[INTERVIEW] Project Repat Transforms the T-Shirt Story of the World!

Photo: (Project Repat)

Oops, you did it again — you donated yet another of your beloved Britney Spears baby tees! Don’t you know that it’s toxic to struggling economies in third world countries?

We won’t hold it against you since you’ve probably never heard about the crazy “t-shirt story of the world.” Instead, we’re gonna let 27-year-old social entrepreneur Ross Lohr explain how that Brit-Brit shirt can be “upcycled” into a spoonable blankie or sweet tote that simultaneously supports developing markets in places like Africa and creates fair wage jobs here in the States. Now that’s an outrageous ending for your fave pop princess memorabilia!

Watch and learn, kiddies — here’s the Boston wonderboy giving a super fun and entertaining TEDx talk about the inspiration behind Project Repat, the org he co-founded with 28-year-old Nathan Rothstein, to keep excess clothes in the U.S. from getting recklessly dumped in third world nations:

Who woulda thought that giving away your duds — which everyone is always telling you to do — could actually harm a hustler over in Kenya who’s trying to get his new biz off the ground? We had to know more, so we caught up with Ross to dig deeper into his fashion-forward mission.

“People have a lot of memories associated with their t-shirts, but sometimes those shirts just end up sitting in closets,” Ross explains. “We give people a more fashionable way to use those t-shirts and be proud of them! About 5% of waste on Earth is excess textiles. We think we can start to cut down on that by a lot.”

They’re def making a dent in the donation damage — in June alone, Project Repat customers created more than 500 hours of fair wage labor in the USA. You can bet the workers at NuPath Inc — the non-profit in Woburn, MA that gives job opportunities to people with disabilities and makes all of Repat’s custom blankets — and Opportunity Threads — a progressive factory in Morganton, NC where the employees (mostly Guatemalan immigrants) actually own a percentage of the company — were stoked!

Check out the rest of our interview with Ross for more intimate (seriously) details about this worthy wardrobe revolution — then clean that closet out and become a Repatriot by taking action below!

ACT: So you believe an org like Tom’s Shoes, which is hugely popular and trendy here in the States, is actually doing third-world countries a disservice by donating goods for free. Can you explain more about why you think this “dumping cycle” in developing nations is not only patronizing, but more harmful than helpful?

ROSS: We tend to think that poor people need us to be giving them things all the time. So there’s this general opinion that giving away things for free is good. That may be the case in emergency situations, when a country is facing a severe famine and is in dire need of food, or after a natural disaster when individuals are without critical supplies that are necessary to live. But as you spend more time in African countries like Kenya and Tanzania, you realize that there are millions of small businesses there that are just starting to really come into their own. These markets are quite delicate, but millions of people are relying on those small businesses to earn a living. When Americans come in and start giving away things for free, none of those small businesses can compete with free, ultimately undercutting the entrepreneurs that depend on those markets to make a living. These markets really need time to grow from within – and we’re hindering their ability to do that by a constant cycle of dumping free stuff.

For example, think about the used shoe-salesman in Kenya, who relies on that business to feed his family. But once TOMS shoes enters the market and starts giving away shoes for free, that shoe-salesman is going to go out of business. With so much free stuff around all the time, there really isn’t any opportunities for markets to grow organically.

With that said, I’m looking forward to the day I see their one for one model being applied to their Black Calypso shoe.

ACT: What other countries are you bringing the Project Repat model to? Do you think it’s equally important to create fair wage jobs in America as it is in these developing nations?

ROSS: Right now, we’re actually only working in the United States. We started in Kenya, but have decided as a company that it’s more environmentally responsible to be working in the United States and preventing excess clothing from getting dumped in other parts of the world. Rather than letting clothes end up dumped in developing countries or landfills, we can repurpose it here and create fair wage jobs in the United States. This also creates some really interesting models for how we can collect shirts. For example, hosting college t-shirt drives and making products out of university-themed shirts, or having people send us their t-shirts so that we can make a product just for them.

ACT: What are your future plans for Project Repat?

ROSS: We are starting to have conversations with brands about how we can upcycle their unsold inventory into a really awesome product that also creates jobs in the USA. For example: H&M produces more than 500 million products per year, and at least 100 million of that is left unsold. On July 4th, we’re launching a campaign with Threadless to turn some of their defective t-shirts into bags.

ACT: What’s the craziest thing you’ve made out of old tshirts?

ROSS: Definitely underwear.

ACT: What are some of your fav vintage t-shirts you’ve found doing this work?

ROSS: I really fell in love with this 1986 U.S. sailing shirt – the fact that it’s just one year younger than I am is really cool, and there is something about old t-shirts that just fit incredibly well and feels great.

ACT: What are the most popular or frequent old band t-shirts you encounter? Any artists or musicians that tend to pop up a lot?

ROSS: One woman upcycled all her old Nirvana shirts. We made an AMAZING bag and blanket for her. There’s some good old ones we’ve found out there – Queen, Rolling Stones, Motley Crue. But the number one (no surprise here) is The Beatles.

ACT: How can our readers get involved and help support Project Repat? What’s the best thing they can do with their old t-shirts?

ROSS: T-shirts have a lot of memories associated with them. Just think about all the t-shirts sitting in closet from different events, volunteer days, sports teams, etc. We encourage people to upcycle those t-shirts with Project Repat – turn them into a scarf, bag, or blanket on our website.

We also are looking for campus ambassadors to host t-shirt drives on campus – we pay real money!

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Be A Repatriot!

Be A Repatriot!

Send your old tees to Project Repat to be sustainably transformed into cool new stuff.

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Get a Job!

Get a Job!

Hit up Project Repat if you wanna be a Campus Ambassador and host t-shirt drives at your school.