MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Journey of a Planet Money t-shirt January 20, 2014

animal spirits planet money t-shirt

In the beginning of December, NPR’s Planet Money did a great piece on the journey of a t-shirt. This was funded by more than 20 000 people through their Kickstarter campaign.

Ecouterre wrote a nice synopsis of the 5 movie chapters that make up the Planet Money story.  The journalists followed the t-shirts from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the spinning of the yarn in Indonesia to the cutting and sewing in Bangladesh (women’s shirt) or Colombia (men’s shirt), back to Miami and then to Brooklyn to be printed and shipped to the new owners. Along the way they highlight the machines that harvest the cotton and make the yarn and the fabric, the people who sew the t-shirts, and the boxes that ship the shirts around the world.

I’ve read some rebuttals about the martini drinking squirrel t-shirt. By the way, there is actually a cool story behind the animal spirits design, and there are lots of people who didn’t like the design or pink color. But I think the bigger questions are more important: TS Designs asked why Planet Money didn’t follow a Made in the USA t-shirt, and Lyle Estill wondered why the reporting didn’t include the real costs of a cheap t-shirt: the cost to the environment, and the cost of people dying in the process of making our cheap clothing.

My favorite rebuttal is Stephen Colbert interviewing Alex Blumberg from Planet Money. I think he asked good questions (“Are we helping these people (the garment workers of Bangladesh) or taking advantage of these people?”) that doesn’t have easy answers. Alex Blumberg doesn’t seem to know how to answer the question of sweatshop labor either. The Planet Money piece tries to spin the cheap labor in Bangladesh ($80 per month payment for garment workers for 6 days of work per week) into not-so-bad, since people at least have some job with an income. But I totally disagree.

A while ago I wrote about Kelsey Timmerman’s book “Where am I wearing?”, where he went to the factories where his clothes were made, and through his stories, introduced us to the people who work there. He had a similar argument than Planet Money has: some job is better than no job. But I wonder if a job where you have no rights, no contract, no time off, no health care, can really be a good thing?

A couple of years ago, my husband visited one of his students in Bangladesh. In the capital, Dhaka, he saw garment factories with giant signs saying “No child labor”. But people told him that it is well known when the inspectors will be there. On those days, the children just don’t show up for work.

It is stated in the “Cotton” part of the Planet Money story that the USA is the largest exporter of cotton in the world, and that this dominance is because of the technology used by the USA farmers. Having read The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, the book that inspired Planet Money to do this investigation, I think government subsidies are also a big part of this picture. American cotton is artificially cheap because of subsidies, which prohibits other countries to grow cotton crops and compete on the world market.

I wish the Planet Money piece showed us not just the way (most of) our clothing is being made right now, but the way it could be. Made in the USA, organic cotton, fair trade certified clothing, fair labor factories, water-based inks: there are so many better options than a $2 t-shirt (see the explanation of costs at the bottom of the boxes page). Better for the environment, better for the people who make it, better for us who wear it.

Maybe Planet Money should do a follow-up story. And find a better t-shirt designer (hint-hint).


Why choose Fair Trade for MotherTongues? July 4, 2013

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

It has now been about 5 years since I switched the MotherTongues t-shirts to print on 100% organic cotton t-shirts. I made this switch after we visited Australia, learned about the word Dadirri, and realized that if I want MotherTongues to be an example of the life-affirming words printed on the t-shirts, I need to use sustainable, eco-friendly apparel. I also realized that printing words about social justice, means that I need to use t-shirts made with fair labor.

Why go to all the effort to find Fair Trade t-shirts? Why not just use whatever cheapest t-shirts are available?

As a reminder, the nine principles of Fair Trade are:

1. Create Opportunities for Marginalized Producers
2. Develop Transparent Relationships
3. Build Capacity
4. Promote Fair Trade
5. Pay Promptly and Fairly
6. Support Empowering Working Conditions
7. Ensure Children’s Rights
8. Cultivate Environmental Stewardship
9. Respect Cultural Identity.

MotherTongues is committed to values such as fair trade, cultural sensitivity, ecological sustainability and economic justice. In light of these values, going Fair Trade makes sense to MotherTongues.

After a long time of searching, I decided on three suppliers of wholesale apparel and accessories. I’ve been using HaeNow, econscious, and Maggie’s Organics as suppliers of the apparel that I print on. A couple of years ago, Fair Trade USA started their pilot program for Apparel & Linens. HaeNow was one of the first companies, along with prAna, to have their products Fair Trade certified. The Fair Trade Certified Apparel program is the first of its kind, enabling consumers to consider the social, economic and environmental impact when shopping for apparel. This program directly benefits the farmers who grow the cotton and the workers who sew the clothing. MotherTongues is proud to use Fair Trade certified t-shirts. Look for the familiar Fair Trade Certified hang tag on your MotherTongues t-shirts – the same logo as on your coffee.

In the light of the Bangladesh factory incidents, I believe we should all be more aware what we are wearing. I believe that I have a responsibility towards the earth and towards the people making the t-shirts that I sell. I believe that:

environmental consciousness + social responsibility = 100% organic cotton, Fair Trade apparel = sustainable apparel

I know this is a process: there is no such thing as “the perfect t-shirt” and I can only strive to find more sustainable clothing, that is good for the earth and for the people who work in the production process. I know that as a small business, I don’t make a huge impact. But my hope is that together, we can help communities around the world. How wonderful is that.

Remember, every purchase matters!


