Business

Merch To Match Its Mission: How Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid Responsibly Sources T-Shirts

Willie Nelson
Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Willie Nelson performs at Farm Aid at the XFINITY Theatre on Sept. 22, 2018.

“We educated ourselves about how cotton is grown and the environmental impacts of GMO [genetically modified] cotton," says Farm Aid's Glenda Yoder.

For over three decades, Willie Nelson’s annual all-star Farm Aid concerts have raised money—$60 million to date—for year-round efforts to support family farmers and their communities and to protect the soil and water farmers rely upon.

On Sept. 26, Farm Aid marks its 35th anniversary with its first online festival and an all-star lineup, including Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Black Pumas, Bonnie Raitt & Boz Scaggs, Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton, Norah Jones, Jack Johnson and more.

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The event through the years has become a national gathering place for activists involved in food policy, social and racial justice and the fight against climate change, as well as thousands of music fans. How the organization sources its merchandise matches its mission, according to Farm Aid associate director Glenda Yoder and cause marketing manager Lauren Cotnoir. Their experience offers lessons in how any artist, manager or promoter can responsibly source t-shirts and other concert garb.

Courtesy of Farm Aid

Get Smart About Cotton:

“We began with that,” says Yoder. “We educated ourselves about how cotton is grown and the environmental impacts of GMO [genetically modified] cotton.” In the mid `90s, she went on a tour of abandoned cotton fields where non-sustainable growing practices had prevailed for years. Continues Yoder, “I was just shocked to see these vast wastelands in California that had been ruined by cotton production. The land was salinated, so it had this kind of whitish dust on it, and nothing can grow there again.”

Go Organic:

When the outdoor clothing company Patagonia announced in 1996 it would sell only merchandise made from 100% organic cotton, Farm Aid followed suit. With most organic cotton now grown in Texas (Nelson’s home state), Yoder visited the Texas Organic Marketing Cooperative based in Lubbock. She now calls them “at least once a year to chat with them about growing conditions, what their crop is like, who's buying their stuff, that kind of thing.” Farm Aid, like other companies, has rejected non-organic cotton that requires extensive use of synthetic fertilizers, soil additives, defoliants and other chemicals that despoil the land.

Courtesy of Farm Aid

Go Global—Carefully:

As much as possible, Farm Aid seeks domestic cotton supplies, but it must also use sources worldwide. And with the off-shoring of the textile industry in recent decades, Farm Aid merchandise, including items made of hemp fibers or polyester, is often manufactured overseas. “But Farm Aid’s effort,” says Yoder, “is to make sure the product itself—whether it's cotton or hemp, or recycled polyester fiber—has a great supply chain story, so that we're using material that does not harm the environment and, in fact, helps to remedy” environmental damage. A global resource for companies and consumers is The Textile Exchange.

Be Fair:

Monitoring the labor conditions involved in creating merchandise is part of the supply chain story for Farm Aid. In addition to labor, “we want to emphasize a fair price,” says Cotnoir. This applies to all points of contact throughout the process including the individuals involved in growing the cotton, manufacturing, creating the designs and printing the final product.

Courtesy of Farm Aid

Partner Up:

Farm Aid collaborates with Rick Roth of Mirror Image, a unionized screenprinting company in Pawtucket, RI (a city with a rich textile manufacturing history). Roth “keeps tabs on which of the companies are doing organic T-shirts and where they come from,” says Yoder. “So he knows our criteria.” Most recently, to manufacture merchandise that meets its standards for social and environmental responsibility, Farm Aid has contracted with companies including Allmade Apparel. This year, Allmade has supported Farm Aid with a wholesale price break, reports Cotnoir.

Courtesy of Farm Aid

Look Past The Show’s Encore:

In addition to clothing, Farm Aid offers merchandise to promote its mission after the festival. Reusable branded water bottles help reduce plastic pollution—as does another popular merch item. “We always have a tote bag, which is kind of a carry-all,” says Yoder. “It's part of encouraging fans to go to farmers markets.”