation and in the process brought human misery and massive destruction of flora and fauna to a vast populated area.”
Anne Zacsek and Doris Kodym, project leads at Shapeshifters, came up with the idea for Re-Shirt.
They describe Re-Shirt as a way of keeping valuable cotton resources in circulation, providing information related to the cotton backstory and, based on the idea of artifacts embodying historical narrative, adding tangible value and meaning to an existing T-shirt through the intangible value of storytelling.
The Re-Shirt experiment began through thoughtful, old-fashioned research.
Zacsek and Kodym had planned to commission the design and production of a T-shirt to promote another Shapeshifters venture.
While canvassing the global Shapeshifters community for hints on sourcing and printing an order of fair trade, eco-cotton T-shirts—and after interviewing Wolfgang Wimmer, an eco-design professor at the Technical University of Vienna—Zacsek and Kodym learned that the journey of a typical T-shirt is resource intensive indeed.
Some startling facts:
• A full 10 percent of pesticides worldwide are employed in cotton growing
• 10,000 liters of water are used to produce the cotton needed for a single T-shirt
• 20,000 liters of water and 8.3 kilowatt hours of electricity are harnessed in the production of one kilogram of raw cotton fibers
• The average annual cotton consumption per person in Germany is 11 kilograms, which equates 220,000 liters of water usage for the average German individual’s purchases of cotton goods
“Mr. Wimmer explained that keeping existing resources in circulation is always more efficient than creating something new,” says Zacsek. “It inspired Doris and me to think of a way to share the cotton story and bring existing T-shirts to the marketplace in an inspiring way.”
That’s when Re-Shirt—the idea of a T-shirt with a history—was sparked in the minds of Zacsek and Kodym.
Initially, the pair solicited T-shirt donations and the corresponding T-shirt histories from artists and others in Vienna.
“Although people respected our idea of keeping cotton resources in circulation, they needed to know we are trustworthy,” says Zacsek. “People feel attached to their stories and want to make sure we respect the personal history embodied in their T-shirts.”
Next, the Re-Shirt team washed the T-shirts and silk-screened them with a square, bright orange Re-Shirt logo that incorporates a white rectangular patch for the T-shirt’s alphanumeric code.
This code is important; it contains the passport to the Re-Shirt’s individual history and is written onto each T-shirt by the Re-Shirt co-creators.
As an example, the Re-Shirt I’m wearing is a T-shirt from Boston, Massachusetts, emblazoned with the Harley-Davidson logo. Its hand-written alphanumeric code is ATA002003107.
If you go to the Re-Shirt home page and type in the code, you’ll see the following story contributed by my Re-Shirt’s former owner.
H-D is a great American motorcycle and the love object of many, many age 50+ American men who wished they had spent their lives riding across the U.S. on a Harley instead of sitting in cubicles trying to make money. My 50+ brother gave it to me – say no more.
In just one paragraph, the T-shirt donor has made a potentially anonymous consumer experience personal.
Which means I’m not just wearing a T-shirt.
Turns out I’m also sporting the dry humor of a sibling…as well as sharp insight into the symbolism of an American icon.
Finally, I’ve learned a lot about the backstory of cotton and the importance of finding creative, expressive, innovative ways to keep resources in circulation as long as possible.
Keeping resources circulating may in itself be the most crucial message of Zacsek and Kodym’s Re-Shirt endeavor, which cannot enjoy complete success unless people from around the world continue to be motivated to donate T-shirts to the project, while sharing a tiny bit of themselves and their culture via their T-shirt’s intimate histories.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about donating T-shirts to Re-Shirt to keep cotton resources in circulation and to share stories, go to http://www.re-shirt.net/donate.
Sanjay Khanna is a writer and foresight researcher based in Vancouver, Canada.
Re-Shirt: A New Backstory for the T-shirt is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.