On inspiration, insight and ideas September 10, 2012

I’m back! We spent almost 2 months in South Africa this summer/winter, flew back to the US and moved 4 days later to Nashville, Tennessee. Our girls started new schools within a week, and my husband started his new job at Vanderbilt University. What a whirlwind!

My husband taking photos of the elephants in Addo Elephant Park (South Africa) in his Ubuntu t-shirt

I’m making new friends and contacts in Nashville, and trying to figure out our “system”. In Michigan, I knew where to recycle, where to donate, which farmer’s markets we loved, and we had our CSA that we belonged to for many years. In Nashville, they don’t take glass in the recycling: you have to take all glass to a special recycling place. I still haven’t figured out where to recycle batteries. The people I’ve asked, all said they just throw them in the trash. Not a good idea.

Regarding our language journey, I have found someone who gives Spanish conversational classes, and I’m looking forward to my first class tomorrow.

In between looking for a house to buy, and figuring out our new “system”, I feel like I’m finally ready to blog and implement some new ideas for MotherTongues. Whenever we travel, I always find new inspiration for MotherTongues along the way. This trip to South Africa and Botswana was no different. I’m looking forward to turning some of my new ideas into reality!


JCPenney’s #epicfail and better options September 3, 2011

This week the internet was abuzz with JCPenney’s kids t-shirt (for girls 7-16) that read: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me”. They pulled the t-shirt after outrage from parents, and everybody got on the bandwagon to say what they think about it. Anderson Cooper added JCPenney to his RidicuList.

A few weeks ago I was part of a #momovation Twitter party, and met Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals. She spreads positive empowering messages for girls through t-shirts and other gear. How exciting to see her become part of the conversation around JCPenney, and get some good business out of it. I love it!

The whole debate about degrading t-shirts (for kids and adults) made me think about the reasons I started MotherTongues. There are very few t-shirts for adults in the marketplace today that I will wear: I don’t want to be an advertisement for an athletic brand, and I don’t want to wear profanity. That excludes a lot of t-shirts. Thus the positive, uplifting messages from cultures from around the world on MotherTongues t-shirts. I love my job!


GoodGuide apparel ratings: eco-friendly + people-friendly apparel May 25, 2011

Filed under: Business of T-shirts,Fair Trade,Greener lifestyle — Michelle @ 3:00 pm

I just checked out the new GoodGuide apparel ratings: and guess who is #1 and #2 for eco-friendly, people-friendly (fair labor) clothing? MotherTongues’s wholesale suppliers, HaeNow and Maggie’s Organics, that’s who! Even above Patagonia! Our third supplier, ECOnscious, is not yet rated, but will hopefully be added soon.

This is wonderful news – I’ve bought blank apparel from them for 5+ years and printed the MotherTongues designs on it, because I believe in their company’s ethos, social mission, and the quality of the clothes. So it is nice to have an outside source validate the choices I’ve made along the way.

Together we can make a difference.


Where am I Wearing? April 7, 2011

I came across Kelsey Timmerman’s book, “Where am I wearing”, in our local library. He is a journalist and blogger who decided to visit the 5 countries and factories where his favorite items of clothing were made and to meet the workers. What make this book different than “The travels of a t-shirt in a global economy” are the stories where he spends time with the people who make his (and our) clothes and tell us about their lives, personalities, hopes, and dreams.

Kelsey shows us that sometimes a job can lift you out of poverty and give you a chance at a different life. But he also made me wonder weather a job where you have no rights, no contract, no time off, no health care, is really a good thing?

I think (a lot!) about where I source the blank MotherTongues t-shirts from. About 5 years ago I made the decision that I can’t print words about social justice, peace, non violence and the environment, on “sweatshop” t-shirts. So after many hours of searching for an alternative, I started printing on clothing from HaeNow, Econscious, and Maggie’s Organics: all organic cotton, fair labor clothing.

Recently, after I’ve been waiting for it for a long time, Fair Trade USA (formerly TransFair USA) started Fair Trade Certified labeled clothing. It is the same logo you’re accustomed to see on your Fair Trade coffee, tea, sugar – you can see the apparel brands who already have the certification here:

Since I don’t have the resources to visit the factories myself, I’m putting my faith in the Fair Trade and fair labor system. And counting on people like Kelsey Timmerman to check up on the factories for us 🙂 If you want to “meet” some people who are making your clothes, read his book – you’ll never look at your clothing’s tags in the same way again!


5 reasons I’m proud of MotherTongues September 28, 2009

Filed under: Business of T-shirts — Michelle @ 1:29 pm
Tags: , ,

I recently did an email interview about starting a t-shirt business, and one of the questions was to tell what your greatest accomplishment with your business has been so far. That got me thinking.

It made me realize that I’m proud of the 5 years that I’ve been building MotherTongues, for a variety of reasons.

1. I’m proud of the ethos I’ve built around MotherTongues. It is fun to have a business that is about MORE than just a t-shirt with a unique design.

2. I’m proud of the money MotherTongues has donated to CWIT (the Center for Women in Transition) over the past 3 years – $1 for every t-shirt, tote bag and apron sold, retail AND wholesale.

3. I’m proud of the evolution of MotherTongues t-shirt designs – I definitely think the newest t-shirt design is the best yet!

4. I’m proud of the following that MotherTongues has in my hometown of Holland, MI and in our Midwest area. The comments recently on the Daily Grommet site showed this.

5. I’m proud to own a unique small business that keeps evolving and changing me and my beliefs in the process!


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