Is Your Greta Thunberg T-Shirt Contributing to Climate Change?

The teen climate activist is a powerful figure to rally behind — but it's worth thinking twice before buying merch with her face on it.
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Teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

If Greta Thunberg acts like someone who has no time to lose, it's because she doesn't. Already, the world is feeling the effects of the climate crisis, which is raising sea levels, fueling extreme temperatures and increasing the frequency of flooding and drought. And so in the span of a year, the 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl has gone from "striking" from classes every Friday to demand stronger climate action from her government to shaming the United Nations General Assembly for its "betrayal" of young people.

Hailed as a 21st century Joan of Arc, a real-world Katniss Everdeen and "one of our planet's greatest advocates," the young activist has inspired worldwide youth walkouts and the largest climate protest in history. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has appeared on the cover of Time. In May, Vice made a 30-minute documentary called "Make the World Greta Again." Such has been the "Greta effect," in fact, that at times she almost transcends personhood, becoming a symbol, a movement, a zeitgeist and an attitude rolled into one. Or — occasionally — a T-shirt.

Type "Greta Thunberg T-shirt" into any search engine and you'll instantly turn up thousands of results, many of them directed to user-submitted, print-on-demand merchandise sites such as Spreadshirt, where designers can set prices and receive a cut of the sales. (A Spreadshirt representative says the number of items tagged "Greta" on the marketplace have doubled between August and September.)

Shirts can vary in terms of effort, sophistication, or wit. Redbubble, for instance, has given Greta a David Bowie "Rebel Rebel" makeover; TeePublic has a shirt with an illustrated portrait of Greta looking thoughtful above her quote, "Asperger's is my superpower." If you're a minimalist, Design by Humans will sell you a plain white T-shirt with the words "How Dare You" — another Greta bon mot — typed in a black capital letters. It costs $25, shipping not included. 

An array of Greta T-shirts for sale by Redbubble. Screenshot: Redbubble.com

An array of Greta T-shirts for sale by Redbubble. Screenshot: Redbubble.com

Even Woody Harrelson wore a Greta Thunberg T-shirt at the close of the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, which the actor hosted on Sept. 29. The garment looks handmade, but Harrelson's publicist didn't respond to requests for comment, so we can't be sure. You can, however, snap up near-identical copies — helpfully tagged with Harrelson's name — on the aforementioned sites.

But the problem with T-shirts, even those purporting to promote climate action, is they're especially hard on the environment. Just growing the cotton that goes into one can take 2,700 liters of water — enough for a person to drink for two-and-a-half years — and, if it isn't farmed organically, a third of a pound of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. T-shirts, particularly those with "heathered" yarns of mixed colors, may contain polyester and other synthetic fibers, which are derived from crude oil and emit greenhouse-gas emissions from extraction to disposal. They're also linked to the production of microplastics: minuscule fragments of plastic, tinier than one-fifth of an inch, that slough off during laundering to pollute the oceans, tap water, table salt and the guts of every species of sea turtle.

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Despite all this, people are actively searching for Greta or climate-related merchandise, especially now, when climate strikes led by Extinction Rebellion, Jane Fonda and Greta herself are dominating headlines. Etsy, which traffics in over 400 items linked to "Greta Thunberg," has seen searches for products related to climate change skyrocket by 421 percent over the past three months compared to the same period last year, according to a spokesperson. Etsy seller Fourth Wave Apparel, which sells a shirt with a drawing of Greta's back and the words, "You are Never Too Small to Make a Difference," notes that "Greta Thunberg" is its No. 2 search term. 

"I can tell you that the Greta shirts have jumped up to one of our top-selling listings there," says Jeanne Allen, who handles marketing for the company.

But some say such trends only reveal how we've mentally decoupled clothing manufacturing from the environment.

"Most people don't make the connection between clothing and climate change," says Elizabeth Cline, author of The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good. "But we have to remember that a lot of the environmental problems we are suffering through are caused by overproduction." 

Case in point? The garment industry accounts for 8.1 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions — more than all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined.

To paraphrase another T-shirt, if we're still wondering whether Greta would put her message on a tri-blend crewneck, the likeliest answer is Greta wouldn't. This is, after all, the young woman who eschewed designer clothing in favor of her own at a Teen Vogue cover shoot

 "Would you run a car for hours to protest climate change?" asks Rachel Kibbe, a circularity and textile-waste consultant. "Wearing a new cotton T-shirt to celebrate Greta, or to protest climate change, is the equivalent."

T-shirts are popular vehicles for slogans and other promotional messaging for good reason. They're inexpensive to produce, easy to distribute and just about everyone wears one. (We make and sell 2 billion of them a year.) As ambulatory billboards, they carry prime visual real estate for speaking volumes without saying a word. Progressive parents love them because they can facilitate deeper conversations between children and adults. 

"Instead of, 'That's a really pretty dress,' [a grownup might] say, 'Oh, you're a young activist, tell me about that,'" says Courtney Hartman, CEO of Free to be Kids, which sells a shirt that features Greta alongside Autumn "water warrior" Peltier and Mari "Little Miss Flint" Copen. 

T-shirts have borne messages as early as 1948, when New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who was running for president, screened a stack of campaign tees with "Dew-It with Dewey." Marlon Brandon and James Dean gave T-shirts a borderline subversive gloss; Vivienne Westwood made them genuinely subversive. But it was after a British designer named Katharine Hamnett wore a "58% Don't Want Pershing" T-shirt while shaking hands with then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher that the humble garment achieved apotheosis. Viva la protest tee.

