Sexism, Racism and t-shirts… Why Stop There?

I attend a lot of technical conferences, hackathons, workshops and all sorts of events where I get loaded up with t-shirts. Ridiculous amounts of t-shirts. Generally I love this! I have had a basic standard about all of these t-shirts. If it is a company and product that I know has done well by its users, by the community and the people involved have tried to do good by what they’re advocating, I’ll wear the t-shirt. Thus, I have a lot of tech t-shirts to wear.


American Apparel is one of the top suppliers of t-shirts for tech companies to print their stuff on and bring to trade shows, hackathons or wherever they’re going. American Apparel definitely has some positive attributes, here’s a list:

  • the products for the USA are made in the USA.
  • the workers make almost 2x as much as other factory workers in the surrounding areas (Los Angeles)
  • paid time off
  • sick leave
  • health care
  • company-subsidized lunches
  • bus passes
  • free English as an additional language classes
  • on-site massage therapists
  • free bicycles
  • on-site bike mechanics
  • free parking
  • proper lighting and ventilation

Now some of these things, many, to the tech industry seem like a joke. But these are very serious benefits for labor. In general, American Apparel does good by it’s employees. At least, in the United States.

The Problems

In China they do not hold these same standards, they hold the standards of labor practices in China for Chinese Factories. These are, dramatically lower than standards in factories in the United States. The conditions there are harsh, but there is no shortage of labor and it is considered an honor to get work. It’s a perverse irony, but it exists.

Then there is the problem that American Apparel has with sexism. There ads have obvious double standards in so many places. In England they’ve actually managed to get some ads banned. That’s an accomplishment since the English and Europeans are often far more liberal about things than US Citizens are. Namely, we as a population in the US are prudes by comparison, so if it got banned in England, holy moly I’m sure it would have raised absolute hell in the United States.

So on Twitter Red Hat evangelist @TheSteve0 posted this tweet.

Pointing to an article on the double standards of American Apparel. I’m all about stepping back and buying product, that has all the above positives in the company and has higher integrity in marketing than American Apparel, but what are the choices? That’s where another tweet a few minute later rallying several other fellow technical evangelists to stop using American Apparel as the top t-shirt.

More Thoughts

This leads me to another thought too, why hand out throwaway t-shirts in the first place? Why hand out anything that’s throw away? Why not hold ourselves to even higher standards? Why not only give away things that people will keep and really use. I can’t imagine how many t-shirts people take and then throw away. We as an industry should absolutely do better.

Some of the things that @thoward37 and I often do is haul excess cloths down to the local Goodwill or Homeless Shelter. Notice how cold it is right now in parts of the country? People are dying (nope, not exaggerating) right now from the cold. Because they don’t have blankets, shelter space and other simple amenities. The least we as an industry could do is provide our excess to those most in need so they can at least stay alive!

Solutions (These are NSFW)

  • Organize efforts at conferences to call-out companies that are being sexist, racist or otherwise discriminatory. Do it was a conference, as a group, as a whole and make it count. Our industry actually gives a shit and we can make things happen. Don’t pretend we can’t.
  • Pull your head out of your ass if you think that buying t-shirts from some sweat shop from X company is a good idea. Do better, if your company doesn’t have the money to buy good product, the DON’T BUY PRODUCT.
  • When you provide swag or whatever to conference goers, treat the conference attendees with respect and actually get them something they can use, that they’ll be happy to say, “yeah, I got this at X conference, it so rocked in so many ways!”
  • Think outside the box, do we really need another thousand t-shirts floating around? If we do have them floating around are you really going to be able to give them away? To people that will wear them? Just think about these things a little. Every single technical evangelist I know is smart enough this takes about 2 seconds. So just spend that 2 seconds and help out.
  • Also, there are more and more women getting involved in tech, in spite of the trolls that waste so much of all our time. Think about this when you’re ordering products, don’t just get a bunch of giant t-shirts. Sure, get some, but realize the community is quickly diversifying and many if not most of the community that is stepping up to take leadership of the tech industry is not going to be one size fits all anymore. (thank goodness)
  • Last one is simple. Just stop and think about what would matter to people. What do you want to give to others that would actually matter. I mean, it really boils down to basic GOOD, high integrity marketing. Don’t treat people like shit, treat them like they’re important. They’re prospective customers, they pay money and put food on your table. So just simply, easily, give a shit.  🙂

On this same topic, I’ll have another post soon about what you’d like to see at Node PDX for swag. What in general would you find to be excellent swag to receive at a conference that you’d be proud to lug home and wear, use or otherwise not throw it away? Until then, please comment and we’ll get some round table conversation going.

Cheers & happy hacking!

2 thoughts on “Sexism, Racism and t-shirts… Why Stop There?

  1. I completely agree with you on the point of how our industry is so wasteful with swag. I also actively select only t-shirts from companies that I’m excited to talk to, had an insightful conversation with them, or if I’m genuinely interested in their company. If I had a dollar for every stuffed animal that I gave to my dog as a chew toy after conferences…

    I think that the industry as a whole needs to be less wasteful with these resources, or simply step up their game. For example, I remember going to DevOps Days New York this October, and Dropbox was hosting a bowling night. They gave out bowling shirts that night as swag. Bowling shirts! It’s probably my most favourite thing I’ve acquired from any conference I’ve attended to date. Why? Because it’s unique, and it added to the experience of bowling night. If they gave out t-shirts, it probably would have gone in that goodwill bag I sent off before Christmas, along with all the other unused conference shirts.

    In regards to your point about purchasing women’s t-shirts: It’s still not as prevalent as I’d like it to be, but I am starting to see more companies buying swag in women’s colours or buying unisex t-shirts in smaller sizes. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, and I hope that we continue to be more accepting for women in the tech industry as a whole. Women rock!

  2. I’m in the UK for 3 weeks now, the standard for sexism in advertising and business is definitely different than the USA, irreverence is given a much wider tolerance to a degree that the American Apparel ads won’t draw the same level of distinction here in the UK. Perhaps what I’m trying to say, I can’t see a UK based journalist writing about the women with no pants ads issue as Laura Stampler has. However on a gig here, I must say I’ve had to bow out of certain work place discussions because my now US sensibilities were cringing. Perhaps for the good diversity and difference comes along in many ways and don’t translate across continents the same.

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