Positive Impact: How Charity Merchandise Can Make a Difference

The sale of campaign merchandise is used by charities such as Comic Relief to raise the profile of and funds for campaigns, but it often has a wider and less positive impact on the people making the products.  Here are the questions that need to be asked so that charity merchandise can be used to make a real positive difference. 

Yesterday an investigation by The Guardian revealed that the Spice Girls’ charity T-shirts, sold to raise money for Comic Relief’s ‘gender justice’ campaign, were made by garment workers in Bangladesh working in poor conditions and earning the equivalent of just 35p an hour.  

Over the years at Eco-Age, we have witnessed how too often campaign merchandise is made in unknown or inappropriate conditions, from materials that have negative social and environmental impacts.  That money-raising T-shirt is great, but wouldn’t it be better if it was made from organic, Fair Trade or recycled materials, by workers paid a fair living wage? 

As it stands, this lack of traceability and transparency in the area of charity merchandise is completely counter intuitive – these products could be hurting the very people they are meant to support and empower. “The values on display on the T-shirt couldn’t be more at odds with the values in the supply chain where women garment makers are treated as expendable and fundamental rights are denied them,” points out Lucy Siegle in her take on the Comic Relief charity T-shirt exposé.

Whether you are looking to create merchandise or are a consumer considering a purchase, here are some of the questions you need to be asking. 

Where are the products made? 

If you are raising money for people in a particular region or country, consider producing your products locally to help to benefit the local community. As a consumer and active citizen, question where the products have been made. There are a range of social and environmental risks associated with different countries, such as modern slavery, not paying a living wage, and unsafe working conditions, so it’s important to understand where your clothing comes from. (Watch The True Cost documentary for more insight into these issues, and read our input for the Environmental Audit Committee for insight into the fashion supply chain.)

Who are they made by?

If people are to participate in campaigns designed to raise money for charity, it is reasonable to expect that the products will have been made in a way that help the people involved in their creation, as well as those that are the focus of the campaign.  This means there should be no instances of forced labour, child labour, harassment or abuse at work, and workers should be able to join unions and bargain collectively, and work in safe conditions.

What are they being paid?

Pay a fair wage to the people making the products. The factories engaged to create merchandise should be properly checked, and working conditions and wage levels should be known. If your suppliers can’t tell you what the garment workers are being paid – then alarm bells should ring. Any charity should do their due diligence on this properly and all the way to the bottom. If you can’t get a proper answer on this and aren’t able to check for yourself – change supplier.

What materials are being used?

Choose materials that are low impact and traceable, i.e. instead of conventional cotton, what about using organic or Fair Trade? The textiles industry contains many hidden social and environmental issues, and everybody involved in the creation of materials, from the cotton farmers to the spinners and weavers, should be able to work in safe conditions, get a fair price for their work, and not need to use toxic chemicals.  

Are the products made to last?

Consider the impact your merchandise will have once the campaign is over. One of the most important ways that consumers can address sustainability is to wear out the items they own, rather than buying new or throwing away, so they should be helped to do this through good design. Design a high quality product that is going to last and be used and re-used.  

What is the key purpose of this campaign?

Is it to support people making the products, or is it to raise awareness of a cause? If it’s to generate awareness, is there a less impactful way of doing so that doesn’t entail the sale of products? For example, creating a social media campaign for social good to spark conversation.

How much money is actually going to the charity?

Who is the merchandise profiting? Charity merchandise should raise money for the charity, but should also pay the true cost of the item’s production (this includes materials, labour, transport and numerous other hidden costs).

The creation of any garments requires a strategic approach to sustainability, and we recommend that all businesses use a framework of social and environmental standards to guide their design and production process – see the Eco-Age Principles for a benchmark of responsible supply chain practices covering corporate governance, social justice, and environmental stewardship.

The era of charities failing to do their homework and joining the dots has come to an end.

Read The Lucy Siegle Take: How Charity Can – And Should – Have Positive Impact

See Livia’s first-hand account of her visit to Bangladesh and the latest updates about the Bangladesh Accord.