"Slogan T-shirts are designed to put ideas in your brain; you can't not read them," Hamnett writes in an email. "They make you think, but they don't achieve anything unless followed up with political action."

Whether she's conscious of it or not, Greta, like Hamnett, has an intuitive understanding of branding's role in discourse. Visually, she's been nothing if not consistent. There are her signature pigtails, which she wears Pippi Longstocking-like or side-swept into a single braid. She's rarely seen smiling, partly because she has Asperger's and partly because — well, what does she have to smile about? Also now familiar is the hand-lettered sign that accompanied Greta on her lonely protests outside the Swedish parliament. The black-on-white scheme makes the words hard to miss: "Skolstrejk för Klimatet" ("School Strike for Climate").

Greta Thunberg with her iconic sign. Photo: Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Greta Thunberg with her iconic sign. Photo: Michael Campanella/Getty Images

"It's a simple message that's well-delivered," says Ryan Thomspon, a professor of art and design at Trinity Christian College in Chicago who sells pins and stickers with activist slogans, Greta's included. "There's something very iconic just about this black handwritten text on a white sign." Similarly, Greta's trademark yellow slicker has become a touchstone for climate protestors. "It says she's going to be there rain or shine," Thompson says. "And so I think a lot of people have been attracted to those kinds of symbols."

Indeed, a T-shirt can serve as a kind of talisman, a means of psychological gratification, or to broadcast belief systems.

"For people who feel a little impotent in contributing to a cause, having a T-shirt makes them feel like they're taking action of some sort," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy. "It's a popular way for people to feel involved or show other people they support that cause."

Any kind of cognitive dissonance between the desire to be seen doing something versus the need to consume less to protect the environment might be rationalized away "for the greater good," similar to how climate celebrities make excuses for their private-jet use.

We've been here before. The aftermath of the 2016 presidential election was met with a deluge of T-shirts slinging pro-woman rallying cries like "The Future is Female" and "Nevertheless, She Persisted." Many of them, as it turned out, were made by exploited women in sweatshops in Bangladesh or Honduras, freighting the shirts with as much irony as meaning.

"You don't have to make a T-shirt for every single thing," says Amy DuFault, a writer and sustainability consultant who produced a run of ethically made T-shirts with the phrase, "This T-Shirt Was Not Made in a Sweatshop," just to show companies it could be done. "And if you're going to make a T-shirt for something, then you better make sure it's supporting what's on it."

To be sure, there's a way to make slogan tees that are less detrimental to the environment. DuFault worked with TS Designs to source organic cotton grown and milled in North Carolina. E-tailer ThredUp printed over some of the 2,2000 used T-shirts it receives every month to create its "Choose Used" line with Olivia Wilde. And Teemill, a renewably powered organic-apparel maker in the United Kingdom, asks customers to return unwanted T-shirts so they can be recycled into new. Certain companies may donate generously to climate-justice groups because they know most people won't crack their wallets without something tangible to show for it. (See also: the Red campaign.)

But an even more radical act, according to Alice Wilby, a member of Extinction Rebellion, is opting out of shopping entirely. The international activist group made a decision early on not to sell merchandise. If protestors want Extinction Rebellion-branded T-shirts, they're invited to stamp the logo on used or deadstock garments. And if they cover up a swoosh or a beer ad, all the better.

Extinction Rebellion protestors are encouraged by organizers to wear slogans printed on deadstock fabric or garments. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Extinction Rebellion protestors are encouraged by organizers to wear slogans printed on deadstock fabric or garments. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

"We have more more stuff already made than we have time to solve the climate emergency," says Wilby, who helps coordinate Extinction Rebellion's Boycott Fashion arm. "I think it speaks volumes about the consumer mindset that the instant reaction is to make merchandise to sell." When the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest lake, has been drained dry by cotton agriculture and cities like Cape Town and Chennai are running out of water, "to use new resources to make merchandise is sort of criminal," she adds.

Promotional merchandise is, for the most part, ephemeral, meaning we shed it almost as quickly as it arrives. Americans only donate or recycle 15 percent of their clothing; the vast majority — roughly 10.5 million tons of textiles every year — is shoveled into landfills. Because charities like Goodwill and Salvation Army receive more donations than they can sell in their stores, most clothing castoffs wind up in the hands of for-profit textile recyclers and from there, to secondhand markets in Africa, where they're far from hot sellers.

"T-shirts are the worst-performing category next to ladies' tops because they're usually so context heavy," says Liz Ricketts, co-founder of the OR Foundation, an educational nonprofit that studies the impact of clothing. "People in Ghana don't really care about the run that you did, or the conference that you went to, or your grandma's birthday."

Ricketts estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of the T-shirts she sees at Kantamanto, Accra's massive open-air secondhand market, are cause-related. Breast cancer walks are frequently represented, as are ocean cleanup days. She’s even spotted a number of lightly worn "The Future is Female" shirts, evidently from owners who bought into a trend, not the cause.

Shirts that don't get "re-commodified" are trucked into an open quarry, cast into the ocean, or burned in an open dump site. Which raises a few questions: Will it only be a matter of time before Greta or climate-action T-shirts join them? More important, are we doomed to transform the climate emergency into "an object of trade," as the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion describes it to me — because capitalism? 

Only one thing's for sure, says Wilby: "I don't think Greta Thunberg needs a T-shirt to spread her message."

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