Are graphic tees the best way to raise money for disaster relief? Or a jarring mix of compassion and commerce?

With low production costs and the ability to mass-produce in a pinch, graphic tee designers jump on the products-for-charity bandwagon quickly. Less than a week after the 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit Japan, shirt design companies and individual people have already released their benefit wear to raise awareness and money for victims.

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The more altruistic donate all profits to charities like the American Red Cross, while others make partial donations. Some take the opportunity to create intricate designs, showcasing their brand, while others go for simple (cheap) logos.

But even if a designer donates all profits, these sorts of shirts elicit some interesting moral questions. Are companies using misfortune as a branding opportunity? Should people need incentives, beyond compassion, to donate? Is it tasteful to waltz around in a shiny new tee evocative of death and destruction?

John Pavlus at Fast Company debates the role of fashion and other pro-relief products in these sensitive situations. As he analyzes a poster created by graphic designer James White—Japan's iconic rising sun emblem, cracked and surrounded by dust—he questions the morality of relief art:

Let's say I did buy one of these posters: what on earth am I supposed to do with it? Hang it in my living room like some overly aestheticized/sanitized symbol of a blindly horrific natural disaster that I had no direct experience of? Or, worse, as some sick, bragging monument to my own willingness to "help"? To be honest, the only sane thing to do with a poster like this might be to just burn the thing as soon as it arrives in the mail.

Sure, these products symbolize a "blindly horrific natural disaster," but that's the point. They're supposed to raise awareness, so that when we have moved on to the next cause of the moment, your graphic tee might remind someone that disasters have long-lasting effects.

And, even if the donation is driven by consumption, as Pavlus argues, these efforts are at the very least efficient moneymakers:

So maybe projects like these are just coldly efficient, making lemonade from lemons. Yes, the actual product is unavoidably, fundamentally grotesque if you look beneath its tasteful surface. But would that $7,000 have gotten to the Canadian Red Cross without it?

The motives behind buying or creating these designs are probably not entirely altruistic. But the money they generate helps those in need—and that counts for something.

Main image: SOA32

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